Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Obama Legacy: A Look Back on the Last Eight Years

It may be easy to forget given the hideous start the Bannon Trump administration has gotten off to, but Obama's term in office actually just ended. He has been an enormously polarizing figure, adored by liberals and hated by conservatives. In spite of that, he left office with an impressive approval rating. But how did he really do? I'm certainly not an expert in the field, but I thought I'd try to explore the answer in detail. Like most leaders, he leaves behind a mixed legacy, with some parts willing of praise, some of condemnation. The President of the United States is, to state the obvious, responsible for a lot, so there are many different aspects of Obama's performance and policies while in office to explore. I can hardly give each piece of Obama's legacy the attention it deserves in a blog post--that would take an entire book--so my examination of each issue will, by necessity, be brief and cursory, but I hope to highlight the biggest parts of a complex and multifaceted presidency.

We'll start with social issues--probably Obama's best area. This is a vague term, so I'll be clear what I mean by it: these are the sort of hot-button issues that hinge a lot on questions of personal morality and the government's right to regulate people's private lives. Obama was easily the president who did the most to help LGBT+ Americans--repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, coming out against the Defense of Marriage Act and in support of gay marriage, and ending the ban on transgender service members in the military. He was also a pretty faithful defender of reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion. He was not, however, spotless on these issues, as illustrated when he nominated Michael Boggs, a social conservative, for a position as a federal judge (a nomination which his fellow Democrats ultimately shot down)--or his support of a trade deal that included countries which harshly punish homosexual behavior. He deserves credit, though, for ending the ban on taxpayer dollars funding embryonic stem cell research, and signing a law that reduced (though by no means eliminated) the unfair and discriminatory disparity in the legal treatment of crack cocaine compared to power cocaine. 

However, he devoted a great deal of resources to cracking down on marijuana, including medical marijuana, for no decent reason. His soft attitude toward medical marijuana during the 2008 campaign was abandoned after he was in office, and, according to Rolling Stone, he "quietly unleashed a multi­agency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush." On the other hand, later in his second term, he did become generous in giving commutations and pardons, many to nonviolent drug offenders--and he did tolerate, even protect, legal marijuana in states that chose to legalize it. On the issue of the death penalty, he offered some comments in the right direction and a couple last-minute commutations, but not much else. Obama has a pretty checkered record on social issues, when it's all said and done. 

I am honestly pretty repulsed by Obama's record on foreign policy, but he's in good company in that respect, I suppose. If I were to grade him on absolute terms in this area, he would easily have an F. But if I were grading on a curve, I'd have to give him maybe a C, because there are too many presidents who have much more horrific records. But make no mistake: Obama's foreign policy was awful, on the whole. Increasing our troop presence in the hopeless war in Afghanistan (before finally drawing it down), attempting to extend our troop presence in Iraq beyond Bush's deadline, unleashing a chilling program of international assassination with the drone war, arming Saudi Arabia as they mercilessly, indiscriminately bombed Yemen, proceeding to send troops back into Iraq once ISIS emerged as a threat--and, lest we forget, turning Libya into a pit of violence of mayhem by intervening in their revolution. Obama's terms look a lot like a continuation of the Bush years, though thankfully he did nothing remotely on par with Bush's invasion of Iraq. The summary execution of Osama bin Laden was widely celebrated, but it put us disturbingly close to war with Pakistan, and violated basic rules of war.

The bright spots here are relatively few. But they're not insignificant. While Obama intervened far too much in the Syrian civil war (which most Americans don't seem to know about), he at least didn't let himself be pushed into the sort of military action that neocons like Lindsey Graham and John McCain have been drooling over for years. I know of many, including progressives, who are angry at him because he didn't enforce his "red line," but his mistake was drawing the line in the first place. Launching strikes against the Assad regime would have been illegal and would have helped create a power vacuum to the benefit of groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, if history can be any guide. Obama also deserves some credit for the Iran deal, although, in reality, there should have been no sanctions against Iran in the first place--its alleged crime being the violation of a treaty that our ally Israel never signed and that the US has ignored when convenient. We can be glad, too, for the thaw in relations in Cuba that he presided over, moving away from a nonsensical Cold War policy that had been a cruel and pointless farce from the start.

There was a clear rift between Obama and Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Obama administration sometimes criticizing the actions of the Israeli government and ultimately allowing a UN security council resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements to pass--after vetoing a similar resolution in 2011. But in spite of his clear distaste for Netanyahu, Obama has done little to combat the Israeli government's increasing extremism and brutality. Instead, he's continued to give them military aid, enabling their viciousness.

Immigration was another grim area for the Obama administration. Not only did he preside over a record number of deportations, he responded to the influx of immigrants in 2014--many of whom were fleeing violence in their home countries--by opening detention centers specifically designed to hold families, to the condemnation of both human rights groups and congressional Democrats. 

On economic policy, we have, of course, one of Obama's signature accomplishments, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. "Obamacare"--a moniker that the Republicans came up with to demonize the bill, but which everyone now seems to use. "Obamacare" is now under attack from the new administration and Congress, of course, threatening to undo a major part of the Obama legacy. The law was intended to address the fact that America's healthcare system was an international scandal (it still is), with us spending more and getting less than other comparably developed nations. The ACA did not fix the problems with the American healthcare system, though it marked a step in the right direction--protecting people with pre-existing conditions, expanding Medicaid, and offering to subsidize poor Americans so they can purchase health insurance. It appears to have also slowed the growth rate of healthcare costs--while it is a flawed piece of legislation and there are clear issues emerging with it, as insurance companies withdraw from insurance exchanges, it is worth defending from any attempt at rollback.

While the law was still being crafted, Obama cut a deal with the for-profit hospital lobby to abandon the public option that had been proposed, and was part of the bill passed by the House. The public option would have let people buy health insurance straight from the government--which, of course, threatened the insurance industry because the government would have no need to make a profit, so they might well be driven out of business by the competition. Obama's surrender to a powerful industry marks a recurring element of his economic policy, sadly.

Another major piece of economic legislation passed under Obama, Dodd-Frank, has proven to be almost completely toothless. The biggest banks are bigger than they were before the recession--this was the problem that the law was supposed to address, and it has clearly failed in large measure. Obama bailed out the banks upon coming into office, giving them essentially a no-strings-attached rescue from the havoc they'd wreaked on the economy, while the rest of America floundered. He reappointed Bush's Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, who happily handed out loans to big banks at almost a zero percent interest rate--he handed them out so readily, in fact, that some of the banks may have used their loans to buy bonds from the government, meaning that they managed to make money off of loans that were supposed to be saving their asses. His stimulus bill did some good for the economy, but was far too modest--one part of his repeated failure to push for bold enough action to deal with the effects and aftermath of the Great Recession.

Obama showed little commitment, if any, to protecting the tattered legacy of the New Deal, enacting a cut to food stamps and praising it as a bipartisan accomplishment, and readily offering up a cut to Social Security. His relentless push for the enactment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership--a neoliberal trade deal that would allow corporations to sue governments for environmental and labor laws, and would hike prices on prescription drugs in poor countries, among other awful consequences--is just one of the many examples of him working for the benefit of Big Business and against the interests of basically everyone else.

The issue of civil liberties is another dismal field for the Obama administration. Journalist James Risen deemed him the "greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation"--and no wonder, given his merciless war on whistleblowers, leaning heavily on a nearly century-old, World War I-era law to prosecute more leakers than every preceding president combined; not to mention other unseemly incidents, like the suggestion that a journalist was a criminal co-conspirator in one leak case, and spying on AP reporters. The Obama administration also defended, in court, an interpretation of the USA PATRIOT ACT that prohibited the Humanitarian Law Project from giving government-blacklisted terrorist groups counsel on how to nonviolently resolve conflicts (yes, the HLP wanted to help a terrorist group learn how to solve problems without resorting to violence--and the government told them they couldn't), a grave infringement on the First Amendment that most of the Supreme Court's liberals--including Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's own appointee--opposed.

Then, of course, there were the NSA programs revealed in detail by Edward Snowden, begun under Bush but continued and expanded under Obama--flagrantly disregardful of the Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy. After the outrage that erupted over the programs when they were revealed, Obama ultimately supported some largely superficial reforms to NSA programs in a bill called the USA Freedom Act, but seems pretty happy to have them largely kept them in place. Obama's Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, warned about the supposed threat to the country posed by the imminent expiration of the section of the PATRIOT Act used to justify the NSA bulk metadata collection program. Throw in other ugly details like the National Defense Authorization Act passed in 2011--codifying the practice of unconstitutional indefinite detention--and you see the miserable legacy Obama leaves behind in this area. Noam Chomsky stated that Obama's attacks on civil liberties "go well beyond anything I would have anticipated, and they don't seem easy to explain."

Obama's last-minute commutation of most of Chelsea Manning's sentence was one major departure from him usual policy toward whistleblowers, and a very welcome one at that. Another welcome exception to his largely draconian "national security" approach was his major reduction in the number of prisoners held in Gitmo, from well over 200 to about 40--but we can't, and shouldn't, forget that he pledged to close Gitmo, and never did so. He may blame Congress--and they were no help--but he certainly did not do all he could to close Guantanamo, or ensure its prisoners be given fair trials, as they're entitled to.

But I've known for a while I would miss Obama, despite the many, many problems with his presidency. I knew it as soon as it was clear our candidates in 2016 were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton--on the one hand a spectacularly insincere party hack whose idea of a fun time was blowing other countries to smithereens, on the other some sort of roaring, incoherent fascist gorilla that only understood brute force and that "If it won't salute, stomp it" (to borrow Hunter S. Thompson's useful description of the Hammerhead Ethic that I discussed in my last post). Both were worse than Obama in the way they were likely to govern, and neither could quite manage to come off as a real human being, as he could. Whenever she tried, Clinton came off like the worst actor in some made-for-TV movie from twenty years ago, and Trump never pretended to be anything but a living bulldozer, bent only on destroying whatever was in his way, with no qualms about breaking bones or drawing blood. With the American Nightmare that is the Trump administration now going at full force, I can only imagine I'll find myself missing Obama more each day.

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