So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.
What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.
On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.
Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.
And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.
There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?