For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about to how to articulate my thoughts regarding the presidency of Barack Obama in a matter that’s balanced, mindful of context, and grounded in truth. Without further ado, here are my thoughts about the last eight years:
With the future of our country uncertain, the lenses through which we view the past few years can seem especially rose-tinted. It can be comfortable to long for the not-so-long-ago pre-post-fact presidency of Barack Obama. In contrast to his successor, Obama comes off as restrained and thoughtful, rational and pragmatic. He adheres to a sense of decorum and projects a general human decency. And while I don’t mean to de-legitimize every possible reason to support the president-elect (I do believe that valid policy reasons exist), when it comes to behavior, temperament, and at least a tacit acknowledgement of morality and self-awareness, the gulf between the incoming president and his predecessor could not stand to grow much larger.
I think there’s some validity to this view that can be justified by tangible accomplishments. At his farewell address, Obama was brimming with optimism’s flame, rattling off a laundry list of his administration’s achievements: saving the “global economy” from the precipice of destruction, months on months on months of job growth, expanded LGBT rights, affordable healthcare for 20 million people who would otherwise be uninsured. There’s the nuclear deal with Iran and the restoration of relations with Cuba. Some of these policy victories, particularly the Affordable Care Act, have had a directly positive effect on my quality of life. Others have affected the lives of friends and family that I know and love.
It’s not difficult to listen to the first black president of United States, in all his eloquence, with full knowledge of all of the obstructionist politics and miscellaneous bullshit that he’s had to deal with, and feel a distinct sense of pride. Sitting there, taking in Obama’s carefully curated goodbye, glossed up in the media’s saccharine sheen, it’s not difficult to believe that his eight-year tenure was a net success. Like many millennials, it’s not difficult to think Barack Obama has been the greatest / least awful person to hold the office of the presidency in our lifetimes, and it’s not really all that close.
But I’ll be damned if the devil isn’t in the details. Speaking of Cuba, the Caribbean island nation serves as a useful analogy when talking about the last eight years. Listening to the outgoing president speak, he touted the lifting of a half-century embargo, the newly added flights in and out of Havana. But curiously and conspicuously absent was any mention of the goings-on on the other side of the island where the United States runs a military prison named after the nearby Guantanamo Bay, a facility where inmates are subjected to torture and detained indefinitely without a right to trial.
Before I go off on what I think are severe shortcomings of the Obama presidency, I’m aware that there exist nuances that can complicate our interpretation of things. What we hold one person responsible for, whether a positive or negative development, is obviously up for debate. And as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, even the most well-intentioned of public officials can find it difficult to reverse decades of bad policy.
But lost in Obama’s very true assessment of democracy as an uneven, messy process, are not the words of a pragmatic progressive (or a socialist, god forbid!), but of a generally complacent centrist whose legacy is largely protecting the interests of the neoliberal ruling class and powerful elite, while turning a blind eye to a series of social justice and human rights abuses.
When rampant speculation and the creation of an illegal market for housing derivatives threatened to usher in a second Great Depression, Obama didn’t bail out Main Street. Instead he chose to transfer billions of tax dollars from the middle and working-class to the white-collar criminals of Wall Street, who proceeded to punish themselves in the form of lavish bonuses. Meanwhile, the Justice Department administered slaps on the wrist in fines and refused to prosecute a single executive. Is it any surprise that Wall Street firms make up the top contributors to the Democratic Party, or that former Attorney General Eric Holder quickly found employment at a Wall Street firm upon leaving Washington?
Obama’s tonedeaf response to the criminal activity on Wall Street and an economic policy where more and more earnings go to the 1 percent while the wages of the median American have remained stagnant for decades, are all factors that led to the election of an unstable egomaniac with authoritarian tendencies.
While publicly promoting the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama maintained extensive military action in both of those nation-states and expanded the never-ending War on Terror to include Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Mali—all without authorization from Congress. Foot soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were stealthily replaced by unmanned drone strikes, creating even more unaccountability and resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent brown women and children. The rules of war were changed to consider any male over the age of 13 within a mile radius of a missile strike to be an enemy combatant. The Obama-approved assassination of American citizens without trial, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son, became accepted as the new norm.
In 2016 alone, the U.S. dropped 26,171 bombs on the combatants and civilians living in the countries I listed above. That equates to roughly 72 bombs a day or 3 bombs every hour. The use of special operations forces around the globe has increased 130 percent since the end of the Bush Administration.
Obama liked to champion himself as a defender of civil liberties and privacy, but in reality he supported a draconian expansion of the Patriot Act known as the NDAA, which allows police and military officers to hold American citizens in detention cells or camps without ever charging them for a crime. (This is already occurring on a regular basis in Chicago). Some now fear that the incoming president-elect will utilize the measure to quash protests and opposition. While holding his administration up as “the most transparent in history,” Obama reduced press access and was more hostile to whistleblowers than any other president in American history. More people were charged under the Espionage Act by the Obama Administration (7) than by all previous administrations combined (4). In many ways, his administration’s paranoia and obsession with secrecy has allowed the current Democratic Party’s red-baiting and the media’s Russian war propaganda to flourish. Courageous truth-tellers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who exposed widespread government surveillance and nefarious war crimes are forced to either live their lives in exile or languish in maximum-security prisons.
While the media and a delusional Israeli head of state may suggest otherwise, Obama’s diehard support for Israel resulted in the continuing genocide of the Palestinian people and the ongoing theft of their land. By the end of his presidency, Obama had provided Israel with more financial assistance and weapons than any other American leader in history—by a long shot.
Many people rightfully fear that the incoming president will detain and deport undocumented immigrants, but that train’s been chugging for a while now. In fact, President Obama has deported 2.5 million immigrants compared to 2 million individuals deported during the George W. Bush years.
When the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock stood up to defend their land from being exploited by rapacious oil pipeline profiteers, Obama stood curiosity silent. When the poor, largely African-American parents of Flint, Michigan discovered that their children had been poisoned by lead-tainted water due to government neglect, all Obama offered was lip service and a nationally-televised sip of water to assuage fears. When Black Lives Matter took to the streets to protest the rampant killings of young black males at the hands of law enforcement, Obama called the protesters “criminals and thugs.”
As I sit here ranting, I can’t help but think that is but a fraction of the many times our outgoing president showed a profound lack of courage and judgment in dealing with the nation’s affairs.
Many of the ugliest aspects of our country were either maintained or amplified under this president, either directly or as a result of his silence.
So, that’s why I write this. One of the more fascinating aspects of the opposition to Obama, generally led by FOX News and conservative talk radio, was this knee-jerk condemnation of the man and his policy proposals and everything he stood for that was often either lacking in truth and many times not based in reality at all. And unfortunately, I find that sentiment exists on the other side as well. As I scroll down my social media feed, too many people are quick to sing our president’s praises, and while I have no hard feelings for those celebrating the man and his finer achievements, unfortunately that’s not the whole story.
We would do much better to remember that Obama is not evil or infallible, but a human just like us, prone to moments of greatness as well as profound ooziness (err…stupidity). We would do well to heed his better bits of advice, particularly the bit about organizing for change, as well as to learn from his many mistakes.