As I write this post, the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is only hours away. The preceding sentence is bizarre, and I’m glad time travel is impossible because there is no way we could explain 2016-17 to people of the past. But we are here. This is the fashionable time to meditate on Barack Obama’s legacy, and solidify thoughts on his presidency in a way that will be picked apart by later historians. What is clear is the very few people got the president they wanted. The political right, of course, but everyone from moderate to leftist has mixed feelings. There will be those that focus on Obama as a symbol and paper over policy matters, which end up the most positive-sounding.
But the past eight years have been deeply troubling, because things could progress in one area and regress in another. Harry Cheadle of Vice.com sums up some of these issues:
The Obama administration continued the bailing out of banks and big business in the wake of the financial crisis. But almost no bankers were ever prosecuted for their role in the collapse of the economy; meanwhile, a program meant to help homeowners whose lives were wrecked by the crisis was poorly supervised and ineffective. Those efforts to close Guantanamo were defeated not just by hardline Republicans but by the White House’s own lack of support. Before Obama defended some undocumented immigrants from deportation, he deported millions of others, to the outrage of advocacy groups. Though Obama claimed credit for working to “reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties” during his farewell address, he was perfectly content with the surveillance state before the Snowden revelations forced him to publicly change his tune. His administration continued the long trend of expanding executive branch power, a topic that concerns both the left and libertarians. In 2008, he may have been the anti–Iraq War candidate, but he was not been philosophically aligned with the broader antiwar movement as president, as his expansion of killer drone operations indicates. His administration also supported brutal Saudi Arabian military operations in Yemen—when Obama canceled an arms deal to the Saudis last month, it struck many as not nearly sufficient.
Cornel West, who drifted farther away from Obama over time, becoming one of the big-name endorsements of Jill Stein in the 2016 election. His retrospective (eulogy?) is similar, though with that idiosyncratic tone that West has. He points out something very important, which I want to focus on today. He writes:
The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it. And those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.
American politics may on the surface be about ideology, but at the core it’s a fight between two camps that disagree with each other on everything, at least publicly. When a president comes into office, their supporters have a choice to make. They can be demanding, seeking accountability for campaign promises. Or they can rally around the standard and play defense against the other side. Most Obama supporters decided to do the latter, focusing their criticism on Republicans who opposed him. From this emerged a range of standard excuses. Congressional inaction. Republican media. I know people that to this very day expected Obama to “take the gloves off” and push forward no matter what. It’s hard to say this ever happened- almost every major policy change was a half-measure. Wall Street regulation was limited and written with too much special interest influence. The ACA didn’t address pharmaceutical drugs, and didn’t provide a public option to prevent insurers from hiking up premiums each year (which they have done reliably).
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was balanced by intervention in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. His executive order regarding undocumented communities wasn’t that expansive, and previous presidents had done similar or larger things in the past. Government surveillance expanded, whistleblowers were punished (Chelsea Manning had to attempt suicide twice to get a sentence reduction, several years into her unusually long sentence). As much as Obama’s election was historic, local and state police shootings of unarmed people of color has been constant. And despite the issue being something that the executive could really address through the Justice Department, federal action hasn’t done much tangibly. Obama has commuted sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, but most of the scaffolding of the War on Drugs is unchanged.
The congressional obstruction excuse has been omnipresent, always changing the debate away from Obama. Rarely have the cards been on the table. Yes there are obstacles, but is he doing all he could? We can isolate Obama from the Republicans in some cases. He headed the executive branch, and had hundreds of thousands of people who influenced every part of American life. Much of this was, in practical terms, not restrained by Congress. Yes there were all the hearings, but how much of the monolith was taken out by them?
I voted for Obama in 2008, didn’t in 2012, and haven’t been a registered Democrat since 2009. I felt the Democratic Party was fundamentally corrupted in the same way the GOP is. Anna Eshoo, my congresswomen in northern California, authored legislation to give pharmaceutical companies much longer exclusive periods for biologic medicines. Many new medicines are biologic, and include some of the top anti-cancer drugs. They also cost an unimaginable amount of money and are unaffordable to most people, even if they have insurance. Generic biologics will take forever to get on the market, and people are going to die- more now that the ACA will be gutted. The excuse for this sort of work by Democrats is that there are pharmaceutical and biotech companies in her district. That makes it sound noble, but it’s a lot simpler than that. Eshoo, despite being in a super-safe district and no opposition, took cash in exchange for human lives. No GOP obstruction, no political necessity. She cashed in her seniority to get that passed. I guarantee the liberals you know won’t mention her unless she has some sick burn about Trump.
The point of that story is that Obama is not unique. American liberalism is full of these same contradictions. And liberals feared that excessive criticism would tank the administration and give the GOP more power. Well, since Obama took office, the Democrats lost the House, then the Senate, and a Republican succeeds him despite all that.
If progressives ever want a politician to live up to half of what they say, they need to be willing to torch their allies as well as their enemies. Obama faced no real consequences from backpeddling on promises and shifting steadily rightward. Those of us who lie farther to the left would like the help. We called the Obama administration for what it was, good and bad. If there is no accountability, how do you expect to win elections? How can you run candidates that people actually want to follow? How can you laugh at Republican dysfunction while ignoring your own?
The right and left held Obama accountable, with varying degrees of accuracy and fairness. The middle that identified most with candidate Obama in 2007-08 was asleep at the switch. That may have made all the difference.