Farewell to Eight Years of Adriftness
Except in comparison to Donald Trump, I can’t say I’ll miss President Barack Obama. From the very beginning of his first presidential campaign, I was deeply suspicious of what I viewed as a cult of personality: the slick, too-cool cultural phantasmagoria eliciting orgiastic joy from my peers: I was a freshman at American University in 2008, after all. I supported the moderate-but-hawkish Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primary contest (and Hillary Clinton against Obama) and eventually voted in the general election for John McCain, despite serious reservations over his temperament and the Palin pick, simply because I did not trust that someone such as Obama, with so little experience, could really have a successful presidency. Unlike my frightened conservative colleagues, I did not fear he would be a radically anti-war president, a wild-eyed socialist, or what-have-you, once he actually stepped into office and surveyed the tasks at hand. I merely believed that, despite being an intelligent, charismatic, capable man, the scope of the office and its responsibilities are overwhelming, and he had never been in charge of anything other than his campaign. You can have all the potential in the world, but experience counts — it takes more than a vision to force an idea to life. Moreover, hailing from safely blue Illinois and waltzing to his Senate victory, Obama never had to endure the full force of conservative opposition, and had no clue what he was in for.
I think for the most part that assessment was basically right. Obama often seemed outflanked by clever foreign adversaries, whether it was being caught off-guard by ISIS or our humiliation at the hands of Russia in Syria. He frequently adopted a sanguine attitude toward emerging threats, often seemed harsher with Israel than with Iran, and was embarrassed by Vladimir Putin more than once, owing most of all to his overestimation of his willingness to act in good faith. Beyond this, he punted the details of his major legislative achievements to Congress — which fortunately for him started out with a Democratic supermajority. As he campaigned across the nation for health care reform, he spoke only in the broadest terms and left it to Congress to hammer out an agreeable consensus-bill. He did not rally the nation around a particular vision, because he had none other than that he wanted to reform health care.
Really, Obama should have never focused on health care reform at all — not when the nation was fixated on jobs and the economy, which somehow took a backseat to reforming the sector that comprises nearly a sixth of our output during already-turbulent times. But this was not all: the bill that ultimately became law was premised on popular lies, pushed through with procedural gimmicks and individual buy-offs of senators from Nebraska and Louisiana, and was passed on an unprecedented party-line vote. Once that Democratic supermajority disappeared, Obama never again maneuvered a major piece of legislation through Congress. Obama mistook the repudiation of George W. Bush in 2008 for an endorsement of his vision of progressive social and economic change. He was never any kind of radical, but he was distinctively comfortable with progressive economic and social goals, and the progressive movement — and unsurprisingly, Republicans fought ferociously against every major piece of Democratic legislation from the start of his tenure. The economic policies he did undertake — bailing out the auto industry, Dodd-Frank — were meaningful as far as they went, but there should have been more concerning pocketbook issues. It is inexcusable that he chose to compromise on the woefully under-sized, pork-ridden stimulus, of all bills — the one bill that directly impacted citizens seeking work. Yet Obama seemed to have a kind of contempt for the ugly-but-necessary game-playing that takes place in Washington — clinging to a belief that he had a special ability to appeal to our higher angels. In the case of health care reform, he gave in to those tactics at the last minute, but otherwise he seemed to foolishly hold to the false hope that he could convince moderate Republicans to support progressive-lite legislation.
His domestic policy legacy is a grab-bag of half-measures and parlor tricks: Obamacare, designed to frustrate us into demanding single payer; feckless attempt after feckless attempt to shove through all-but-symbolic gun control legislation, executive overreach on immigration, moving too slowly on same-sex marriage and then too quickly on trans acceptance. The potential for an economic depression was removed by the much-despised, wrongly-despised bailout before Obama came into office, so we cannot credit him for averting that disaster.
His foreign policy was simply incoherent, and America looks right now as if it is not interested in setting the moral tone for a liberal world order, but rather is unsure of itself and its purpose, and in its own judgment. Our enemies are emboldened — in Russia, in Iran, in China, and across paramilitary Islamist networks. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy and its institutions are playing defense.
What, then, in eight years has been accomplished in which Obama was an essential player? What has he moved that any other Democrat could not? Why did we elect this man in particular? Would Hillary Clinton have accomplished more or less than Obama did with a Democratic supermajority at-hand?
Obama is facing the distinct possibility that his will be remembered as a decidedly average presidency, at best. I would happily accept Obama for four more years against the alternative of Trump — my standards have truly lowered! — but instead, we do get Trump, and he is also part of the Obama legacy, insofar as part of it was built on overreach and hubris. History will not forget that, either.