A Sad Progressive’s Report Card on the Obama Years
I recall my pride in the American People when Barrack Hussein Obama was first nominated and then elected as president of the United States of America. I felt that a great stain on our collective conscience had been, if not erased, at least assuaged. I was full of hope for the future, domestically and internationally, and although a bit surprised, full of pride at the award of what proved to be a very premature Nobel Peace prize. I should have known better, I should have been more objective, especially given the fact that although prior to his declaration of intent to seek the presidency I’d volunteered to help, I’d withdrawn that offer when it became clear that he neither understood the so called terrorist problem nor the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although he seems to have learned a bit about the latter during the past year). Still, hope was ascendant in those early days. Now, eight years later, it seems appropriate to evaluate not only his performance, but our own. So, here goes ….
On the economy, an inherited disaster whose causes (from my perspective the funding through borrowing of unnecessary and unethical wars) have been carefully obfuscated to protect the guilty, there is no doubt that there was improvement. It could hardly have been avoided although it is very illusory. The stock market is at new heights, although largely due to de facto government subsidy of manipulative stock buyback programs and the smoke and mirrors of Financialization (see http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_525.pdf) and unemployment is purportedly at recent lows, although continuing the smoke and mirrors motif, that does not mean that employment, adjusted for population growth, is at new heights or that median employment is anywhere near adequate. Low paying benefit-free jobs became the standard bearers of the purported economic recovery with income distribution more and more unequally divided; but still, the “averages” looked good. The Obama administration avoided, in part, the failed austerity measures prevalent in other parts of the world (e.g., Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Ukraine, India, etc.) led by Germany with United States backing and through World Bank and IMF policies which have left the EU and most of the people in the developing world in an uproar: wisdom for us and hypocrisy for others. The purportedly tough new rules on Wall Street in the Dodd-Frank Act were in large part, poorly implemented. Unlike Iceland, impunity reigned with respect to the authors of the 2008 financial crisis who were instead, bailed out and permitted to use public funds for huge bonus payments. I guess our jails were too full with prisoners from our failed drug wars.
With reference to catastrophic climate change, like the Clinton administration, Obama’s contributions are largely in the form of a symbolic postscript with little or no substance. Talk with little action. Consistent hypocrisy leading to bleak prospects as we enter the Trump era but much of the blame must be shared with an intransigent and apparently clueless GOP. Judgment: inept.
On health care, a promising start was all too quickly diluted when the public option was abandoned, turning public benefit into a gift to the healthcare and insurance industries at the expense of individual tax payers. Costs skyrocketed far out of balance with the rest of the world, and with less comprehensive coverage. Medicare Part A, the only option available to many seniors reliant on social security, their pensions “evaporated”, is limited to emergency hospital care. Although something was much better than nothing, most of the world looks on astonished. We should be embarrassed, as should Obama. Again the blame has to be shared with an intransigent and clueless GOP.
On foreign policy: ineptitude fought with hubris to leave the United States and the world worse off. Diplomacy seemed an oxymoron and the Cold War was not only reignited but expanded. Consistency mainly involved war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Ukraine, Libya, Gaza, Syria and much of Africa were laid waste, ISIS invigorated and democracy in Latin America repelled. Massive streams of unwanted refugees flooded Europe while rivulets flowed into the United States from Central America. There appeared no conflict too small for the United States to avoid, albeit sometimes indirectly and in clandestine fashion, largely as a result of Clintonian presidential ambitions and AIPAC directives. Perhaps the only positive result was that the United States orchestrated, Israeli inspired, anti Iranian sanctions were tempered, smoke and mirrors deflected (at least for now) with an illusion. Obama was led by the nose. His Nobel Peace prize a terrible anecdote.
On civil liberties perhaps the question ought to be, what were those? During the Obama era the United States became more and more Orwellian, the NSA consistently spying on everyone everywhere, those that dared divulge official malfeasance or misfeasance hounded or imprisoned, the mainstream media further reduced to a propagandist echo chamber. The administration, become McCarthy’s echo, ended with braying clamor over purported Russian interference in the United States presidential elections. Supposedly, the evil Russians were “responsible” for letting the truth out of the bag. Horrors, at worst we may have been deprived of the ability to delude ourselves but probably the allegations presented as facts were merely the wails of sore losers. The hypocrisy, in light of traditional massive United States interference in elections everywhere and the fact that all countries attempt to influence the electorate in other countries to attain results favorable to them, was, … well; … consistent.
On immigration, hypocrisy was again the byword. Presenting itself as the champion of “the huddled masses yearning to be free” and promising reform, the administration was the most anti-immigrant in memory, expelling more undocumented aliens than any other administration in history, more than 2.5 million men, women and children including the victims of United States led coups in Honduras and Paraguay. One could claim that it was the most successful in limiting unauthorized residence in the United States if hypocrisy were not the byword but political expediency, the desire to capture the Hispanic vote, was much more important than honesty. And of course, no reform, rather another illusion for “Dreamers” and their supporters bound to fail. Again, a prize to be shared with the GOP led Congress.
Racism, rather than finally having been put to rest, again raised its ugly head, thoroughly married to xenophobia, an opportunity to put our terrible past behind us wasted through little fault of Mr. Obama’s, it’s too long been a step that has to be taken and he bore its brunt, the failure fully ours. He seemed in an impossible position, especially given the “birther” tactics, logically ludicrous given that even had he been born in Kenya, like the GOP’s Ted Cruz, John McCain and others he would have been eligible for the presidency due to his mother’s unquestionable status as a United States citizen. He should have been able to govern us all as an Afro-American but chose instead to largely ignore his race, something that may have troubled many with higher hopes. Given the context, his reasoning, albeit disappointing, is certainly understandable. Still, he failed to grasp that those who opposed him on racist or xenophobic grounds would never accept him, perhaps having more faith in us than we deserved.
Criminal Justice reform involved a lot of talk and a flurry of last minute pardons but the fact is that the criminal justice system is largely a state issue so there was only limited impact possible at the federal level, and there he was hampered by the precedent set by the Clintons during their two-for-the-price-of-one administration and their subsequent dedication to personal enrichment and filling political coffers. The GOP was certainly of very little if any help. At the federal level much was accomplished although much of it late. Still, something was better than nothing and in many cases, much better.
Gun control, despite a continuation of horrific mass murders, gained absolutely no traction. That was mainly due to bipartisan roadblocks that wasted the first two years of the Obama presidency when his party controlled the entire federal government and much could have been accomplished. The sad reality is that like AIPAC – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in foreign affairs, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has a stranglehold on both major political parties and no action contrary to its desires, regardless of how justified, can pass the Congress. This horrifies most of the rest of the world and the fault lies squarely in our “duopolic” political tradition, that is to say, the fault is collectively ours. The president was an articulate, reasonable and passionate advocate for reform and its failure cannot be placed at his feet.
Gender and LGBT rights, in the United States as almost everywhere else in the world, have attained impressive recognition, albeit it much of that has been accomplished at the state rather than at the federal level, something that will not impact the race to claim credit or to place blame. Like abortion before them, they have become a new political football in the perpetual struggle between the theocratic right and the secular left, with those in the middle left weary, concerned and confused. The emotional appeal of related issues may well have had a pivotal effect on the recent elections where intelligent issue based debate was discarded in favor of hysterical appeals to fear and emotion. Their future remains opaque, although that in itself is a vast improvement.
Constitutionally the United States is a vastly changed state from the one envisioned in 1787 and that was to be expected. Apparently it hasn’t been. We complain a lot and do too little. What was not expected by the authors of our current constitution is that it would become more a religious testament than a political framework, like the Bible and the Talmud and the Koran, worshipped but all too frequently ignored; structural repair an unacceptable heresy despite obvious flaws. For the second time this millennium a presidential election was lost by the candidate with the most votes nationally, albeit that resulting from massive victories in a very few highly populated states, mainly New York and California. That is the essence of federalism. Despite the current clamor, a change in the Electoral College without other fundamental constitutional changes would probably be a major mistake, subjecting us, on a large scale basis, to the Law of Unintended Consequences from which we already suffer as a result of the Wilson era 16th and 17th amendments, and the failure, at the end of the Civil War, to provide for specific means of Constitutional control and interpretation (roles not given by the Constitution to five of eight, usually nine, lifetime appointees to the Supreme Court). So today, we have an appendix-like Senate, an anachronistic and useless remnant from our evolutionary past rather than a forum for state governments to actively participate in national level governance, state governments whose allocation of political power and share of sovereignty waves in the political winds every two years and a federal government become more and more an international empire. If the Constitution is a living document, it is comatose, reacting to the medication administered by the federal administration of the moment and the whims of its then prevalent Supreme Court majority. The solution is obviously a Constitutional Convention meeting the expectation of our Founding Fathers that we too would play a role in establishing a more perfect union but sadly, and tellingly, no major political movement has the faith in democracy required for the undertaking, one for which I must confess I’ve advocated for decades. Real courage never has been our strong suit, nor faith in the People.
My sad concluding observation is that while the political, governmental and international results during the past eight years may well have been worse under McCain or Romney led administrations, the fault for our continuing failures lies with us, the electorate, which continues to rely on two horribly corrupt and inept political parties, albeit understandable (though not excusable) given the absence of a free and independent press. The conclusion: President Obama is a nice person, apparently free of personal ethical stains, who had to bear almost unbearable personal assaults in large part based on residual racism and xenophobia; an articulate and apparently intelligent person felled by the political virus, with impressive failures largely due to a lack of courage and way too consistent hypocrisy.
Sadly, the future may prove even less promising.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved