Reflections on the Obama Presidency
Nov. 4th, 2008, was one of the greatest days of my life, as it was for many. Barack Obama had just been elected America’s first black president. I watched the celebrations from Grant’s Park, in his hometown of Chicago. Tears filled my eyes. This was going to be a new age of progressive change, and a repudiation of Republican austerity measures. “Hope and Change” was the brand. People can make themselves believe the damndest things, can’t they? It’s called magical thinking. Today, a little over eight years later, I think Barack Obama is the greatest disappointment in my 71 years.
It wasn’t all his fault, of course. The Republicans, whose very core is white nationalism, swore from the beginning to fight him on every front, challenge him on every piece of legislation, and ruin any chance of his legacy. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted on the floor of the Senate that their number one priority was to make him a one-term president. Forget that the economy was in meltdown, we had two illegal wars going on, and we were hemorrhaging over 700,000 jobs a month; their top priority was destroying his presidency. And far from turning a new page in our entire history of race relations, his election seemed to make things even worse. Racism erupted anew, like a freshly lanced boil. Gun sales skyrocketed as right-wing hate groups flourished. And the Right has had the bald-faced temerity to blame him for being divisive.
He ran a brilliant campaign, with his good looks and soaring rhetoric. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose, said Mario Cuomo, and Obama was poetic, alright. It was his prose that didn’t measure up to his promises. He’d been a community organizer before he entered politics, able to bring two opposing forces to a compromise. But faced with a Congress that had no desire at all to bargain with him, he had nothing. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote, “The guy whose singular qualification was as a uniter, turns out to be singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment.” As President, to me he appeared to be someone in way over his head. That’s usually the case for new presidents, and they grow into the job (with the exception of our current abomination). To some he came off as aloof and professorial, but as a young black man he probably had to learn to go along to get along. He didn’t dare show righteous anger, for fear of being called an “angry black man.” He said “hell” in a speech one time, and the Fox (fake) News headline was “Obama goes ‘street’ “My disappointment came as soon as I realized Obama was simply another corporatist, as are both the Clintons, all the Republicans, and most of the Democrats.
It’s those broken promises that bother me. He talked about more transparency in government, yet it took Edward Snowden to prove otherwise. Not only did he not pull back on the surveillance state, he greatly expanded it. His Justice Dept. prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act (8) than all previous administrations (3). He took an oath to uphold the Constitution, yet refused to call for investigations into Bush and Cheney for their war crimes. This made him complicit in those crimes even before the war crimes he himself committed. I’m talking about ordering the assassination of American citizens without due process — Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as three or four more. This is a guy who taught Constitutional law! While I’m not willing to give him a pass on this, I can sort of understand it. Can you imagine how his legacy would have been tarnished, had we had another terrorist attack on U.S. soil under his watch? It’s difficult to blame him for wanting to be extra secure, even if it was at the cost of our civil liberties.
During the campaign he pledged that wherever workers’ rights were challenged, he’d put on a pair of comfortable shoes and march with them. Why did ne never show up in Wisconsin, the home of the union movement, when the Republicans torched the unions? There were thousands in Madison the capitol, for weeks. Where the hell was he?
He was at times a poor judge of people. For his economic advisers he gathered around him some of the same Wall Street types responsible for the economic mess he inherited. And when the good people around him like Anita Dunn, Van Jones, Kathleen Sebelius, and Eric Shinseki were hounded into resigning, he wasn’t there to back them. He showed me little in the way of leadership skills, Most unforgivable of all, he was the first Democrat to ever offer to cut Social Security, as a bargaining chip to prevent a possible government shutdown. It never came to that, but still — it’s a disgrace.
He showed his corporatist stripes again by continually supporting the TPP, Trans Pacific Partnership, which transfers power from sovereign states to corporate states. It’s also possible he got poor information as a result of being a poor judge of people.
Astonishingly, in spite of all the vitriol and obstruction, he was somehow able to accomplish a great deal. Chief among them was the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It was one of the first things he pushed for, against the counsel of most of his advisers. That did showed leadership, or did it? That he would allow the disastrous rollout of the ACA, with the website failures and confusion, showed a lack of leadership. Knowing this might be the singular accomplishment of his presidency, he should have been on top of that a little more. Obamacare was a giant giveaway to the private insurance companies, by guaranteeing them 30 million new customers. But at the same time at least 20 million people got health care who didn’t have it before, tens of thousands of whom would have been dead by now. By the way, have you noticed now that the Republicans want to destroy Obamacare for a piss-poor plan, all of a sudden more and more people suddenly like it, and don’t want to lose it?
He came out in favor of same sex marriage (after campaigning that he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman), after Joe Biden came out in favor the week before, which forced his hand. But the Defense of Marriage Act was done away with, as was the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy. That’s pretty significant.
He pushed for and got a $780 billion economic stimulus package to help pull us out of the financial disaster Bush left behind. He saved the auto industry with the bailout to General Motors. As a result, the last two years have seen huge gains for the industry, which is making American cars in America. That’s a major victory.
He closed all the CIA black prison sites (or so we’re told) in Poland, Romania, and elsewhere. He halted the practice of torture (or so we’re told).
He got the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act passed (which should have been unnecessary, because the 14th Amendment already addresses equal treatment under the law).
He was at the forefront of significant climate change policies; the ban on offshore drilling, the Clean Stream Rule that prevented coal companies from dumping their wastes in waterways, and the Clean Power Plan, which would require more strict emissions standards from coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is in the process of dismantling all of these protections.
He persuaded the FCC Commissioner to rule that the internet is a public utility under Title II, helping to preserve net neutrality. That’s a really big one, though it’s under attack again by the new FCC head.
He pardoned 212 inmates, which is not unusual for eight years. But he commuted the sentences of 1597 inmates (mostly for non-violent crimes), more than the last 12 presidents combined (one of them was Chelsea Manning). A commutation, or clemency, retains the conviction but ends the punishment. I’m giving him major props for this, even while wishing he’d also pardoned Leonard Peltier.
I originally began this piece as a report card on Barack Obama, but found I’m in no position to judge his performance. I’m sure he knows more than I can even imagine. He’s a very complex person; brilliant, engaging, and very funny. Personally, I like him very much. He and Michelle always displayed the most absolute grace and class. But I can’t reconcile his many inconsistencies, so I’ll let history judge his presidency. I think he’ll do pretty well, considering the bump he’ll get compared to the presidency-by-brain-fart of Donald Trump.