Everything in my earlier life prepared me to approve of Obama as a black president. Raised in a family which included or had friends across the demographic spectrum, I grew up without the racial prejudices which afflict so many. The scariest moment in my life occurred, not while I served in Vietnam in 1965-1966, but while I drove south to Ft. Benning in a VW with Ohio plates in 1964. I feared a shotgun slaying like that in Easy Rider. While I was getting my infantry MOS, I integrated two restaurants in Columbus, GA. I became a life member of the NAACP in 1968. So I was pleased when America seemed to vote down a racial barrier when it elected Barack Hussein Obama as its president.
That background, with the resulting confidence in my motives, has enabled me to assess Obama’s performance without the biases of racial prejudice or the fluctuations in his popularity. I think that many more would recognize or admit to his deficiencies were it not for race-motivated attacks—incessant, ignorant, and unreasonable—which have made it uncomfortable for them to make a reasonable appraisal of his presidency for fear of being labeled racist themselves. Blinded by race-hatred, bigots have deterred deliberate consideration of his performance in office. Otherwise, I am sure that even progressives would have much unflattering to say about Obama’s presidency.
I do not accept whining excuses from die-hard devotees that his failures are his opposition’s fault. I know that, from the moment of his Inauguration, Republicans conspired to oppose him, his legislative initiatives, and his administrative and judicial appointments. I know that they pretended to want bipartisanship and negotiation, even as they offered legislation to repeal his programs, and poison pill amendments or procedural intransigence to prevent legislation or deny appointments. I know of their repeated efforts to thereby punish the President for not compromising with them: that is, do what they want or their way, or it will not get done.
Republicans have made his job difficult, but they have not make it impossible. They have not denied him the executive powers of the presidency. They have not denied him his policy choices. They have not denied him his decisions to try to negotiate with them as if they were as he hoped them to be or would become if he compromised with them: that is, moderate Republicans. Indeed, his policies and temperament identify Obama himself as a moderate Republican in the Democratic Party; he is a Democrat in name only (DINO). Not surprisingly, he fails because he cannot resolve the contradiction between his Republican instincts and his Democratic identification, and, thus, is, misunderstood and distrusted by almost everyone.
For a long time, I have wanted to write a comprehensive assessment of Obama’s presidency. It may have three more years, but it is, for all intents and purposes, over; as we know the past, so we know the prologue. He is the wrong person in the wrong position at the wrong time. Even so, I lack the space, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the task; I leave it to the historians of the future.
My dissatisfaction with his presidency goes back to its earliest months, shortly after his inauguration in 2009. If I had had a “honeymoon” with Obama—I did not, or not much of one—it ended with an episode involving Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced additional West Bank developments; Obama stated his opposition to them; Netanyahu ignored him and let the developments continue; Obama said and did exactly nothing. It became clear then—mentioned by foes, muttered by friends—that he is all talk and no walk. This first and many subsequent episodes have led to my judgment: Obama may be the worst president since the election of Roosevelt; his only rivals are Peanut and Shrub. But, as I say, I cannot make that larger case here.
I focus on only one area of many, domestic economic policy—perhaps not the area in which Obama is doing greatest lasting damage, public education—to show some of his personal or political deficiencies. I am prompted and focused by his remarks on the economy in his recent State of the Union address which indicate major shortcomings. One, although, if his speech is to be believed, he is now turning his attention to economic inequality, he seems unaware of, or indifferent to, his previous decisions which have allowed or approved a variety of structural changes actually augmenting economic inequality. Two, having lost respect and trust as a leader and knowing himself unable to inspire and lead on large and worthy issues, he offers important, appealing, but relatively small-bore placebos which he pretends address this problem.
For example, equality of pay for women and an increase in the minimum wage. If women achieve pay equality, as Obama wishes, they will be only as well off as men in the middle and lower classes—which is not well off at all. They will still have inadequate incomes to support themselves and their families; to save for housing, education, and even some health care; and to assist their parents. Stagnant wages and diminishing employment benefits will abide. Although raising the minimum wage will do some good, it will solve no problems of economic inequality. The haves will have more, and the have-nots will have no more. The underlying structural features of the economy will continue to disproportionately benefit large corporations and rich individuals.
From the outset, as the country’s Great Recession worsened in 2009, Obama showed his pro-big-business priorities by endorsing and expanding his predecessor’s policies, all of which reinforce economic inequality. His policy for recovery was to save Big Business and Wall Street, not small business and Main Street. More specifically, it was to save equity holders in the large corporations, manufacturing or financial, not those losing their livelihoods, their homes, their health insurance, their education, and much else.
He believed that the “Big Three” car and truck manufacturers had to be saved. Unquestionably, if they had failed, many jobs in those and supplier companies would have been lost, at least temporarily. But just as unquestionably, their resources would have been acquired by others, some domestic, some foreign. It may have been right—I convinced myself that it was right—to prevent dislocations which would have severely, though temporarily, added to the depth of the recession. So saving the equity of the rich also saved jobs of working Americans at just the right time. Whether it did anything good for the longer term remains to be seen. Detroit and the surrounding region connected to its automobile industry have continued to slide, and Detroit itself has filed for bankruptcy, the largest American city to do so.
He believed that the financial system which caused the collapse would itself collapse if not rescued by taxpayer dollars. The banks, Obama told us, had become “too big to fail” without grievous damage to the economy and had to be saved first. Like Republican capitalists, he abandoned one of the first principles of capitalism—let the free market determine success or failure—when failure of a Big Business looms.
Actually, the damage would have been relatively limited in scope and duration. Equity holders in the banks would have lost their equity—which risk their rate of return reflects. Obama provided public money to bail out private mismanagers, some his campaign contributors, and got little in the way of financial reforms in return. Worse, after passage of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation, he allowed his administration to accede to the wishes of the financial industry in developing flaccid regulations and to decline to investigate or prosecute wrongdoing—friends helping friends. The result: the banks have more than recovered, and their equity holders have prospered.
Even his major apparent success in domestic affairs, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA; aka “Obamacare”), reflects a lack of leadership and a lack of commitment to policy—all perpetuating economic inequality. First, Obama exercised no leadership in proposing legislation to achieve his stated purposes. He let Congress wrangle over it and then accommodated the interests of insurance industry, which makes profits but adds no value to health care. Apologists defended his approach by arguing that alternatives were politically infeasible. They ignored polls showing that, despite a vociferous minority, most Americans favored universal health insurance, and many favored a single-payer program like Medicare. If Obama had cared less to protect the industry and its profits with a program needlessly complicated in a 2500-page monument to bureaucratic bloat, and had cared more to serve, appeal to, and save for the American people, he could likely have sold a “Medicare for All” program in 2 pages.
Second, important as the ACA program is to millions, to the economy, and to his standing, Obama ignored the opposition and left its implementation to the obtuse, the over-confident, and the incompetent. Much as I have admired Kathleen Sibelius, she appears never to have left Kansas. In the end, the ACA will struggle slowly onward and gradually upward; problems will be solved, and improvements will be made. Obama’s “signature” achievement is a legacy more properly others’ and a tribute to his timidity.
For the time being, the economy is improving. However, as structural arrangements protect gargantuan corporate profits, increase disparities in income, accelerate the concentration of wealth, and keep wages and benefits low, the economy will start to deteriorate. The means to prevent another deep recession or even a depression will be far more drastic and even more politically difficult. Obama’s preference for, and surrender to, the already rich have set disastrous precedents for future recovery or reforms. For his economic decisions have structurally increased the very inequalities which he now professes to deplore. His recent talk about economic inequality in light of this performance suggests lofty but empty rhetoric which will have no meaningful follow-through.