The Obama Legacy
January 19, 2017
Now that we are only a day away from the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, I’d like to take a few minutes to examine his legacy. For months now, people on both sides have been trying to control the narrative on what he has meant to this country and frankly, I’m disappointed that apparently no one is interested in taking an honest look at what he’s accomplished and not accomplished. I’ve actually heard and read views that Obama was the worst president in history. There are only three rational explanations for holding that view: 1) that the person in question is so focused on one pet issue to the exclusion of all others, 2) that the person is younger than 8 years old, or 3) that the person is an utter buffoon. There are no other possibilities. Honestly, worse than the presidents who guaranteed that owning people was a right? Or how about the ones who implemented no meaningful policies and/or plagued themselves with scandal including fathering an out-of-wedlock child while in the White House? No, Obama was nowhere near one of the worst. Conversely, New York Times economist/columnist Paul Krugman called him one of the greatest presidents. Clearly he is a polarizing figure for some but what is the reality?
OK, so let’s start with the obviously good: Civil Rights. There is no question that Obama has been huge positive for many civil rights in this country. He signed laws that gave women a legal recourse in cases of wage discrimination and opened up many freedoms to homosexuals that heterosexuals take for granted (ability to serve in the military, marriage, etc.). However, Obama himself was not an advocate for gay marriage until his vice president, Joe Biden, replied in an interview that “of course gay marriage should be legal”. It wasn’t until after the immediate groundswell of support for Biden’s statement that Obama got on board. So in that regard he was an opportunist. He is definitely on the right side of history but it’s not as though it had been something he had been fighting for his entire life. However, he should get credit for a cabinet that gave women more positions of power than any previously and was the most ethnically and orientatively diverse. That might not seem like a big deal to many, but to those seeking role models who represent their background, it is as Biden opined “a very big deal”. Another area that was almost entirely good was his modification of how drug offenses are handled, giving courts the sentencing choice in cases of non-violent first-time offenders serving their time in drug rehab programs. That’s a much more constructive response than sentencing them to mandatory time in prison.
And on the environment things are generally better than they were. He put limits on offshore drilling, finally got the US to the adult’s table when it comes to addressing climate change with the signing of the Paris Agreement (although honestly it does way too little… but it’s a nice first step) and he protected a number of lands that are either sacred or important habitats for native species.
about it for the obviously good. From here on out for the most part there are
good and bad sides of the same coin. For example, terrorism.
Obama deservedly gets credit for killing Osama bin Laden after the Bush
administration basically gave up looking for him, saying he wasn’t important
anymore. Perhaps bin Laden wasn’t tactically important to the upcoming plans of
Al Queda but he was an important symbol for the
violently anti-American sentiment around the world because he had successfully
As for national security, he did nothing to reign in the invasiveness of the Patriot Act until Edward Snowden leaked to the press about illegal spying programs that targeted all Americans. With the increasing sophistication of hackers to gain access to such databases and information warehouses, this kind of data harvesting was not only illegal but made Americans less safe, not more. And in a broader sense, Obama was no friend to whistleblowers, with eight prosecutions under the Espionage Act, more than double all previous presidents combined, including jail time for the guy who leaked information about CIA torture under Bush, yet no jail time for the people who actually authorized the torture or those who committed it. Ironically, there was also no jail time for a general who leaked classified information to his journalist mistress. Although the Republicans in Congress posed a significant obstacle to him closing Guantanamo, he nevertheless didn’t seem to protest too much that he had someplace to offshore those he didn’t want protected by the Constitution. That’s bad enough but he also didn’t seem to understand that his “measured” approach might not be shared by his successors. So now we face the prospect of a thin-skinned, ranting, know-nothing who can, with a single wave of his hand, have someone - even an American citizen - face rendition to some black site never to be heard from again without charge or legal protection, or worse: drone-striked. The people who are in charge of making and upholding the law really should understand that the law itself needs to be by-and-large idiot-proof because eventually an idiot will find a way into the equation.
about the economy? The national debt skyrocketed under Obama but that was
largely due to the debt engine created in large part by his immediate
predecessor. Bush facilitated and/or initiated two unfunded wars, two tax cuts
and a complete lack of regulation on a banking industry that would eventually
collapse under the weight of its own stupidity which necessitated a massive bailout,
although the seeds for the latter were sown under Clinton. The reality is that
the last two years of Obama’s economy have seen a leveling off of the debt.
Detractors also note that the GDP has been flat under Obama, who has become the
first two-term president since they’ve been measuring to not have 3% growth in
any year. What they seem to forget is that government spending in the
calculation includes servicing the interest on the debt. Because of Bush’s
reckless policies, Obama was forced to reduce spending in order to get the debt
under control. And when I say ‘forced’, I do mean to use that specific word
because in 2011 Congress and he passed a law called the Budget Control Act that
stated if they could not agree on how the budget needed to be reduced, that
automatic draconian cuts in government spending would be enacted. And since the
Republican Congress had stated from Day One that their primary purpose was to
ruin the Obama presidency, they did not reach a consensus. The Sequestration,
as it was called, went into effect and billions were cut from government
spending, which made the interest payments on the debt even more consuming.
Numerous analysts have concluded that the Sequestration cut as much as 0.6%
from the GDP since it was enacted, which if added to Obama’s numbers puts him
well over 3% in at least two different years since 2013. As noted before, he
inherited a dismal economy, one that has been slow to recover. That said, the
That said, one has to look at where that growth occurred. Economists are all about efficiency so when they are talking about measures like GDP increasing, they don’t really care who is being affected. As Robert Reich succinctly put it, “They typically define an “efficient” policy as one where people who benefit from it could compensate the losers and still come out ahead. But this way of looking at things leaves out three big realities:
(1) In a society of widening inequality, the winners are often wealthier than the losers. So even if they fully compensate the losers, those losers may feel even less well off relative to the wealthy winners.
(2) As a practical matter, the winners don’t compensate the losers. Most of the losers from trade – the millions whose good jobs have been lost – don’t even have access to unemployment insurance. And “trade adjustment assistance” is a joke.
(3) Finally, those whose paychecks have been declining because of trade don’t make up for those declines through access to cheaper goods and services from abroad. Yes, the cheaper goods help. But adjusted for inflation, their hourly pay is still lower than it used to be.”
So while the economy certainly isn’t as bad as Republicans make it out to be with their nonsense about the GDP and the debt they ran up, neither is it as good as the Democrats make it sound when they talk about how great the stock market is doing because the vast majority of Americans can’t participate in it to a point where it will make a significant contribution to their lives. And it hardly matters that unemployment figures have improved if most of the new employment is coming from minimum wage jobs. Obama’s regulation of Wall Street after the crash was certainly measured. He can’t be completely faulted for the limitations because of a historically obstructive Congress, but there’s little question he would have had public support for prosecutions of the people responsible for the 2008 failure. Instead, he invited them to “advise” him on how they should be regulated. There were a couple of positive developments from his response to the disaster: 1) the Federal Government now has liquidation authority for any banks that get too far into debt and they can tag any bank that gets too big to fail as a “Systemically Important Financial Institution” which means they get additional regulation, and 2) the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which has helped reign in some of the abuses in the credit card industry. But with almost all the players responsible for the meltdown still in the same seats they were in eight years ago, it’s probable we will see another massive financial crisis relatively soon.
about healthcare? Obama had both houses early in his tenure for a brief time
and might have been able to have push through a comprehensive Medicare-for-all
healthcare system had he acted with urgency. This would have insured everyone
and ultimately would have cost the consumer less money because the government
could assure savings due to high volume, decreased administration costs and no
profit taking. And it would have brought the
for energy policy, Obama is sometimes credited with oil and gasoline prices
dropping but is that really what a president does? Oil prices under Reagan went
from roughly $100 per barrel inflation adjusted to a low of $28 a barrel. Was
Reagan really that persuasive? Or did the primarily Islamic OPEC nations like
The fact of the matter is that Obama was far too subtle for the time in which he presided. He liked to say that he didn’t want the perfect to get in the way of the good, but that assumes that “good” has no scale or gradation. He needed to be bolder and more decisive. He should have been more aggressive when it came to investing in green energy, more aggressive in pursuing single payer healthcare, more aggressive in government spending measures to improve the infrastructure after the financial collapse, more aggressive in pursuing Wall Street and corporate reform and certainly more vocal and combative with the Republican opposition. He could have mobilized a generation of young people for his party by investing heavily in their future. Instead, he was satisfied in managing the status quo in too many areas. That said, he should be given the “Jackie Robinson exception” for at least part of his tenure. For the first couple of years of his career Robinson was not allowed to fight back when injustices were committed against him on the field and his performance obviously suffered. He was not allowed to respond because if he fought back people might get a negative impression about other black players and public sentiment was incredibly important to further integration. However, once the shackles were taken off he became the MVP of the National League and a primary force for the Dodgers first championship. It could be argued that Obama faced the same prejudice during his first term (or both). Once he won a second term, however, the gloves should have come completely off and we should have seen four years of an MVP-level president. Because he didn’t, too many voters could not see the good he was doing. Although he served only one term, Jimmy Carter has a similar legacy: too subtle for the times. And unfortunately whenever someone is too subtle, the next guy is often too decisive.
Some would suggest that he had to toe the middle of the road in order to receive the big money support of corporations and hedge fund operators in order to remain in power so he could do the good things he did. Campaigning for political office is an increasingly expensive enterprise. While that middle-of-the-road approach may or may not have been true eight years ago, it is most certainly not true today. When Bernie Sanders announced he was running for president in November of 2015, there were only three journalists present. He basically already had three strikes against him, politically speaking: he was 74-years old, Jewish and a self-proclaimed Socialist. When it comes to politics, Americans are notoriously discriminatory against candidates in their twilight years, even more unsympathetic to those they perceive to be ‘non-Christian’ (I would argue that Bernie Sanders’ actions and words are far more “Christian” than 90% of the Congressmen who profess that faith), and the word “socialist” is almost as offensive as the n-word when it comes to getting votes. So the fact that Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination despite an average donation of $27 speaks volumes to the power of the message over the influence of the moneyed interests. Someone who is as charismatic as Obama could have won without the big contributors. Kowtowing to the big money is no longer the only path to the president and I would argue that Obama could have won both in 2008 and 2012 with a campaign similar to Sanders, and therefore would not have been tethered to corporate compromises. No one was ever asking for the perfect; but better was achievable with more passion and purpose.
what should we make of Obama? He was most assuredly a very good man and will
likely be remembered as a good president. But a great one?
I don’t think so. The opportunity was certainly there. He presided during a
period of divisiveness that is not altogether dissimilar from when the previous