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. 


That’s 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 attacked America and suffered little consequence. Obama understood this and changed that perception. Conversely, Obama doesn’t deserve to be faulted for the rise of ISIL. The fact that most of ISIL leadership is comprised of disenfranchised Iraqis should give a strong clue as to who is truly responsible. When the Bush administration basically fired the Iraqi army after the successful overthrow Saddam Hussein, they chose not to disarm them. Basically he kicked them off their jobs but let them keep the guns. What might have been a better choice would have been to redirect them to keep the peace in Iraq during what turned out to be an extremely expensive occupation rather than trying to train an entire country’s police force from scratch. So, no, ISIL is not on Obama. However, drone strikes around the world in an effort to kill suspected terrorists is all kinds of bad. Not only are they only “suspected” terrorists but often innocents are killed when a missile or a bomb hits their houses. The powerlessness that creates is what drives people to resort to terrorism. Adding to this promotional video is that Obama did little or nothing to prosecute those responsible for war crimes that occurred under the previous administration. Perhaps that was too much of a gray area for his advisors to demand tribunals, but people in many other countries will not see it that way.


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.


How 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 US economy has recovered faster historically than average ones do after such a setback, and it has grown faster than those in the European Union, so clearly he’s done a decent job of making sure we didn’t have any aftershocks or setbacks. Growth has been slow but undeniably steady. There are other indicators that also seem to favor a positive review of Obama’s economy


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.


How 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 US up to speed with other first world nations’ health care systems. But he instead played it safe and traded his political capital for a pointless and futile effort to partner with people who had already publicly stated that their primary goal was not to govern but to insure that his presidency was a failure. So now we are stuck with more corporate bureaucracy in a system that will likely never get completely fixed. Given that most Republicans are either completely clueless about reform, or prefer to go back to the lawless system we had before the ACA, this looks like a half-measure that will eventually require a massive overhaul starting from scratch. That’s not to say that I think the ACA is a failure; it isn’t. Almost all of the problems with it stem from the Supreme Court ruling which allowed Republican-governed states to refuse federal funding for the expansion of Medicaid and insurance companies to pick and choose markets where they wanted to offer coverage. But given the obvious resistance he was facing, Obama should have realized that his opposition was dead set on undermining his signature law at any cost or measure, and should have pushed the line of scrimmage much deeper into their territory with a reframing of the argument: Medicare-for-all is no more socialist than the US military is for the protection of all Americans. We spend more than half a trillion a year on the military and we only use it occasionally; healthcare is something every American uses frequently so it is arguably more vital to the nation.


As 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 Saudi Arabia glut the market in response to the Soviet Union’s effort to fund their incursion into Afghanistan (another Islamic country) with their own oil reserves? So did Obama convince Saudi Arabia to glut the oil market again, or did they do it of their own volition to stave off the inevitable and increasing market power of solar and other renewables? Technology has finally made those alternatives price-competitive. Obama played a small role in it by allotting a few billion dollars to help green companies grow but the amount was negligible when compared to the amount China was pouring into green energy and to the amount we subsidize the fossil fuels industry. And before someone goes off on Solyndra and how Obama’s green energy initiative was a failure, the Department of Energy subsidized more than 1300 companies under a number of different programs and fewer than 10% went bankrupt. Solyndra was one of five that failed in a group of 63 companies in one such program. So if you’re familiar with math that means they had a 92% success rate. Show me any venture capitalist who has that kind of success rate and I would urge you to give them everything you own that isn’t nailed down to invest. Venture capitalists would kill to have such a success rate especially in an emerging market. None other than Bill Gates said that the federal government does a fantastic job of investing money. If you want to complain about Obama’s green energy policy, the direction you need to be going is that he did not do nearly enough. Once he heard that China was spending four times as much on solar as the US, he should have immediately gone full court press with the public about the need to be the first to command solar energy. He could have made it the new race to the moon - only this would be the race to the sun - and called for doubling what China was spending. Recently China announced it would be pouring $360 billion by 2020; that’s the kind of forward thinking our leadership needs to be emulating, not combating. Another energy policy where Obama came up short was fossil fuels. Sure, he made BP pay $20 billion up from for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but he didn’t make any improvements to the regulatory agency that handles offshore drilling so a similar disaster is inevitable. Oh, and BP got a $5 billion tax break out of the deal. He rejected the Keystone Pipeline but when it came to the Dakota Pipeline did practically nothing until it became clear that this might become a black mark on his legacy. It was then that he pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the easement necessary for construction.


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.


So 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 president from Illinois did. But he didn’t do enough to enter that pantheon. He was certainly better than his recent predecessors and any of his competitors. Given that as a context, I don’t think that we could have done any better.