Farewell, Mr. President

This week he said good-bye to us. It’s time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye to him.


For about a year now, President Obama has been doing “lasts”: last State of the Union, last Democratic Convention as president, last press conference, and so on. It all leads up to Friday, when he will pass the presidency on to someone I don’t trust and feel is simply not up to the job.

Tuesday, he gave his Farewell Address, a presidential tradition that goes back to George Washington [1] and includes such memorable moments as Dwight Eisenhower warning us against “the military-industrial complex”.

The speech. In Obama’s farewell, he focused on the challenges that American democracy faces:

  • lack of economic opportunity for all
  • continuing conflict over race
  • retreat into bubbles of like-minded people
  • weakening democratic values by giving in to fear of each other
  • erosion of democratic institutions.

He presented these not just as political problems to be address by leaders and solved with new laws, but as cultural problems all citizens need to be aware of and work on. In a lot of ways it was typical Obama: He gives inspiring and engaging speeches, but he always assigns homework. He never loses sight of the truth that government can’t really be of the People, by the People, and for the People unless the People are willing to work on it.

Looking back personally. For me, any reflection on the Obama administration has to start with the personal: Over the last eight years I’ve developed a real affection for Barack Obama and his family. During campaigns, pundits sometimes ask whether voters would like to have a beer with a candidate. I’ll put a somewhat different spin on that idea: Of all the First Families of my lifetime, I’d most like to eat dinner with the Obamas.

For eight years, they have endured an unprecedented level of hatred and vindictiveness, some of it due to the increasing partisanship in America, and some due to racism. [2] Through it all, they have maintained a level of dignity and decorum that the entire country ought to take pride in, even if half of it doesn’t. I have memories of all Obama’s predecessors back to LBJ, and each, Republican and Democrat alike, have at one time or another left me embarrassed or ashamed to think of him as my president. I never felt that way about Obama.

Conversely, I always felt respected by him. From his campaign rallies in 2008 to the farewell address Tuesday, he always talked to us as if we were adults. He wasn’t above using a slogan like “yes we can” or “hope and change”, but there was always something behind it. He never turned America’s enemies into cartoon villains, or proposed cartoon solutions for dealing with them. (And yet, he dealt with them.)

When historians look back at the Obama administration, I think they will rate it as the cleanest of modern times. There was no Watergate, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky. Republicans kept trying to label things as “Obama’s Katrina” because none of them stuck. Every time they ginned up a new faux outrage, they had to relate it to something from a previous administration, because Obama had left them nothing. That is not just a testiment to his managerial ability and his good judgment in choosing subordinates, but to the example of the man at the top.

What he accomplished. In the farewell address, President Obama summed up his accomplishments like this:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history; if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11; if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.

Republicans by and large refuse to talk about the Bush-Cheney administration, so the eight years before Obama sometimes seem like one big memory hole. But it’s worth remembering that he entered office in the middle of a historic crisis. The economy was hemorrhaging jobs, the banking system was insolvent, and the auto industry was bankrupt. There were questions about whether states would be able to pay their bills.

We were also in the middle of two bloody and expensive wars with no end in sight. So let’s start there: During George W. Bush’s two terms, 5984 American soldiers died in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Obama’s two terms, 921.

Obama turns over to Trump a far better economy than the one he inherited. The Dow was just under 8,000 when Obama was inaugurated. It’s now just under 20,000. Unemployment was at 7.8% and rising fast when Obama took office. It would peak at 10% by October. It’s now at 4.7%. [3]

When Obama took office, federal fiscal year 2009 was already in progress, having started on October 1, 2008. Politifact reports:

On Jan. 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 was projected to be $1.2 trillion.

The FY 2009 deficit eventually came in at $1.4 trillion, with the extra $200 billion attributed mostly to Obama’s stimulus plan. Since then the deficits have come down considerably; the FY 2017 deficit Trump inherits is estimated at just over $500 billion.

ObamaCare, for all the abuse it takes, has succeeded in its major goals: The percentage of the population that is uninsured is the lowest in history. Unless and until it gets repealed, all of us are secure against becoming uninsurable because we get sick. [4]

The Iran deal, assuming Trump doesn’t screw it up somehow, was a great piece of diplomacy. As I described elsewhere, we got the concessions we wanted and gave the Iranians nothing but their own frozen assets. Compare this to the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea: The bluster sounded impressive, but in the end North Korea got nuclear weapons and Bush did nothing about it. He would either have done the same thing with Iran or started a third war bigger than his other two.

The opening to Cuba was long overdue. We’ve kept the embargo in place for half a century mostly because no president was willing to admit it had failed.

Marriage equality did happen on Obama’s watch, but I don’t think he deserves much credit for it. When he changed his mind on the subject, he was following the country rather than leading it. That’s better than holding the country back, but it’s nothing to brag about.

Where he failed: war powers. My substantive disappointment in Obama is best symbolized by the prison at Guantanamo: He signed an order to close it on the second day of his presidency, and it is still open. Guantanamo was the Bush administration’s attempt to find a “law-free zone“, where the treatment of prisoners couldn’t be judged either by U.S. courts or those of some host nation. It was part of a larger vision in which the War on Terror would be unconstrained by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any national sovereignty that would prevent us from killing whoever we want wherever we want.

That vision is still functioning, limited in some ways, but in others more secure than ever. Obama hinted as much in the farewell address:

For the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing.

He limited torture by executive order, which Trump will be free to reverse next week if he’s so inclined. Drone strikes continue in countries where we are not at war and do not have the prior approval of the local government. There is a more rigorous process — also established by and reversible by executive order — to prevent the most egregious abuses of these extraordinary powers. But if President Obama could order the death of an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki, a more malevolent future president could kill any of us.

As in so many areas of disappointment, his inability to get Congress to go along with him played a huge role (especially with Guantanamo).

Where he failed: economic justice. The ongoing economic collapse Obama inherited from President Bush created both dangers and opportunities. The banking system was insolvent and government action was necessary to prevent the kind of cascading bankruptcies that characterized the Great Depression. Sweden took advantage of a similar crisis in the 1990s to get control of its banks and re-organize them. Obama missed that opportunity, preferring to leave the existing bank managements in place and simply provide government cash and guarantees. His Justice Department also failed to prosecute bankers, even though it seems clear that a great deal of fraud was involved in the housing bubble.

As a result, bankers got bailed out and homeowners didn’t. The too-big-to-fail banks are still too big to fail, and the whole disaster could happen again.

In an effort to gain Republican support that never came, his stimulus proposal was too small and about 1/3 of it came as tax cuts. So American infrastructure continued to decay, even as large numbers of workers were unemployed and interest rates were near zero.

The bottom line was that when recovery came, its benefits were focused on the wealthy. Inequality continued to grow. Only in the last year or two have wages for the middle class begun to increase.

Where he failed: climate change. There is still no price on carbon, which is the most obvious and most necessary step to battle climate change. He was not able to get any substantive climate-change bill or treaty through Congress, so such advances as he made through the executive branch are vulnerable to the next administration.

The mirages of transformation. Whether you love Obama or hate him, probably you feel a certain amount of disappointment about his administration and his era. Looking back, I blame our unrealistic expectations more than failures on his part.

Obama’s 2008 landslide (and the large Congressional majorities that came with it) created a hope among liberals that he could be not just a good president — which I think he was — but a transformational one on the scale of FDR or Lincoln. The lesson of the Bush economic collapse was that conservative economics does not work: If you lower taxes on the rich, they won’t hire more workers; if you de-regulate banks and businesses, they’ll rob you. Surely now all of America recognized that great liberal truth, and was willing to follow the new president into a fundamentally new vision of how American society and economy should work.

In retrospect, Obama was slow to catch on to the scorched-earth nature of Republican resistance, and tried too hard and too long to find common ground with people who were content to reject their own ideas as soon as Obama adopted them. (John McCain, for example, opposed what was essentially the McCain-Liebermann proposal on climate change, as well as his previous ideas about immigration reform.) He never moved quickly enough because he always thought he had more time than he actually did. His filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, for example, lasted not two years, but only about half a year: from Al Franken’s delayed swearing-in in July, 2009 to Scott Brown’s upset victory in January, 2010.

But I think the idea that 2008 represented a chance to reshape the longterm political landscape of America was always a mirage. The speed with which the Republicans rebranded themselves and pulled their party back together, the quick and unified resistance to such changes as Obama managed to make, the willingness of white Americans to believe any bad thing propagandists could dream up about their black president … it all belies the vision of a transformational moment. It’s very human to fantasize about change and then resist such change as actually appears. We do that every day in our personal lives, and we did it as a country in the Obama era. (I think Trump is discovering a similar truth about now.)

Another mirage projected onto Obama, this one more often by conservatives, was that his presidency would mark the beginning of a “post-racial America”. Now that a black man had been elected president, we could all admit that racism was over and move on. Blacks and other non-white Americans would be satisfied now and stop making demands for any more substantive equality.

On the Right, it’s now widely accepted that Obama was a “divisive” president who made race relations worse: witness Ferguson and Baltimore. Rather than settle down and accept their unequal place in the world, blacks seem more riled up than ever by movements like Black Lives Matter, and Obama encourages them rather than urging them to get back in line.

But racism has never been over in America, or even close to over. Obama’s presidency brought to the surface racial currents that had remained hidden and deniable. He was “divisive” in the same way that Martin Luther King was: He raised black hopes for justice, and became a target for white racial anxiety. [5] The racial divide in America is more visible now than it was in 2008, and that’s probably a good thing, because we can’t solve problems we refuse to see.

Summing up. I’ve had things to complain about these last eight years, but I’ve never missed George W. Bush, or pined for the lost opportunities of a McCain or Romney administration. And as for next administration, the cartoon below rings far too true. For the next four years, I suspect I will miss Barack Obama every day.


[1] The writing of Washington’s farewell address is commemorated in the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton.

[2] Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the implicit racism embedded in attacks on the Obamas. For now, let me just say that I don’t believe it would ever have occurred to Joe Wilson to interrupt a white president’s State of the Union address by yelling, “You lie!” One simply didn’t do stuff like that during previous administrations, and probably no one will once again, now that the White House is back in white hands. I predict that Donald Trump’s addresses will be full of lies, as all his speeches are, but no congressman will yell at him.

[3] If you don’t like the way the unemployment rate is defined, we can compare a broader number, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls U6: In addition to the people the more widely publicized unemployment rate (U3) counts, it includes those who want jobs but are too discouraged to actively look for them, and those part-time workers who wish they could find full-time work. That rate was 14.2% in January, 2009 and peaked at 17.1%. It’s now at 9.2%.

[4] This is real to me because my wife is a two-time cancer survivor. If you look around at the people close to you, I predict you won’t have to look far to find somebody with a pre-existing condition no profit-minded insurance company would touch.

[5] Another comparison is the antebellum South. Slaveholders had convinced themselves that their slaves were happy — “You’re happy, boy, aren’t you? Don’t I treat you good?” — and believed that the only problem was those meddling abolitionists.

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Comments

  • Lorrgaine Hennin  On January 16, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Thank you for this article and for the reference to your 2013 article on MLK. I am so glad to have discovered the Weekly Sift and look forward to it every Monday.

  • gordonc  On January 16, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Everyone please enjoy their MLK day.

  • Jene Smith  On January 16, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    yes man, its a very useful article. i tried it on my sites. its work. thank you so much

  • mrarik  On January 24, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    I enjoy reading your stuff but I find it a little out of place when you write about how great Obama is.
    Out of all the examples, the ending part is fitting:

    “But racism has never been over in America, or even close to over. Obama’s presidency brought to the surface racial currents that had remained hidden and deniable. He was “divisive” in the same way that Martin Luther King was: He raised black hopes for justice, and became a target for white racial anxiety. [5] The racial divide in America is more visible now than it was in 2008, and that’s probably a good thing, because we can’t solve problems we refuse to see.”

    Obviously there are racists in the United States today but this idea that Obama is divisive in the same way as MLK, that’s a joke. I would say “black hopes for justice” have been lowered thanks to the president personally creating a picture of the U.S. in which blacks don’t have justice, which is not the same as there being racists out there. Like I said before, I enjoy a lot of what you write about but I can’t get behind this conjecture-based worldview in which the U.S. is a ‘deeply racist place in 2016’ and that Obama is some kind of race champion. A lot of things are worse for black people after these 8 years, demographically, and having Black Lives Matter to the white house for a visit is not what MLK would have done, it’s catering to the very extremists that MLK avoided.

    • 1mime  On January 24, 2017 at 4:43 pm

      Both are true: America is still a racist nation and Obama did raise the profile of how black people have been treated here. You don’t have to like it or even agree with it…you are entitled to your opinion but facts support a different reality. If you don’t agree, try talking to some black people you know….black people who have “made it into the middle class”…and listen to what they say their experiences have been.

      • mrarik  On January 24, 2017 at 4:52 pm

        Facts can’t support any statements about anyone’s opinions of Obama. I mean that if someone feels like he is a racial leader, a champion of civil rights, they will find a way to feel like that. I treat him the same as any politician who gets to be president: He’s the last crook who didn’t get caught. Now, that was a joke but the issue of race is not, and there is a lot more to it than some good stories of success and fortune and some bad stories of gang violence and systemic poverty. This is an interesting debate, some good points on both sides but ultimately the conversation really opens up and it’s really interesting.

      • mrarik  On January 24, 2017 at 4:56 pm

        By the way, I read your article on Federalism, great read. Though I don’t agree with state-socialized medicine I think the underlying observations you made about federal and state powers was apt. Hopefully under a Trump administration more people on the left will realize federal dollars to their states aren’t worth the price of freedom and prosperity.

Trackbacks

  • By Believing in Change | The Weekly Sift on January 16, 2017 at 11:24 am

    […] week’s featured posts are “Farewell, Mr. President” and “Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest“. In honor of […]

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