Tuesday, October 14, 2014

5 Unpleasant Truths About Obama's Presidency


I’ve mentioned Allen Clifton a couple times before in this blog, because he kind of epitomizes everything about mainstream liberals that I find annoying, and the article I’m responding to here—one of his recent ones—only reinforces that point. Once again, Allen Clifton has decided to defend President Obama from criticism not just from the right, but at least as much from the left. In an article where he purports to give five reasons why Obama will be remembered as being highly underappreciated during his presidency, he starts off by noting how many “far-left liberals” have turned against the president (a “far-left liberal” is anyone who thinks Democrats should govern to left of Richard Nixon, I guess). They blame him for not being “liberal enough,” but naturally that’s not his fault at all given that there are Republicans in Congress (never mind how many authoritarian and right-wing moves Obama has pulled with no help from Congress whatsoever). Just as a reminder why Obama does not, in fact, deserve to be remembered as a highly underappreciated president (even if Republicans have been entirely unfair to him, which they have), let’s just go through and rebut all of Clifton’s arguments.

First is the economy. Clifton’s argument is basically that the economy was plummeting into a deep hole when Obama came into office, but it’s growing now. True, and he deserves some credit for that—the stimulus did, I believe, help prevent another Great Depression, even if it was smaller and weaker than it should have been in the name of “bipartisanship.” But there’s a less pleasant aspect of the economy that’s also growing: inequality, and Obama has done virtually nothing to effectively address that. Rather, he’s bailed out Wall Street with essentially no strings attached, sold every last bit of General Motors that was publicly owned as a result of the auto bailout (missing a huge opportunity to actually reorganize the business in a more worker-friendly and environmentally friendly way), prosecuted exactly zero Wall Street executives for the massive fraud that caused the financial crisis, and readily offered up cuts to social programs that help lower-income Americans. A modern-day FDR he is not. Yes, a stubborn and partisan GOP has had a big hand in making sure no meaningful reform is passed (Dodd-Frank doesn’t count, seeing as it’s basically toothless), but even in carrying out already-existing laws, Obama has done far less than he could have to try to reverse the corporate oligarchy that’s been emerging for decades.

Clifton’s second item is “combating terrorism.” He spends most of his time pointing out how many Americans died under Bush versus under Obama, which is sort of a weak argument in Obama’s favor, seeing as George W. Bush was sort of one of the worst presidents ever, by any measure. The only accomplishments he actually cites are the killing of Osama bin Laden and that Obama supposedly got Syria to surrender its chemical weapons. As has been said before, the bin Laden’s killing was a serious violation of international law, and could have provoked a war with Pakistan; it’s nice to have bin Laden out of the world, but there were better ways to go about it. As for Syria’s chemical weapons, it was Putin that succeeded in pressuring Syria into handing over its weapons, as Obama had essentially given up diplomacy and was moving toward airstrikes—but, according to Clifton, it was all part of Obama’s elaborate plan to shelve negotiations, threaten airstrikes, and have his Secretary of State make an offhand comment in order to get Syria to surrender the weapons (no, seriously). Clifton asks how a president could otherwise have combated terrorism as much as Obama has without starting one or two more wars, but that ignores the drone war expanding into Pakistan and Yemen that Obama dramatically escalated, and which experts have said is likely to create far more terrorists than it kills. Then, of course, there’s the fact that raining death out of the sky in order to scare people away from joining groups that hate your country sort of is terrorism.

Clifton’s third point is Obama’s record on gay rights, which is Clifton’s most reasonable assertion. Obama has helped make historic strides for gay Americans, which is laudable. But even here, it’s hard to say Obama’s exactly living up to the standards one might hope for—take his judicial nominee Michael Boggs, who’s known for taking socially conservative stances. Boggs was nominated well after Obama came out in support of gay marriage, too, which leads one to question just how devout Obama’s pro-gay rights views are, and to what extent they may be to appease his base. The best president for gays so far, yes, but that reality is owed more to the American people, who have recently taken a far more favorable view toward gay rights than they did not so long ago, than any deep conviction on Obama’s part.

Pro-Obama point number four is the healthcare law he championed and signed into law, whose benefits Clifton reminds us of. A good thing, yes, but, yet again, Clifton misses Obama’s sellouts to big business and capitulation to the right; he even cut a deal with the for-profit hospital lobby to abandon the public option. Perhaps the current healthcare bill is the best that could have passed, given the circumstances, but one might have hoped for a bit of a stronger fight from the White House. There’s also a key point that should be noted: Obama did not somehow achieve universal healthcare by being more forceful than previous champions of the idea (FDR, Truman, Kennedy, etc.). Rather, he settled for less than they would—Richard Nixon proposed a healthcare law to the left of Obama’s, and Ted Kennedy refused to back it because it was still too conservative for his tastes.

The fifth and final item on Clifton’s list is the extreme partisan opposition Obama has faced, which Clifton admits isn’t really an accomplishment on Obama’s part rather than just an extenuating circumstance. As I said before, there’s truth to this—Obama’s opposition has been far more reactionary and inflexible than that under previous presidencies. But that’s an excuse, not an accomplishment, and it’s not a very good excuse, given how readily Obama has kowtowed to corporate interests all on his own, and how the worst aspects of his presidency (the drone war, the support for Egypt’s dictatorship, the war on whistleblowers, and so on) have nothing to do with what Obama was prevented from doing, but rather what he wasn’t prevented from doing.

Clifton goes on to mention in his conclusion that he could discuss, were he writing something longer, accomplishments including “credit reform, women’s rights, student loan reform, income inequality, the minimum wage, immigration reform.” There may be some validity to arguing Obama has made progress with credit reform, student loan reform, and the minimum wage (though the impact of anything Obama’s done in those three areas is probably is much more marginal than Clifton seems to think), but, as previously stated, he has failed to do much of anything to reverse the widening gap between the rich and the middle class, and as for immigration, his “accomplishments” include opening new detention centers for families and children (to the condemnation of both human rights groups and some congressional Democrats) and (as of late 2013, at least) deporting more people per year than any other president in history.

Clifton states in his final paragraph that “I do get a little annoyed when I see so many people act as if Barack Obama has been this horrible president who hasn’t accomplished anything.” That much we can agree on; Obama is a president whose “accomplishments”—radically escalating the drone war, expanding the security state, the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen—are anything but insignificant. It really is unfortunate that they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. 

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