Reflections on the Obama Presidency: (1) The gap between promise and performance
There will no doubt be many reflective essays written on the Obama presidency in the months and years to come; and in time, as more information becomes available, some of our initial judgments on the quality of that presidency will need to be reset. But there is great value in setting down contemporary reactions made in the absence of that data – if only to leave us better able later to judge what we missed by knowing now only what we have seen with our own eyes.
My own first sense is that – from all that we have seen over the last eight years, and particularly now that we know what is to follow – we are going to miss this president, and miss him badly. We are going to miss him for the values he so eloquently and regularly espoused. We are going to miss him for the intellect and the compassion he brought to the office; and we are going to miss him too for the quality of the immediate family that sustained him and that became so outstanding a role model for American families everywhere. I do not recall a single moment during his presidency when this man embarrassed me, or when I felt any need to apologize for him either to my fellow-Americans or to my many friends and family members overseas; and in that sense, having Barack Obama as my President was not like having George W. Bush at all. Nor was it like having Donald Trump as president – something truly awful, dangerous externally and divisive at home. The Obama years were instead ones in which a genuinely progressive man – and a black man at that – graced the office of president. We may not see such grace in that form again for many years to come.
But my other sense is that we will also look back on his presidency with a deepening sense of frustration. It is hard to capture now the sheer excitement that his supporters felt on the night he defeated John McCain in 2008, or even the renewed sense of hope that came with his unexpected defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012. The first of those periods opened an era of Democratic Party control of both the Congress and the White House. The second of them left the Democratic Party in control still of the White House and the Senate. Yet by that second election, much of the glitter had come off the Obama project and much of the hope that he could be a transformative president, as well as a gracious one, had already been lost. If we are to learn the necessary lessons from this presidency – the better to sustain more effective progressive politics in the future – we do need a clear sense of exactly how and why that initial glitter faded. We would have needed that sense even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016. The fact that Donald Trump is to be Barack Obama’s successor in the White House makes such a lesson-drawing all the more vital.
Given that as our purpose, it is worth remembering that there were just two years out of the eight when the Obama presidency and the Democratic-controlled Congress worked in lockstep; and that those were years dominated at home by the huge and negative impact on the economy of the 2008 financial crisis – on employment and on house ownership in particular – and abroad by the winding down of the Iraq War and the promise of the Arab Spring. During those first two years, the Obama Administration’s policies at home and abroad did indeed seem a breath of fresh air – at least to progressives – when set against the domestic and foreign policy stances of the Bush Administration with which progressives had been so dissatisfied. To progressives at home and to many observers abroad, the incoming administration seemed to offer the possibility of a new, and a better, American beginning – the opening of a route to a twenty-first century equivalent of FDR’s New Deal.
But, of course, it did not work out that way.
Abroad, the Arab Spring slipped into the Libyan collapse, the return to military rule in Egypt and the horror of the Syrian civil war. Abroad too, withdrawal from Iraq brought no stability to the country that George W. Bush claimed to have liberated in 2003; an escalated US military presence in Afghanistan failed to dislodge the Taliban as an ongoing threat to the Kabul Government; and the problem of Al Qaida morphed with remarkable speed into the uncontrollable hydra that is now ISIS. And at home, after a broadly successful long and bruising political battle, Administration initiatives on Wall Street reform and on the Affordable Care Act were followed in very quick order by the Republican recapture of the House of Representatives and a turn to the politics of gridlock. From 2010 (when Republicans took the House) and 2014 (when they also took the Senate) any further progressive moves at home became increasingly difficult for the Obama Administration to deliver. Mix in a Supreme court willing to strike down part of the ACA and to allow corporations unfettered access to political lobbying, and the Obama Administration found itself increasingly isolated and impotent. It found itself blocked on the core of its progressive agenda by Congressional intransigence; and it found any extensive use of executive privilege for progressive purposes blocked by a conservative Supreme Court.
Blocked in this way, the priorities of the President and his Administration then shifted. They shifted away from domestic policy to foreign affairs, where presidential autonomy is traditionally greater; and at home the Administration became overwhelmingly concerned with protecting as much as it could of the legislative achievements of Obama’s first two years in office. And as his second term lengthened, Barack Obama increasingly turned his eyes forward: exploiting executive orders when the courts allowed him to, but otherwise using the publicity surrounding his office to regularly make the case for progressive change – an advocacy role which implicitly conceded just how much of his own agenda remained to be achieved, and just how much on his watch the progressive cause has been effectively stalled.
From gun control to immigration reform, and from Supreme Court nominees to the minimum wage, the Obama Administration found itself during the President’s second term increasingly unable to deliver its legislative agenda. And if you doubt that, think only of some of what the President himself laid out as that agenda in his 2013 State of the Union Address, delivered before the entire Washington political class (and via television, the entire nation) – an agenda that the Washington political class then consistently failed to deliver:
Not everything, of course, was negative. As the second Obama term came to a close, real living standards did begin at last to rise again for the bulk of the American middle class, and the deepest recession in US post-World War II history (the one that had cost more than seven million US jobs between 2008 and 2010) had been replaced by more than 73 months of steady if modest job growth (some 12 million new jobs in total). But the deeper structural problems of the US economy remained largely intact: not least the outsourcing of well-paid employment to cheaper labor markets abroad and the associated growth in the US trade deficit, especially with China; the steady failure to invest sufficiently in existing infrastructure and in the new technologies of the digital age; the persistent gap in wealth and income between the privileged few and the numerous poor, with that gap overlaid by visible maps of ethnicity and race; and the continued spending of huge treasure on foreign wars and military deployments in a context of limited welfare and education budgets that nowhere nearly matched the scale of the US’s deficits on educational performance and urban renewal.
Likewise abroad, and for all the success in negotiating a nuclear-arms deal with Iran and a climate change accord in Paris (neither of which is likely to survive a Trump presidency), the Obama Administration left its successors much the same legacy it was left by the Administration of George W. Bush: an unresolved Palestinian question, an immersion in what now seems to be a state of permanent war in the Middle East, and (actually an extended) covert military machine deploying drone warfare in an expanded number of countries and covert operations in territory formally controlled by more than half of the globe’s sovereign nations. The President had gone to Cairo five months into his presidency seeking, as he put it, “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam…share common principles — of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”i But that widely admired speech turned out to be simply another of those early statements of intent that failed later to gather policy traction. Indeed, on foreign policy more than domestic policy, the Obama desire for that new beginning is even further from attainment in 2016 than it had been in 2009.
Little wonder then that conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer, long critical of the Obama Administration, could celebrate what they see as “the stillborn legacy of Barack Obama”ii as they document an unraveling Affordable Care Act at home and a deepening (and in human terms, truly appalling) civil war in Syria. But that celebration is as inappropriate as it is partisan. It is far better simply to reset the Krauthammer critique in this way: namely to recognize that it is this critical gap between the quality of the man and the paucity of the record that needs to be understood and addressed if a similar gap is not to reappear in progressive administrations to come. It is for that reason, rather than for reasons of partisan celebration, that the causes of that gap – during the Obama years – will be the central concern of the series of linked postings that will now follow.
This is an extract from the closing essay in David Coates, The Progressive Case Stalled?iii Published by Library Publishers Press, and bringing together all the Coates’ postings on Barack Obama’s second term. The postings on the Obama first term are also available, collected together as Pursuing the Progressive Case.iv Together, the two volumes make up Observing Obama in Real Time.
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.