Sunday, January 15, 2017

Barack Obama: a noble failure

 - by New Deal democrat

Let me preface this essay by saying that I voted for Barack Obama twice, in both 2008 and 2012. In fact in 2008 I supported him in the primary against Hillary Clinton, who I believed had a ceiling of support at about 52% or 53% even under even under the most favorable of circumstances (which certainly seems correct now!). I believed Obama was simply more capable of winning the Presidency, and I believed he could overcome his weaknesses and grow into the job.  By and large he did, but it took 5 full years before he finally gave up on his central, failed approached to governance.  I believe that failure is going to cause him to be ranked, over time, in the bottom half of all Presidents.

"There is no red or blue America," Barack Obama declared in the 2004 convention speech that first brought him fame.  His presidency was largely based on that premise.  I think very few people would agree with that statement now.  This worldview was epitomised in his 2009 Inaugural Address
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. 
....[E]verywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act .... 
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.... [W]e cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve ....
But on that very same day in 2009, Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders also met, and resolved a strategy of total intransigence, to deny Barack Obama any bipartisan victories whatsoever.

Asked about that strategy early on, Obama replied that if Republicans would not come to the table with him, then they would miss the chance to have their imprint of the solutions to big problems. Rather than be shut out, they would negotiate with him for bipartisan Great Solutions.

Eight years later, on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, a man who more than half of all Americans believe lacks the basic temperament to be President, the strategy of complete intransigence must be judged a spectacular success.   Obama's entire governing philosophy is in shambles. Few people now would agree with Obama's inaugural proclamation that old political battles are over, or that "the lines of tribe" have dissolved.

Barack Obama achieved three notable domestic victories in his time in office:  the 2009 stimulus, Obamacare, and his "evolution" on gay marriage which helped lay the groundwork for the apparent success -- so far -- of that ruling. Internationally he got American troops out of Iraq, brokered a nuclear deal with Iran, an agreement on global warming, and kept significant numbers of American "boots on the ground" being committed to any new conflict anywhere.

But while Obama acknowledged in his 2009 inauguration speech that the economy was in crisis, he aimed  a firehouse of money at the financial sector, while leaving homeowners helpless. The "TARP" program was barely implemented at all; mortgage cramdown bankruptcy legislation, which he asked be delayed in 2008, he declined to press at all once he took office.

As a result, Wall Street and corporate America rebounded to record profits quickly. Jobs came a little later, but even now after 8 years few would argue that we have returned to full employment.  And wages languished for years, even now only growing at 2.5% a year for nonsupervisory personnel. 

Meanwhile he failed at a basic task of administration: nominating and having confirmed candidates for hundreds of Federal vacancies, including not just judgeships, but also several appointments to the Federal Reserve, and *every one* of the nine administrators of the Postal Service.  All of these will be gleefully filled by his adversaries after January 21. 

And should any of the Supreme Court's liberal justices -- or even Justice Kennedy -- pass away or retire from the bench in the next 4 years, the odds are very good that 5 hardline conservative jurists will roll back Obama's victory on gay rights, along with abortion rights and perhaps even going so far as to reinstate the Lochner ruling which essentially declared all Federal economic welfare legislation unconstitutional.

Great presidents do not see their signature legislation repealed within 30 days of their departure from office.  And nobody with working brain cells would deny that the nation of red and blue states is further apart than ever, with people actually making choices about where they want to live based on the political leanings of the state and locality. Great presidents do not see the number of elected offices held by members of their party shrink to near 100 year lows.

Meanwhile Trump also promises to roll back all of Obama's international deals. And TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, didn't even survive to January 20, dying at the ballot box on November 8.

The root cause for all of this misfortune is that Barack Obama consistently overestimated the power of his charisma, and underestimated the  determination of his opposition.  He thought that the merits of his proposals and accomplishments would sell themselves. Thus as early as summer 2009, he allowed  the argument about his healthcare legislation to be ceded to "tea party" protesters who appeared at Congressional town halls. 

Trump takes to Twitter to use it as a megaphone when he at least temporarily saved 800 jobs at Carrier.  Obama never made sure Americans understood that Obamacare had given coverage to some 20 million people, and that medical cost growth had slowed.

In 2010 retiring democratic Representative Marion Berry of Arkansas captured Obama's quintessential shortcoming in one devastating vignette:  
 “[Barack Obama] just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’
Disaster ensured. And ensued again in 2014 as well. And most especially in 2016, with the essential continuation of the United States as a republic more at risk than at any time since 1861.

Barack Obama had noble ideals, and a noble concept of the politics of governance. But his goals were scotched, and his accomplishments are all on the verge of extinguishment. He is well known for taking the "long view," but sadly for him - and for us - in the long view history will likely judge Barack Obama's presidency a noble failure.