The Case against Obama
During the last Democratic Party debate, Cory Booker, challenging Joe Biden, criticised Barack Obama’s deportation policies. Predictably, articles defending Obama immediately appeared. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, was especially eloquent. He framed his defence as a response to a friend who ‘repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact’. I do not know Marshall, but I share the views of his mystery friend.
Obama’s defenders often judge him according to imaginary, free-floating criteria such as how good he was at ‘getting things done’. According to such criteria, they say, he did ‘pretty well’. But presidents should be judged by how well they respond to historical situations, not by trans-historical criteria such as how many bills they get passed. We judge Lincoln by how he handled the Civil War and Roosevelt by how he handled the Depression. Obama came to the presidency at a potentially momentous crossroads, when the neoliberal order was deeply discredited because of the disaster in Iraq and the financial crisis. In that context, Obama was the object of charismatic longings of rare intensity. Grasping this, he ran on the promise of moving in a wholly new direction, claiming we needed not just new policies but a new mindset. Once elected, however, he governed on the basis of ‘pragmatism’, ‘little steps’ and ‘bipartisanship’. In the end, it was not Obama but Trump who answered the call for a wholly new direction, but in a disastrous way.
During Obama’s eight years in office, the Democratic Party lost 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, 12 governorships and 958 seats in state legislatures. Even more damaging is the record of school boards, city councils and commissions. While Obama concentrated on building relations with Republicans, even to the point of proposing entitlement reductions, progressive energies went into protecting his persona.In 2016, the Obama White House ‘stopped conspicuously short’, as the New York Times put it, ‘of affirming that the president would campaign for Mr Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee’. In the current primary season, Obama serves as Biden’s de facto ally, even though Biden has no chance of defeating Trump. In both cases, guarding Obama’s ‘legacy’ overrides all.
Obama had some achievements in foreign policy, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba, but they do not loom large against the backdrop of his continuing support for the myth that America is the victim of external aggressors. In Afghanistan, Obama dramatically expanded a disastrous war, sending tens of thousands of additional troops, not the mere five to ten thousand he had promised in his campaign. By contrast, he left Iraq in a hurry, which contributed to the rise of Isis. In other critical areas, Obama failed to rein in rogue subordinates, allowing John Kerry to support Sisi’s coup in Egypt, and Victoria Nuland to interfere in Ukraine in 2014. Contrary to his promises, his cautious, temporising policies were not linked to any overall shift in America’s global role, which remains aggressive, unilateralist and militarist.
It is often said that the Obama-inspired team of Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Lawrence Summers saved us from a disastrous financial crisis and in that sense outdid Roosevelt’s New Deal. This is entirely false. Roosevelt used the occasion of the Depression to transform the country, turning despised immigrant workers into a prosperous, unionised middle class and modernising the poorest region of the country, the South. By contrast, Obama’s policies vastly increased the wealth of the rentier class (the 1 per cent) while diminishing everyone else’s. Even the Affordable Care Act, despite the gains, was too piecemeal and market-based to nudge the country towards the structural transformation the times demand.
Obama complained about Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings on his nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court, but that was much too little. Many other presidents would have precipitated a constitutional crisis over that patently illegal coup. Obama’s failure to do more to challenge the Senate Republicans leaves a bleeding wound in American constitutional history.
Obama has many personally appealing traits and the symbolic significance of electing the first black president of the United States cannot be gainsaid. But none of that excuses the lost opportunity his presidency represents and the opening it gave to Trump. I have to agree with Marshall’s friend: to move forward we have to see the Obama record for what it was.