Thursday, January 19, 2017

Looking Back at the Obama Presidency

Today is the last full day of Barack Obama's presidency. It has been an eventful 8 years - even if not the transformative time the President originally might be. For example, far from heralding a post-racial America, the mere fact of an African-American president seems to have driven a not insignificant segment of white America to distraction, the most extreme example of which was the racist "birther" movement which sought to de-legitimize the President by questioning his status as a natural-born citizen. 

And tomorrow the leading proponent of that lie will be inaugurated our 45th President. So much for a post-racial society!

Obama will always be remembered in history as the first non-white American president, and that is obviously an historically significant fact about him. But, both for better and for worse, his presidency, like any presidency, has always been about much more than that. An obviously intelligent and thoughtful man, who thinks in real sentences and answers questions in real paragraphs, Obama fatally assumed that good policy can create good politics, whereas the opposite may be closer to the truth - as the 2016 election has again proved.

As president, Obama can claim two enormously significant domestic accomplishments - the Affordable Care Act, thanks to which some 20 million more Americans now have health insurance, who didn't have it before (but are now in danger of losing it again thanks to the election) and, secondly, avoiding another Great Depression by his response to the economic calamity he inherited from his predecessor. He deserves enormous credit for both these accomplishments. 

But both accomplishments were limited and flawed. While Obama cannot be blamed for the intense opposition to the Affordable Care Act from a political party whose main talking point these past several years has been their desire to take away the health insurance Obamacare has made possible, his mistaken "good policy = good politics" approach proved catastrophically inadequate at translating the benefits of Obamacare for ordinary voters  to understand and appreciate. Bill Clinton failed dramatically in his 1990s effort to resolve the health care crisis. But, had he succeeded in getting serious health care reform passed into law, one suspects that he would have done a better job of explaining and promoting its merits. The unfortunate political (as opposed to policy) history of Obamacare suggests he might have done better to adopt a more Democratic plan (perhaps Medicare for all?) instead of the Republican plan he adopted, which the Republicans then rejected and left it for him to defend.

As for dealing with the economic crisis he inherited, again there can be no question that the country is in important respects better off now than it was when Obama took office. But the Administration did little to address the growing economic inequality which that crisis has highlighted so blatantly. Again there may be many factors to explain the working class disaffection that Trump's "populism" effectively capitalized upon. But certainly the Administration's elite-oriented approach to dealing with the economic crisis, in which the perpetrators of the problem were never really held accountable and have continued to profit, has to be counted as one of them. (For a fuller discussion of this theme, see, for example, Matt Stoller, "Democrats can't win until they recognize how bad Obama's financial policies were," The Washington Post, January 12).

Related to this is the continued deterioration of the Democratic party itself - from its historical identity until the 1970s as the party of the "common man" to a 21st-century elite party primarily interested in identity issues. Providing suitable bathroom access for transgendered people is important, but so is addressing widespread economic inequality and the collapse of the working class and of rural and working class families.  

Which brings us to Obama's greatest domestic failure - the nationwide electoral decline of the Democratic party on his watch. Early on, we Americans disregarded George Washington's warning and threw in our lot with political parties as the primary vehicles for accomplishing our social and political goals. As presidents, both Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, were criticized for neglecting their responsibility as party leaders to build up and strengthen their political party. Obama has arguably done an even poorer job than they did, thus severely imperiling his own legacy of policy achievement. A president needs a strong political party through which to govern effectively while in office, and it is part of his job to leave a strong political party in place to continue promoting his policies after he leaves office. Again good policy does not automatically create good politics.

Obama's community organizing background and his commitment to a notion of the common good are sometimes seen as points of contact with Catholic Social Teaching. And certainly there are such points of contact, which in a less polarized religious climate might have been the basis for a stronger relationship between the Administration and American Churches. That said, however, it must be acknowledged that Obama is a thoroughly post-modern person, who appears to see the world through a highly individualized, morally and culturally libertarian lens. That lens was well expressed, for example, in Justice Anthony Kennedy's notorious 1992 declaration: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Whatever that may be, it is most certainly not Catholic social teaching! Between elite moral and cultural libertarianism and the social solidarity sought by Catholic Social Teaching, there is (metaphorically) as great a chasm as that in Luke 16:26 between the self-actualized rich man and Lazarus.

In foreign affairs, Obama's record is mixed. The nuclear deal with Iran was a genuine accomplishment, although as is usually the case in foreign policy we will have to wait a while longer to see how well it actually works. We might say the same about his overdue ending of our anachronistic approach to Cuban policy. Syria, however, has been an unmitigated disaster. Of course, the options for the US in Syria have largely been bad, and maybe a more pro-active policy might not have significantly bettered the situation. But, not having tried, we can't know for sure. What we do know is that Syria is a political and humanitarian disaster which has spilled over and destabilized much of Europe and that this de-stabilization of Europe is in turn contributing directly to a breakdown of the post-World War II international order and the consensus on which it has relied.

It is not entirely Obama's fault, of course, that the entire post-World War II international order is now being challenged, but the weakness of American foreign policy in recent years has helped set the stage for whatever will happen next under President Trump.

In the end, of course, history will evaluate (and repeatedly re-evaluate) this president as it evaluates all presidents. He leaves office more personally popular than most of his predecessors (except for Eisenhower and Clinton), and that itself is an accomplishment, which speaks to the core qualities of the man, however intractable the problems he confronted.   

Last but far from least, the Obama Administration has been commendably free from scandals of any sort. And, in addition to being a model of freedom from conflicts of interest and personal misbehavior, the President has also been a model husband and father. The priority he placed on having dinner with his family, for example, represented a truly counter-cultural witness to authentic family values, which one wishes more politicians would prioritize in their lives instead of just talk about. Barack and Michelle Obama have done a fantastic job not only at how they have behaved and presented themselves personally in the White House, but in how they have raised their daughters there, in all of which they have been an admirable example for the country. 

And for all of that they will certainly be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment