Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two Cheers for Obama

The post-election period has felt less like a long goodbye to Barack Obama than an endless political obituary. On the right, the elation can be barely be concealed. The cover of the Jan. 16 issue of The Weekly Standard featured a cartoon of a frowning President stuffing into moving boxes souvenirs of self-regard—a portrait, a bust with his Nobel medal draped around the neck—while his impatient successor peeks through the window, pointing at a watch.

On the left, dismay virtually chokes the atmosphere. A special issue of The Nation contained articles such as “Barack Obama Was Too Cool for the Press Room.”  Saturday Night Live's Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata even serenaded Obama this weekend with the 1967 hit, “To Sir, With Love.”

Eight years after his first inauguration, Obama has left the White House in much the same way that he entered: judged more for what he was or was not than for what he had done. It’s almost inevitable, considering the two Republicans bookending him in the Oval Office: both winners by virtue of the Electoral College rather than the popular vote, both outside the current of progressive opinion, and both derided abroad as cocky and gauche Ugly Americans.

The Weight of Great Expectations

If Obama’s first two volumes of autobiography were titled Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope, his next, if it just covers his first campaign and two years in the Oval Office, could be termed properly (if less originally) Great Expectations. During the 2008 primary season, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews raised eyebrows by saying on air that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” when Obama spoke.

Foreigners also felt “this thrill”: he was voted the Nobel Peace Prize a mere nine months after taking office, before he’d had much of a chance to do anything. (It was the third time, following the selection of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, that the Nobel committee gave the award to an American as a kind of thumb in the eye to George W. Bush.)

All this for a politician with a total of only three years in the national spotlight as a member of the U.S. Senate before he plunged into the Presidential race.

Obama himself encouraged these outsized hopes, as seen in the ambitious program outlined in his first inaugural address:

“We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do.  All this we will do.”

I am being merely realistic, not disrespectful, when I say: No, we didn’t. Obama might have been better off in taking a leaf from the President to whom he was often compared in those heady days, John F. Kennedy, who cautioned, in his own inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Had Obama employed a similarly measured tone, he might have not only curbed the later inevitable disappointment of the most radical Democrats but might have gone some way to reassure conservatives and some independents that, unlike so many in his party, he would not push too far. But heroic rhetoric raises not just hope, but also disenchantment, fear and even contempt.

I saw the latter feeling on full display at a dinner with high-school classmates two years into Obama’s first term, after one of these friends had spoken scornfully of George W. Bush. “So, I guess you think Obama is the one?” another shot back, in such a tone that “the one” might as well have been in quotes, italicized and capitalized. (Over the years, I soon found out, other conservatives had less ironic, more rancid nicknames for the President, including “Obamamessiah” and “Obummer.”)

Some readers might wonder about the headline for this post—why I offer Obama only two cheers rather than three. Others, such as the high-school classmate above, might scratch their heads about why I offer any cheers for him rather than, say, the back of my hand.

But ultimately, Obama will be assessed in the cold light of history, and judging him by the above extremes only replicates the polarization that has bedeviled this country for decades. 

A Preliminary Verdict: A Good—Not Great or God-Awful—President

So, from where I stand, Obama will go down as a good President. Not a great or near-great one, but not a fair or failed one, either. He probably won’t be regarded, as he long hoped, as a transformative President, which is the inevitable result of his work that amounted to rescue and recovery rather than reform. Yet, given the dire straits facing this country when he took office, that in itself is significant. Not every occupant of the Oval Office can claim to have left America a better place when his term is finished.

Decent, if slightly inflated, cases for Obama’s positive and extensive legacy have been made by New York Magazine contributor Jonathan Chait and by my former Congressman in New Jersey, Steve Rothman. Among other achievements, he:

*stanched the bleeding from the worst recession since the Depression, allowing the economy to grow again and nearly halving the unemployment rate;

*pushed through bailouts that helped save the American auto industry;

*signed consumer financial protection legislation;

*established the United States as the leader in the struggle against climate change; 

*signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act (2009), which designated more than 2 million acres as wilderness, created thousands of miles of recreational and historic trails, and protected more than 1,000 miles of rivers;

*ordered the operation that killed Osama bin Laden;

*wound down combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; 

*avoided plunging the United States into yet another war.

Two Incompletes  

These achievements, it seems to me, are inarguable. But notice what I didn’t include on this list: the Affordable Care Act (ACA), so widely regarded as his signature legislation that it is far better known as Obamacare, and the nuclear treaty with Iran.

It is too early at this point to predict the shape of American health care if Obamacare is junked, as the GOP (and Donald Trump) have threatened so long to do. If an eventual replacement embraces many of its basic principles (e.g., previous medical conditions can’t be an excuse to deny coverage), no harm will be done to Obama’s legacy. If nothing replaces it, however, no credit will accrue to his name.

As for the Iran nuclear pact: While it is true that no Republican has put forward a concrete plan to forestall the radical Islamic government’s nuclear designs, the Democrats have their own hard case in arguing the merits of the President’s treaty. If the Iranians find a way to circumvent its enforcement mechanisms, Democrats’ argument that at least the pact slowed the program down may ring hollow to much of America.

A Coalition Piece Goes Missing

The President headed a party convinced that demography was destiny, that the coalition first brought into being in the McGovern campaign of 1972—youth, feminists, minorities, and college-educated suburbanites—had now reached critical mass, beckoned to a golden electoral future by their mastery of social media. That meant they did not have to take seriously the viewpoint of blue-collar ethnic Catholics, for instance, who might have serious qualms about unrestricted access to abortion. 

Stigmatizing them as “anti-women” did nothing to incline such voters to the rest of the Democratic message. (Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Joe Biden are among those vocal about the perils of relying on the flawed "demography is destiny" strategy when it comes to traditional voters in the Rust Belt, but it remains to be seen if they will be listened to.)

Worse, by furthering the bipartisan consensus that developed around free trade in the last 30 years the Obama administration left much of the labor movement wondering how their jobs would be protected. (Even the AFL-CIO, a major supporter of Democratic candidates over the years, couldn't help wondering what was going on, as seen in its comments on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.) That increased their readiness to listen more closely to a candidate whose views, on this matter at least, purported to be close to theirs: Donald Trump.

For all his slipperiness with facts, Trump brought to the fore a matter understandably little acknowledged by those who extolled Obama’s employment record: the undercounting of workforce dropouts during the recession. Many of these workers ended up permanently sidelined because, over the age of 50, they were now considered unemployable. The failure to eliminate this rampant employer ageism—or otherwise ameliorate the plight of older workers—fed a narrative of federal disregard.

In neglecting the American Heartland, Obama and the candidate he endorsed to protect his legacy, Hillary Clinton, forgot a basic law of politics: Before reaching for the future, be sure you have a firm grasp on the present. That failure left the much-vaunted Electoral College “blue wall” in the Rust Belt fatally vulnerable, underlining the disaster of the party’s underrepresentation in state and local offices, something not seen since the 1920s.

(I’m not sure, even now, that many of the party faithful get it. Several weeks ago, a college friend listed 15 organizations worthy of contributions in the Age of Trump: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the like. Noticeably missing: any group that would  materially or emotionally assist those still suffering from the recession and its aftermath. That omission would only confirm the feelings of so many in the Heartland that their needs had been forgotten by the party that once had given America the New Deal. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party also seems obstinately intent on alienating potential allies, as shown by its cancellation of plans to allow pro-life feminists to act as official co-sponsors of this weekend’s Women’s March on Washington. )

A “D” on Policing the Financial Services Industry

Advocates for a high place for Obama among the Presidents point to his singing of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. It is true that this legislation featured a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But early on, the President rejected an attempt to reverse, while he could summon a majority in Congress and a still-enthusiastic public, what had been one of the principal causes of the Global Financial Crisis: the 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which had eliminated the Depression Era’s Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of commercial and investment banking.

Moreover, with Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch opting for “deferred prosecution agreements,” in which the Department of Justice calls off investigation if a company makes operational changes, enforcement of existing law was lax. (For a full discussion of this legislation's weaknesses, see this analysis from two years ago by Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica.) 

Not surprisingly, not one Wall Street executive has been held responsible for the massive financial services misconduct that resulted in all too many Americans losing their homes, or even being named in a civil or criminal action. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Obama did not perform the necessary work of administering the extensive reform that the financial services industry badly needed--perhaps because the industry has backed so many Democratic incumbents over the years. That failure leaves very open the possibility that another economic upheaval on the order of the Global Financial Crisis can recur, even within the next decade.

When Words Failed Him

For someone who rose to power because of his command of words, Obama did not use what Theodore Roosevelt called the Presidency’s “bully pulpit” enough to rally support for his legislation, as Ronald Reagan did. Though he had saved his 2008 Presidential campaign with an address that came to grips with the rac- baiting of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he did not summon his oratorical prowess often enough while in office, as America’s racial cleavage widened.

Furthermore, for a politician of instinctive caution, some of Obama’s most significant policy mistakes resulted, oddly enough, from gaffes:

*"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—the President repeated that statement more than 30 times, enough for to term it “Lie of the Year” for 2013. Together with the initial disastrous online registration for the Affordable Care Act, it left a first impression of the program so terrible that many recipients would never see the virtues that later emerged from it.

*ISIS was “the JV” of terrorists compared with al-Qaeda. In a 2014 interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Obama tried to tamp down fears about ISIS: “The analogy we use around here sometimes…is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” The remark was, viewed most charitably, tone-deaf. But it fed suspicions that Obama did not view with sufficient seriousness a group with its own unique operational structure, as well as enough “reach” to take over whole swaths of Syria and Iraq.

* The use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorist groups in Syria would cross a “red line for us” and might spark a U.S. military response. Statesmen have learned, over the years, not to threaten force unless they are prepared to back it up. Obama’s caution about another Mideast quagmire was understandable, even admirable. But, when he backed away, it took the pressure off Syrian President Bashar Assad and opened a vacuum that Vladimir Putin sought to fill. The humanitarian crisis spilled beyond that nation, with refugees flooding Europe and fanning far-right sentiment there.

With all of that said, no fair account of Obama's tenure should overlook the obdurate opposition to his policies by the Republican Party. It started with Mitch McConnell's 2010 statement that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President." It quickly got worse, and ultimately defeated Obama's desire for a return to civil discourse in Washington.

Trump's 'Era of Bad Feeling' Begins

Two hundred years ago, the collapse of the Federalists as an electoral force and a new President’s good-will tour ushered in a two-term “Era of Good Feeling” under James Monroe. Less than a week into this new administration, it’s safe to say that a similar tide of popular sentiment is not about to begin in America.

Somehow, it seems appropriate that, in this age of falsehoods, now reaching its climax, another one is being perpetrated. It is more pernicious than the fake news swallowed by so much of the electorate because it is being voiced by the more respected portion of the Republican Party—officeholders like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, or commentators like Ben Shapiro or New York Times occasional contributor Peter Wehner. It goes like this: It’s not our fault that Trump rose to power; it’s Barack Obama’s

This canard cannot be allowed to continue. The responsibility for the next four—maybe eight—years lies squarely with the Republican Party, not Obama. It began with the blatant obstructionism that blocked passage of even routine budget bills these past few years, let alone more complicated legislation, and continued up through the shameful refusal even to hold a vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. All of this fed a feeling on the part of much of the electorate that the system was so broken that no conventional politician could fix it. Only someone used to turning over furniture--Trump--could do something about this, the sentiment went. We are about to reap the consequences of irrational thinking spurred by irresponsible legislators.

The shame of the Republicans continued with the refusal even to hear him out during a speech before Congress on health care, a courtesy accorded to every other President in living memory. Instead, Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” (Democrats were only able to pass a formal rebuke of the South Carolina Congressman because they controlled the House of Representatives at that point.)

The Best Measure of Obama: Character

“Character matters; leadership descends from character,” goes one of the most famous quotes from Rush Limbaugh. Then the talk-radio host went on to undercut his message several times over: first, in his own personal life (four marriages, three divorces); then, in his full-throated endorsement of the newly inaugurated “serial philanderer,” “sniveling coward,” “bully” and “pathological liar” (Ted Cruz’s words, Faithful Reader, not mine—though, truth be told, this may be the only thing I ever agree with the senator on). 

In an irony that drove Limbaugh and the far right to utter distraction, the best confirmation of his statement came not from a fellow Republican but from the President they could never stop hating. In contrast to Bill Clinton and (let’s be bipartisan here, shall we?) Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Sanford, and David Vitter, not to mention Trump, Obama has been faithful to his wife. Instead of repeating his father's mistake by abandoning his children at a vulnerable age, he has made time for Sasha and Malia. 

Accused of being a crypto-Islamist, Obama revealed his true religious instinct by following Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek. At times almost too cool for school, “No Drama Obama” trusted in the power of reason to make his case. Subject to one execrable attack after another by much of the GOP (whose leaders consistently looked the other way), he concentrated on the task at hand, and—unlike Trump—never was distracted by vindictiveness. 

Class—not material riches, but maturity, grace, respect for others, and elemental decency—tells. The recent occupant of the Oval Office understood that and behaved accordingly, to the credit of him and those who elected him. The present occupant never has and, despite vows to act “Presidential,” still doesn’t, to his discredit and that of the voters who gave him the most consequential office in the world. 

I do not think that Obama will rank among the all-time great Presidents. That said, unlike just about every other President of the last 40 years, his administration was untouched by scandal; he was a role model as a faithful husband and thoughtful father; he acted cautiously; and he conducted himself with a dignity that even many of his critics, such as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, are already acknowledging. After weeks of the tiresome antics of Trump, appreciation for that attitude will only grow, to the point where just acting like an adult will make Obama look like a giant.

In this regard, historians may come to view Obama in a similar light as John F. Kennedy. The tragedy in Dallas has overshadowed JFK's inability to move legislation on a Capitol Hill where Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats often joined forces--a state of affairs so pronounced that, in the summer before the assassination, historian James MacGregor Burns released a book called The Deadlock of Democracy. 

But in the Sixties, youth responded far more enthusiastically to the President's charisma and call for activism than their elders. JFK's influence is perhaps more apparent in the generation he inspired to work toward the public good than by his own good but mixed record in office. I don't think Obama would mind a similar legacy.

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