An Unsentimental Assessment of Obama's Presidency

by Neil H. Buchanan

I voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, but I was skeptical.  The rhetoric of hope and change seemed to lack underlying substance, and he appeared to be trying to engage in Clintonian triangulation even as he sweet-talked liberals into thinking that he was not a center-right incrementalist.

On the other hand, Obama was running against Hillary Clinton, whose record up until that point suggested that she was completely comfortable with the center-right policies of her husband and possibly that she would move even further to the right.  (In 2016, I became convinced that she had seen the light and was finally rejecting neoliberalism in a way that must have felt liberating for her.  But I digress.)

Between Obama and Clinton in '08, therefore, it was a tossup on policy substance, except that Obama's possible non-liberalism was less certain than Clinton's.  This made it that much easier for Clinton's hawkishness, and in particular her vote to authorize George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, to dominate the thinking of progressive voters like me.

Even though my favored candidate ultimately won the presidency, however, I braced myself for disappointment during the transition in late 2008 and early 2009.  And sure enough, the disappointments came early and often.  For example, I criticized Obama for putting a right-wing evangelist in a prominent position during the inaugural festivities, and I noted with resignation how predictable it was that he would pick Wall Street-backed economists to be his top advisors.

By the time the inauguration came along, I was able to find genuine reasons for optimism, but it was far too easy to be even more pessimistic.  And the early years of Obama's presidency played out rather predictably, with Obama being exceedingly timid in almost everything while naively believing that the Republicans were not deliberately ruining his presidency in every way possible.

(I suppose it was inevitable that Eric Cantor, co-author of the Republicans' scorched-earth obstructionism against Obama, would emerge last week to claim that it was all Obama's fault.  If only Obama had given Republicans the chance to cooperate with him, they would have rushed into his arms!)

In the midst of the first debt-ceiling crisis, in the summer of 2011, I faulted Obama's strategy for its transparent weakness: "When the deadline for raising the debt limit finally arrives, [the Republicans] know who will blink."  And so it was.  Despite occasional rhetorical feints to the left over time, Obama would reliably go back to the conventional wisdom (especially as embodied by his first Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner).

Even so, by early 2012 I was able to write with complete sincerity that "Barack Obama is the Best President of My Lifetime."  As I wrote in that column, my positive assessment of Obama was largely a matter of weak competition.  By "best" I did not mean "consequential" or something like that, a la Time's "Person of the Year" (a designation given at various times to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Adolph Hitler, Donald Trump, and "you").  I meant a president who had pushed for and implemented policies that were actually good for people.

The only president in my lifetime who was arguably more consequential than Obama was Ronald Reagan, but because he is the godfather of the Republicans' current ugly incarnation (race-baiting, militarism, regressive tax policies, union busting, anti-environmentalism, retrograde misogyny), there is no way that I would call Reagan great.  "Able to pursue terrible policies and make some people feel good about it" is not greatness.

Even so, calling Obama great was not merely (or entirely) damnation with faint praise.  As one of the economists who genuinely wondered in 2008 and 2009 whether we were headed for a second Great Depression, I am constantly surprised by people's failure to credit Obama (and, to be fair, Bush's departing economics team in the early stages of the crisis) for preventing the world from going over the precipice.

And it is not as if Obama was doing only the easy things.  He took incredible heat for almost everything he did, including the fiscal stimulus package, the bailout of the banks and other financial institutions, and saving General Motors and Chrysler from liquidation.  Without those moves, and without the steely resolve of (Bush-appointed) Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve, the 1930's might have looked like a garden party by comparison.

Each of those policies could be have been designed better, of course.  The inadequate size of the stimulus was probably a matter of Obama's not being bold enough, but it is possible that there was no way to do better given the fecklessness of people like former Senators Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe as well as still-serving Senator Susan Collins.  Similarly, bailing out huge companies while letting the big players off the hook was bad policy (and worse politics), but no one knows whether a more aggressive posture from Obama could have changed any of that.

It is, in fact, rather astonishing how well the economy has recovered, given how unrelentingly obstructionist the Republicans were after they recaptured the House in the 2010 midterm elections.  Partly because pressure by liberals pushed Obama into appointing Janet Yellen to replace Bernanke, the unemployment rate has dropped by more than half since the worst depths of the Bush recession and has stayed low, and there is at long last evidence over the last year or so of meaningful wage growth for working people.

As I have been reading other writers' assessments of Obama's years in office, however, the focus is typically not on economics.  One criticism that has emerged is that Obama is uniquely to blame for the Democrats' now-weak political position in Congress as well as at the state level.  Surely, Obama must be to blame for that, right?  Right?!

Fortunately, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt (relying on analysis by Ronald Brownstein) recently exposed that claim as a fatuous misunderstanding of history.  In fact, Obama's party's losses have been almost exactly at the historical average, if not a bit better than the average.  For Democrats, it is certainly disappointing that Obama did not preside over a permanent transition to long-term domination while Republicans became more and more dependent on old white voters.  But saying that Obama is uniquely at fault is a difficult case to make, given the data.

Leonhardt was surely responding in part to an op-ed that his newspaper had published two days earlier.  That piece, written by a former member of the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II Administrations, is a perfect example of the tribalism that besets political types in the U.S.  Even though the author (Peter Wehner) has been a fierce critic of Trump, his trashing of Obama was a classic example of pure partisanship.  The column might as well as been titled: "This Democratic President Was a Democrat!"

Most of that piece (and pieces like it) is not worth ruminating over, but there was one particularly specious argument that is worth mentioning.  Wehner faults Obama because "the economic recovery has been unusually weak, with annual growth never exceeding 3 percent. (Until Mr. Obama, every president since Herbert Hoover had at least one year of 3 percent growth.)"  Other than FDR, no president has seen the economy turn around so completely and dramatically, either, but why let reality get in the way of a good story?

This kind of argument relies on the the obviously false claim that Obama acted without political constraints, most especially omitting any mention of the Republican-led obstruction of Obama's economic policies.  But what makes it an especially odd argument is that it is offered to prove that Obama is at fault for the Democrats' current political woes, with the suggestion that Democrats would have done better if the economic recovery since 2009 had been stronger.

In a trivial sense, of course, that is almost certainly true.  In an election in which a swing of only a total of fifty thousand or so votes in three states would have aligned Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory with a similar-sized victory in the Electoral College, who knows what an extra one-tenth of one percent of GDP growth might have meant?

Still, blaming the 2016 result on the relative weakness of the recovery (no matter whose fault that might be) misses the much bigger explanation.  If analysts across the board have agreed on anything since November 8, it is that the white working class voters who abandoned the Democrats were reacting to a generation-long decline in their economic prospects, not merely to unhappiness with the last few years of economic performance.

Ultimately, that is the "what should have been" story of politics after the 2016 elections.  Ronald Reagan's reactionary policies started us in the wrong direction.  Democrats' embrace of a slightly tempered version of that neoliberal nightmare -- not just during Bill Clinton's presidency but in the continued domination of the party by the Democratic Leadership Council and its progeny -- baked inequality and instability into the economy in a way that finally came home to roost in 2016.

It still makes no sense that these working class white voters would embrace Trump, and it is already obvious that they have been bamboozled.  See, for example, Trump's hiring of multiple Goldman Sachs alumni, his embrace of regressive economic policies, and so on.

Even so, if Obama is to be faulted for his party's current difficulties, it is surely because he failed to break definitively from the Democrats' long-term embrace of Republican-lite economic policies.  He and the Democrats needed a real agenda to break a thirty-plus-year-long cycle of economic stagnation and increasing inequality.

Barack Obama will leave office later today.  Notwithstanding all of the criticisms that I have laid out above, I cannot help but say that he was still a great president.  On non-economic policies, there was good (civil rights, defending reproductive freedom for women) and bad (an inhumane deportation policy, the expansion of drone warfare).  It is a mixed bag, but his overall record is better than we have seen since FDR.

Most importantly, however, I will miss the idea that, no matter how much I questioned his policy decisions at various times, I always trusted that the president was an intelligent, humane person who was trying to do what was right.  No matter Republicans' attempts to caricature him as a weak leader, the world respected him and respected the U.S. more because we elected him.

Obama's immediate predecessor lacked all of those virtues.  The less said about his successor, the better.  The world will be a less safe -- and less optimistic -- place because Barack Obama will no longer be in the Oval Office.