Barack Obama’s farewell address last Tuesday highlighted, one last time, the conflicting disparity between the president’s rhetoric and the actual policies he has pursued throughout the last eight years.
It was, as always, a rousing speech–even if it was completely detached from the material reality working-class Americans endure. (Say what you will about the president, but the man remains an impressive orator. George W. Bush, on the other hand, struggled just to correctly pronounce the word “nuclear.”)
Obama assumed office just as the 2008 Great Recession, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, was unfolding. He handily defeated Republican John McCain, on a marketing-savvy (if, ultimately, vacuous) platform of “hope” and “change.” And congressional Democrats rode Obama’s campaign coattails to victory, enlarging their already solid majority in the House and Senate.
The message from voters was clear: Americans were fed up with eight years of Bush’s unpopular wars, shredding of constitutional liberties, torture and spying programs, and the ever widening gap between the wealthy one percent and the working class. President Obama and the Democrats had a clear mandate to enact sweeping progressive changes on the level of FDR’s New Deal.
Eight years later, those unpopular wars have not only continued but been expanded. The NSA’s surveillance program is far more widespread than we originally imagined. The U.S. no longer tortures its enemies–it murders them, without charge, warrant or trial, via unmanned predator drones. The once discredited Republican Party has retaken control of Congress and the White House along with 67 state legislatures.
And the economy remains stagnant–the much lauded “economic recovery,” a cruel joke. Wall Street not only weathered the recession, but emerged richer and more influential than when taxpayers were forced to bail out the floundering Lehman Brothers and AIG at the height of the recession.
What the hell happened…?
For starters, Obama’s roughly $800 billion stimulus fell far short of the type of robust stimulus package many economists–including New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman–believed was necessary. (Krugman would later reveal the true limits to his supposed Keynesian economic populism in his intense opposition to democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.)
In fact, the stimulus contained limited money for job-creation and, according to the Socialist Worker‘s Lance Selfa, “explicitly ruled out direct government jobs programs modeled on the 1930s-era Works Progress Administration. It dedicated upwards of 40 percent of the stimulus bill to tax cuts and credits to individuals and business that were useless in creating jobs.”
But then, it seems that Obama–who described himself on the campaign trail as a “free-market guy,” and cited Ronald Reagan as a political inspiration–was always more committed to serving Wall Street than Main Street.
Investigative journalist, Ron Suskind, in his book, The Confidence Men, reported on a March 27, 2009 meeting between the president and a group of the most influential Wall Street CEOs. Despite Obama’s warning the billionaires that, “My administration is the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks,” he and then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner nonetheless assured them they would not interfere with business-as-usual in Wall Street.
Suskind quotes one of the attending CEOs:
The sense of everyone after the big meeting was relief… The president had as us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t. He mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.
The list of botched opportunities and unfulfilled promises goes on.
The health insurance giveaway known as the Affordable Care Act is based on a right-wing proposal and is a far cry from the single-payer, universal health care program left activists have long called for. The former community organizer who frequently invokes the language and rhetoric of nonviolent civil disobedience used the brute force of the NYPD to violently crush Occupy Wall Street.
Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in history. (And you thought Trump’s xenophobia was bad!) He has, likewise, created a repressive, chilling atmosphere toward journalists, prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other previous administrations combined.
And, while the historic significance of a nation founded and built on slavery electing its first African American president should not be undermined, Obama did precious little to address the deeply-embedded, institutional racism that remains a pernicious presence in our supposedly “post-racial” country. Indeed, black Americans have lost ground in every economic category during the last eight years.
By the 2010 midterm elections, liberal voters were understandably underwhelmed and unimpressed. They stayed home on Election Day, allowing the conservative Tea Party “movement” to sweep Republicans back into the House of Representatives. The Democrats barely hung on to their majority in the Senate–a situation which would eventually by reversed after the GOP won big gains in the 2014 and 2016 elections.
As Selfa writes of Obama’s first two years in office, “This was a time when Obama and the Democrats held almost all the levers of political power in Washington. And they squandered it.”
He later adds,
“Obama’s penchant to reach for compromise and ‘bipartisanship’ was exactly the opposite of what the dire situation he inherited required–and what the American populace was ready for.”
But I think the biggest gap between President Obama’s rhetoric and his actions is demonstrated in the area of foreign policy, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner has proved himself to be a greater warmonger than Bush.
Obama ramped-up the nebulous war in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in U.S. history. He has dropped bombs on Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia. In fact, according to anti-war activist and Code Pink co-founder, Medea Benjamin, the U.S. dropped 26,171 bombs in 2016 alone. And the U.S. maintains a military presence in Iraq, a nation both Bush and Obama have all but ravaged, paving the way for the massive refugee crisis and the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“What does the administration have to show for eight years of fighting on so many fronts?” writes Benjamin. “Terrorism has spread, no wars have been ‘won’ and the Middle East is consumed by more chaos and divisions than when candidate Barack Obama declared his opposition to the invasion of Iraq.”
Additionally, Obama has codified and normalized the use of unmanned predator drones. Contrary to his insistence, these robotic death machines do not allow for more selective, precisely targeted killings. Obama is also the first sitting president to claim for himself the right to assassinate, at will, any person based on the slightest suspicion of connections to terrorism. Targets are selected for assassination based on Obama’s secret “kill list”—a list which includes American citizens.
And on Jan. 20—five days from this writing—Donald Trump will inherit all of this awesome, unprecedented military power and extrajudicial authority. Yeah, I’m fucking scared, too.
To that end, perhaps Obama’s greatest achievement has been his ability to get progressives to passively go along with policies they never would have supported under a Republican president.
Glenn Greenwald observed this phenomenon during Congress’s debate in 2011 on raising the federal debt-ceiling in order to avoid a government shutdown. As part of Obama’s “Grand Bargain” with the Republicans he offered up deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the crown jewels of New Deal liberalism.
As Greenwald wrote in The Guardian at the time:
Therein lies one of the most enduring attributes of Obama’s legacy: in many crucial areas, he has done more to subvert and weaken the left’s political agenda than a GOP president could have dreamed of achieving. So potent, so overarching, are tribal loyalties in American politics that partisans will support, or at least tolerate, any and all policies their party’s leader endorses–even if those policies are ones they long claimed to loathe.
In the end, Obama’s true legacy may be that he was not the “lesser evil,” but in the words of Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford, the more “effective evil.”
Going forward, as Obama exits the White House and we look down the barrel of Trump’s administration of swamp monsters, it is worth remembering a quote from left-wing historian, Howard Zinn.
“What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House,” Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, “but who is ‘sitting in’–and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”
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