A Squandered Presidency, Not Quite, But Not Transformational Either
by Charles Lemos, Fri Aug 27, 2010 at 06:43:32 AM EDT
Just 18 months into the Obama Presidency, the verdict of the academy is already beginning to take shape. This summer has seen an array of assessments specifically on Barack Obama and his Administration and more generally on the triumph of corporate politics in the Age of Obama.
Apart from the Jonathan Alter book The Promise: President Obama, Year One, which was published in May and the forthcoming Paul Street book The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power which will be released next month, the assessments have been in op-eds or essays in scholarly journals and leftist publications. And again apart from the Alter book, the assessments have been more critical than glowing. The Street book, from what I've heard, promises to be an evisceration of the Obama Presidency. Not surprising given that Paul Street is one of the nation's leading radical historians along with Mike Davis.
The Alter work, of which I have only read excerpts, while praising the young President isn't exactly a tribute either. According to Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, "Alter gives this White House a mixed grade so far on achieving its policy goals, working with a highly politicized Congress and communicating with the public." Tim Rutten's review in the Los Angeles Times finds Alter "sympathetic to the President's goals" while casting "a cold eye on his most vociferous political antagonists" and yet "independent enough to criticize the administration's — and the chief executive's — shortcomings." Alter, of course, has known the President nearly two decades or put another way the pair have been acquainted nearly half their lives. If your friends aren't willing to raise their voices on your behalf, who will?
While the right is populated by sycophantic obstreperous propagandists who inhabit the rive droit of the Potomac think tanks that are wholly servile to the interests of the American corporate-led oligarchy and seemingly allergic to facts, the left, to begin with, lacks that vast corporate-funded infrastructure. Even if they did possess it, the left is hardly going to countenance such a wholesale capitulation to longstanding Democratic goals that the Obama Administration has set aside.
While the vitriol may emanate from the right, some of harshest rebukes have come from the left. The President can brush off being called a socialist but the appellation of a Bush third term clearly stings. Newt Gingrich, a career politician with presidential ambitions, can call him "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" urging the GOP faithful and indeed all "patriotic Americans" to resist the President's "secular, socialist machine" and Obama says not a word. But Glenn Greenwald and Dylan Ratigan, two journalists, discuss the President's targeting of American citizens with extrajudicial executions on a television programme and that unleashes the volcanic wrath of Robert Gibbs.
The litany of progressive complaints slip off the tongue effortlessly. Single payer didn't have a prayer much less a hearing. The public option wasn't an option. Lip service to LGTB goals but not much real movement even when the opportunity arises to make a definitive stand. Leaving Iraq is defined as garrisoning 50,000 troops indefinitely. With each new boot on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban only has spread like a wild fire across the country returning to the north after a nine year absence even as General Petraeus assures us that we are turning the tide. Guantánamo, still open and now hosting the trial of a child soldier. The Patriot Act extended without tighter privacy protection for US citizens. The Employee Free Choice Act all but forgotten. Comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely delayed even as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. Comprehensive climate and energy legislation stalled with public support melting away faster than Greenland glacier. The financial sector reform law still doesn't solve the Too Big to Fail problem thus all but guaranteeing another bailout when our high rolling casinos overextend themselves as they inevitably will. The initial trepidation over the appointment of 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals to the recently formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is now giving away to outright despair at the thought that the President as he finds his fiscal religion might be willing to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.
While one wants to be supportive of the Administration, it is increasingly difficult to do so when one senses that things are seriously amiss. Even the Center for American Progress' John Podesta, the former Clinton Chief of Staff who headed the Obama Transition that filled the key posts in the Administration, has said that the White House had lost the narrative by the end of this first year in office.
He's not the only one. When Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a center-left publication, asked leading liberal progressives thinkers to assess President Obama's performance this past April, a recurrent theme among the nine contributors was a fear that the Administration had lost control of the all important economic debate. Robert Reich, President Clinton's Labor secretary, lamented that Obama's failure to provide "a larger narrative" to explain the causes of the crash and his response to it had left the public "susceptible to [conservative] arguments that its problems were founded in 'Big Government.'
Here's how Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal summarized the debate among many of the nation's leading progressive voices:
The fear among the Democracy contributors is that against this disciplined assault the White House is suffering from what could be called a "narrative gap." By which they mean that the White House has inadvertently allowed Republicans to shift public discontent from business to government by not working more doggedly to link President George W. Bush's anti-regulation, tax-cutting policies not only to the 2008 meltdown but also to the economy's meager performance over his entire tenure. (During Bush's two terms, the economy created only one-fourth as many jobs as it did under Clinton; poverty rose sharply; and the median family income declined, after rising 14 percent under Clinton.)
Among those who haven't taken their quills to penning paeans to the virtues of Barack the Great Disappointment are Frank Rich, Michael Tomansky, Eric Alterman, Joe Klein, Brad Carson, David Swanson, Danielle Allen, Michael Walzer and Barbara Ehrenreich. All have published essays - devastating critiques of varying degrees - on Obama the man and Obama the President over this the summer of our discontent. Even if they express some sympathy for his plight given the condition of the country he inherited, these voices point more to the bad and the ugly than to the good the Administration has accomplished. Progressive economists like Robert Reich, Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman continue to bemoan the President's economic policies often wondering if the President and his economic team gets the magnitude of our malaise. Others befuddled by the President's lackadaisical approach to the severity of the crisis include Simon Johnson, Felix Salmon, Nouriel Roubini and Martin Wolf.
In mid-August, David Aaron Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton and an advisor on Mid-East issues to six Secretaries of State, took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to argue that President Obama, like most of our consequential presidents, arrived at the right time, but unlike them, he may have badly misread his moment, and the country's mood.
First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession. That crisis, though severe to be sure, was not so nation-encumbering that it forced the political system out of fear or desperation to become more pliable. When combined with a Republican Party determined to say no to just about anything, transformative change has proved difficult indeed.
Besides, Obama isn't FDR. He wasn't as skilled, as grounded in the American experience or, frankly, as likable as Roosevelt, and so he hasn't come to serve as a repository of the nation's trust and confidence. FDR, like Obama, was hated by many, but he was also beloved by millions.
Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn't found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared. Part of Obama's problem is his uniqueness: His professorial, detached and cool-to-cold nature, the racial prejudice against him and his outlier background make him a different kind of president than most Americans have known.
Ultimately, David Aaron Miller accuses the President of overreach writing that "Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional." Frankly, I'd argue that the problem has been more of an underreach and a piecemeal approach to his Presidency. He was never going to placate the right but that was where he largely expended his efforts to little avail and with fewer results as time went on. In his capricious courting of the amendable right, he willingly sacrificed much of the progressive agenda thus souring his own base. In this ever-deepening debacle, the critical independent center sees only the disarray and dysfunction that Obama was elected to fix.
And yet despite the disarray and dysfunction, the Administration has been remarkably successful in getting its legislative agenda and its political proposals, even if watered down, enacted. PolitiFact.com, a database of the St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact-checking of the 2008 campaign, has catalogued 502 promises that candidate Obama made during the campaign. At the 18 month mark the totals of the so-called 'Obameter' showed that he had kept 121 of them - 91 had been accomplished at the one year mark - and made progress on another 240. Twenty-two campaign promises have been broken, 39 compromised while 81 others remain stalled.
Some of the 22 promises broken are of little electoral consequence. They include a failure to recognize the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 and the failure to double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2011. The President also backtracked on giving an annual "State of the World" address on global security issues and a "State of our Energy Future" that might have helped with messaging but still not matters of earth-shattering importance. Others are more significant breaches. These include a failure to ensure Federal contracts over $25,000 are submitted to a competitive bidding proces, a failure to lift the ban on imported prescription drugs, a failure to reduce earmarks to 1994 levels, a failure to carry the negotiations of health care reform in public sessions televised on C-SPAN, a failure to eliminate all income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year, a failure to enact tougher rules against the revolving door for lobbyists and former officials and a failure to use "the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws."
Still, the achievements of this Administration are significant. Legislatively speaking, only Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson surpassed the legislative record of Barack Hussein Obama. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first major act of Congress signed into law by President restoring workers' rights to challenge illegal wage discrimination in the Federal courts. It is a seminal piece of legislation.
Whatever the faults of the health care reform, the law will require insurance companies "to cover pre-existing conditions so all Americans, regardless of their health status or history, can get comprehensive benefits at fair and stable premiums" and will expand eligibility for the Medicaid and SCHIP programs so as to ensure that these programs continue to serve their critical safety net function. The Administration also closed the 'doughnut hole' in the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Program that had impacted seniors with more than $2,250 but less than $5,100 in annual drug costs. Approximately 4 million seniors hit the doughnut hole in 2006. Taken together, this is the most important advance in American healthcare legislation since the 1960s.
Other promises kept include increasing the funding of Small Business Administration programs that provide capital to minority-owned businesses; the adoption of the economic substance doctrine, a policy that states that tax changes must have significant economic justification; the establishment of credit card bill of rights; fully funding the Veterans Administration; fully funding the Violence Against Women Act; a renegotiating of the START treaty with Russia that will make meaning cuts to the world's nuclear arsenal; and expansion of the Pell Grant programme. These are real noteworthy achievements and are just a handful of the very real accomplishments of this Administration.
But are these accomplishments transformative? Well, the answer depends on how one defines transformative. The legislation enacted this session of Congress and signed into law by the President is broad, sweeping and will affect all Americans and I think largely for the better. Only the irrational deranged right begs to differ on the better part. But there is a difference between transformative legislation and a transformative presidency.
There's another line in David Aaron Miller's op-ed that merits attention. He writes "all great transformers wrap their actions in values and ideals that, while bold, are also familiar and consistent with those of the nation's story." I think that is certainly true. Politics is values and when political issues are framed within moral principles progressive ideas earn a remarkable degree of acceptance.
A transformative presidency requires a change in values, a subverting of the dominant paradigm for a new paradigm. Transformative presidents have been rare. I'd argue just six - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Washington, being first, set critical precedents, but just as importantly, Washington deepened nascent Republican values in the new Republic that feared a return of monarchical government. Jefferson moved the country away from Hamiltonian Federalism winning the argument, at least temporarily, on the nature of government. Jackson changed the country getting Americans to think differently about who they were as a people. While the first major expansion of the suffrage came during the Presidency of James Monroe, it was Jackson who benefitted as he injected populism and notions of democracy into the American political arena. Jackson is a befuddling array of contradictions: even as he denounced big government, Jackson expanded executive power creating a template for future presidents; even as Jackson preached the rule of the people, he was autocratic; even as he espoused local governance, his Nullification Proclamation put the Union ahead the extremism of states' rights. Lincoln changed how we viewed the Union and our concept of nationhood. Before Lincoln and the Civil War, it was the United States are; after Lincoln, it was the United States is. Roosevelt and Reagan each transformed the way Americans thought about the legitimate role of government. Roosevelt demonstrated the power of the government to effect positive change in the lives of Americans; Reagan made government inherently the enemy. There's one common thread amongst these Presidents, they were all willing to take on their political enemies. Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt and Reagan, in particular, did not shrink from political combat. Indeed, they thrived on it.
Other Presidents have had enduring legacies but their terms in office did not involve a shift in values. In this category, I'd include James K. Polk, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur (the most underrated President in American history), Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. For Grant and Bush, it was a negative enduring legacy, Nixon a mixed one, the others positive legacies. Obama seems likely to join this group: a positive legacy but not a transformative one.
Even by his own standard of why Barack Obama ran for office in the first place, he has failed to deliver on his stated goals for his Presidency.
I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness – a certain audacity – to this announcement. I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.
The genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed. And we should take heart, because we've changed this country before. In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an Empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. We welcomed immigrants to our shores, we opened railroads to the west, we landed a man on the moon, and we heard a King's call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more – and it is time for our generation to answer that call.
For that is our unyielding faith – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.
That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people. It is because of the millions who rallied to his cause that we are no longer divided, North and South, slave and free. It is because men and women of every race, from every walk of life, continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest, that today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together, as one people – as Americans.
All of us know what those challenges are today – a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can. We know the challenges. We've heard them. We've talked about them for years.
What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.
The sum of those seven paragraphs is that Barack Obama ran to change the way Washington works and to overcome the smallness of our politics. If that's his standard for success, he certainly hasn't succeeded. Washington is as dysfunctional and polarized as ever. Our politics are evermore petty. Fifty-five percent of Americans think he is a socialist; 18 percent think him a Muslim; and 27 percent of Americans think he was born outside the United States. These numbers speak vividly to the smallness of our politics. It's not that this is his fault, it is that he is blind to its cause and moreover seemingly unwillingly to engage the blood sport of politics even as he risks being mistaken for a corpse.
Still, the tragedy of Barack Obama is that on that cold day back in February of 2007, he also said something else quite noteworthy that pointed to what was required of a transformative leader. He was running not just to change the process in Washington but also the nature of our civic involvement:
After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different. All of us running for president will travel around the country offering ten-point plans and making grand speeches; all of us will trumpet those qualities we believe make us uniquely qualified to lead the country. But too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own.
That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us – it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice – to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
It is the deepest of ironies that the only mass movement to emerge during the Obama Presidency is a right-wing pseudo populist anti-government movement largely underwritten by libertarian corporatist interests. It's even more peculiar because of one the most forceful speeches of the primary was delivered not by Barack but by his wife, Michelle, at UCLA on the eve of California primary.
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.
Having built one of the most energizing and politically savvy campaign coalitions in a generation, it is perplexing that Team Obama sidelined the Team that swept him to power. Here you have the first Democrat to win the White House with more than half the popular vote since 1964 and instead of launching the second Liberal Republic, he retreats to the Oval Office as if he were some detached observer of the body politic and not its leading actor. The fact is that Barack didn't require anyone to work or shed their cynicism. Thanks to his complete and utter naïveté about the nature of the American right, his approach to governing galvanized his opponents while his inability to use the bully pulpit of his office and engage in confrontational politics effectively failed to energize those who elected him to office.
Back in December 2008 when we were still basking in the afterglow of electoral victory, Jon Meacham, the author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House on the Charlie Rose Show compared Andrew Jackson with Barack Obama. Said Meacham, "I think the Obama connection (with a transformative Jackson) is this understanding of political narrative and the power of engaging your supporters in a constant conservation." In this, Obama has failed to live to his promise and squandered his potential to be a truly transformative President. He'll leave a potent legacy but his inattention to the economy - and the narrative of how we got here - is going to set back the cause of liberalism.
Mike Lux over at Open Left noted what a failed Obama Presidency would mean back in October 2008:
Some progressives might argue that Obama isn't really a progressive anyway, so why should we care about whether his Presidency fails. I couldn't disagree with that more strongly. Obama, being a Democrat, is going to be perceived by Americans as a representative of the progressive cause. Even if he governs as a centrist or even center-right President, he will still be seen by Republicans and the media as a progressive, and his failure would be seen as a progressive failure. Don't think so? It's happened before, not that long ago: Jimmy Carter was the most conservative Democratic President in the 20th century on economic issues, embracing deregulation and fiscal austerity. But when he failed, Republicans ran for a generation- quite successfully- on attacking the failed liberalism of Carter.
Then there's something John Podesta, the last Clinton Chief of Staff, noted before Obama won the election. Should Obama win, he should not try to solve problems one by one- first, get the economy on track, next deal with health care, next with energy, etc.- instead should put together an economic package that makes progress across the board. Pity then that John Podesta wasn't Obama's first Chief of Staff.