President Obama’s Legacy in his Own Words Except Not

Many things are happening with people’s thinking as the Trump administration does its best to drag the world back to the dark ages. Large numbers are taking it as a wakeup call that the system is fundamentally broken. Others haven’t gotten that far yet, but are asking important questions. Still others are squeezing their eyes more tightly shut than ever and seem determined to continue the policies that got us here.  The political crisis within the Democratic Party between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters isn’t just an ideological difference, the depth and bitterness of the conflict reflects the hopelessness of reformism in the face of the world crisis of capitalism.

One feature of those determined not to let go of the Democratic Party, especially those who idealize Clinton, is the attempt to canonize President Obama, to paint a picture of him as some sort progressive hero.  I remember, though I didn’t share in it, the huge wave of hope that swept across broad masses of people at his election in 2008, followed by 7 1/2 years of increasing disappointment—I’m far from the only one who referred to his tenure as Bush 3 and 4.  This was followed, at the very end, by his rehabilitation among hardened Democrats as the nomination went to someone who clearly intended to continue his policies.  This is important to be aware of.   Most of us on the left found ourselves able to find more and more common ground with our liberal friends in disgust with Obama’s actions, until, as the election approached, these same individuals suddenly could find nothing but virtues in him, and if you didn’t agree you’d be told sardonically that he wasn’t “pure” enough for you.

Why does this matter?  Why am I going back to the previous presidency in discussing how to approach this one? Because, to put it in as simple terms as I can, we are never going to solve the problems that produced Trump while we idealize the 8 years that prepared the ground for him.

With this in mind, I’ve collected some quotes from his presidency.

“I did not want to open a war in five new countries, nor did I wish to incite civil war in Syria, I was forced to by the Republican controlled congress.”
— Barack Obama

“I would have prosecuted the Wall Street criminals—at least one of them—if I hadn’t been prevented from doing so by Republican intransigence.”
— Barack Obama

“Instructing Secretary Clinton to prevent the Haitians who worked for US corporations from achieving a modest wage increase was an action I was forced into by conservatives in Congress.”
— Barack Obama

“It is true that my administration deported more people, especially more children, than any other in history, but that was forced on me by the Republicans.”
— Barack Obama

“I feel terrible for the hundreds of thousands who were hurt by the two cuts I made to the food stamp program. It was a result of Republican majorities in the House and Senate.”
— Barack Obama

“I recognize that in the most vital civil rights case of my administration, the Hobby Lobby case, I instructed Justice to not argue it on First Amendment grounds, the most powerful argument, and that this permitted an important victory for the religious right. If the Democratic Party had had control of Congress, I would have been able to make a different decision.”
— Barack Obama

“The Patriot Act was extended against my will.”
— Barack Obama

“The need to compromise with Republicans unfortunately required instituting regime change in Libya, and aiding the neo-fascist coup in Ukraine.”
— Barack Obama

“Republican domination of the House and Senate prevented me from pushing for a climate policy in Paris that actually committed signatories to specific actions, rather than vague handwaving about intentions.”
— Barack Obama

“Spying on US citizens was something I would have stopped if there had been Democratic control of Congress.”
— Barack Obama

“The drastically increased use of drones to kill non-combatants, including American citizens, without due process, was something I could not avoid because of the Republicans.”
— Barack Obama

“I had hoped for a Democratic Congress in order to stop the racist and reactionary ‘war on drugs.'”
— Barack Obama

“Because of the need to work with Republicans, this administration was forced to prosecute more whistle-blowers than any other in history, which I consider unfortunate.”
— Barack Obama

“If it weren’t for Republican control of Congress, I would have had the Justice Department prosecute at least one murdering cop.”
— Barack Obama

“The drastic increase in income disparity is something I was prevented from fighting by Republicans.”
— Barack Obama

“With a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate we could have passed a health care bill that wasn’t based on more money passing from the pockets of workers to the health insurance companies.”
— Barack Obama

“The Republican majority in both Houses of Congress made it impossible to address the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, or prevent the thousands who are now being evicted there for failing to pay the bill for the poison they’re required to buy.”
— Barack Obama

“All of my efforts to prevent police militarization were forestalled by Congressional Republicans.”
— Barack Obama

“This is an intramural scrimmage . . . we’re all on the same team.”
— Barack Obama
November 9, 2016

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27 thoughts on “President Obama’s Legacy in his Own Words Except Not”

  1. As someone who worked on getting the ACA support, the original hopes for the bill were significantly better, including public option, and amendments offered by republicans one of the major problems. Not to imply there wasn’t plenty of bullshit on the Dem side, as well, but I remember what it looked like in October of 09…

    Otherwise, I have no quibbles with this list.

  2. Obama and Trump both suffer from the same hubris (though the former was, at least, more of a gentleman about it). They also have/had the same woefully wrong beliefs about what being President lets them do.

    1. You’re President not King. You cannot rule by decree. When you try to do that, bad things happen.
    2. The box that any one person gets to maneuver in is a lot smaller than you thought it was.
    3. The government’s inertia is greater than your power (for good or bad).
    4. The government’s inertia is less than the inertia of the economy (for good or bad).
    5. The economy’s inertia is so large that it takes years to play out.
    6. You don’t get to simultaneously forever blame your predecessor for anything bad that happens on your watch while taking immediate credit for anything good that happens.
    7. It’s not a one-party system, no matter how much you want it to be.
    8. That’s not the hand of God on your shoulder. That’s the… you know… of the Devil stuck up your… you know. The problem is that to the ignorant and the arrogant, the two sensations are identical.
    9. Governing is hard work.

    What both Obama and Trump (and, let’s be honest, Hillary and Sanders) DID learn:

    1. The electorate responds to divisive messaging. You can buy the presidency by making your supporters hate your opponent’s supporters as much as they hate your opponent. Inducing Balkanization pays.
    2. Money money money. Can’t let them eat cake without breaking a few million nest-eggs!
    3. The mantra of “change is good”, though false as often as true (hey, Germany changed in 1933, so that was good!), can be used to sell almost anything.
    4. The mantra of “it’s the other guy’s fault” can be used to sell anything (no “almost”).
    5. By alienating the center so they stay home you reduce the fight to extremists-only, and lessons 1-4 can be used to power up YOUR extremists.

    And so it goes. Lather, rinse, ruin, repeat.

  3. @Caerdwyn,
    I think the point skzb makes is about things that Obama definitely could have done, despite Congress, but did not.

    We are not pointing at the laws he never had the chance to sign because of the Republicans, and we are not pointing at the executive orders that are being rescinded by his successor. We are pointing at the things he could have done but did not.

    Like skzb said, *nothing* stopped the President from directing the Justice Department to investigate the real estate and financial crisis and start prosecutions. He was elected in large part due to his speeches about “main street instead of Wall Street”, and then did not act.

    And the man had a section on his 2008 campaign website devoted to praising whistleblowers that revealed unethical action in government agencies. Where, then, is Edward Snowden’s pardon?

    And even if Obama was strictly focused on maintaining power, if he had done those “appease the masses” things like cutting back on the War on Drugs, prosecuting people for financial fraud and real estate fraud, defending privacy rights, vetoed attempts to cut the Food Stamps program – his party (whether you love them or hate them) would be in the White House right now. I am certain those actions would have been enough to swing the election to Hillary Clinton’s favor.

  4. @Mike S,

    Agreed. Regardless of what the Democratic Party was or was not, the election was theirs to lose.

    And they did. Hubris 2.0

    I’m actually kinda curious. What do you guys think of Elizabeth Warren?

  5. Your reminder that Obama always was who he turned out to be:

    Adolph Reed, writing in the Village Voice in 1996: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

  6. Caerdwyn, as triangulating politicians go, she’s not bad, but the fact she wouldn’t endorse Sanders and jumped to Clinton when it was clear the fix was in says all I need to know. It’s hard to speculate, but her support early on might’ve been enough to get Sanders the nomination, and then we’d have very different frustrations than we have today.

  7. Thank you skzb. Excellent summary. Thank you all, excellent comments.

  8. Very clever way of making your point, which is a good one. I confess I am one of the many on the left who started out happy with Obama, especially his speeches, then became disillusioned by his policies as president, and finally came full circle to really miss his competence and grace now that he’s gone. An excellent reminder that we shouldn’t settle for level-headed intelligence, we should demand justice and progressive policies. Trump has lowered the bar.

  9. I don’t miss Obama’s slicker and more genteel faux populism, employed to conceal his ruthless policies in service to the twin brides of international capital and the war machine.

  10. Thanks, Agentum. However much we agree or disagree, it’s good to know that the point I was trying to make came across. I appreciate your saying so.

    Kragar: Yes, that.

  11. When you do less investigating of the 2008 crisis than Bush did of the late 80s crisis, yes there is a problem with “progressive” politics in the United States.

    As far as I can tell we are being given a menu of open fascism and establishment conservative politics. In 2020 the script is we are supposed to be immensely grateful to “get our democracy” back from Trump. If we complain, we’ll be told it’s people like us that caused Trump and why would be stupid/evil enough to let “them” win again.

  12. Obama provided a seeming respite from the over-reach/incompetence of the Bush administration. That plateau of expectations paved the way for Trump’s election and allowed the Bar Of Acceptability to be lowered so far (or pushed so far right, pick your metaphoric direction) that there’s been a shifting of our expectations. What was once inconceivable is now, “Hey, at least it’s not Trump!”

    This is the desired outcome of elections in a Brutalist Economy. It is what happens when Citizens become Consumers. If you can no longer consume, then you are of no use to society.

  13. It’s funny that the ACA is a Republican plan that is associated with Obama. (Much of Obama’s neo-liberal philosophy is to the right of Nixon). But Republicans are willing to work in secret to eliminate it. If that is because of Obama, then they are disrespecting the office. If it’s because their bosses pay them to get rid of it, then it is standard corruption. At any rate, “Trump Care” will give Democrats a platform that could win for them. (The better plan – eliminating the perception that Washington is owned by Big Money can’t work unless they eliminate the fact that Washington is owned by Big Money, and they don’t want to go that far). Of course, a great fantasy would be if Trump jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon, to watch the fallout with both parties!

  14. I find it interesting that anyone can discuss the Obama Presidency and ignore the fact he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression. An economy that by some measures was *worse* than the Great Depression.

    This is especially interesting in that it gave us a rare opportunity to observe an economics laboratory experiment; austerity vs government stimulus as an economic policy response. The results are clear that those (few) countries that responded with government stimulus packages fared better than those that didn’t.

    Of course the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also gives lie to the false equivalence so often drawn here between the two parties. As wiki notes: “On January 28, 2009, the House passed the bill by a 244–188 vote.[8] All but 11 Democrats voted for the bill, and 177 Republicans voted against it (one Republican did not vote).”

  15. “Of course the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also gives lie to the false equivalence so often drawn here between the two parties.”

    On the one hand, an utterly inadequate plan that mostly helped the 0.001%.

    On the other hand, something that looks completely crazy.

    Mean or stupid, which is worse?

    Democrats and Republicans, which is the mean one and which is the stupid one?

  16. Also, once again, no one is saying the two parties are the same. Neither party is a left party. One party is basically moderate right and has a large bloc (the neo-liberals) who want it to stay there.
    The other party is completely nuts. Unfortunately, we are under the sway of the completely nuts side at the moment.

  17. Depending on what their goals are – both parties are “the stupid one”. Being mean might get you power – in the short term. Is that smart? Being corrupt can let you compete in the short term. Is that smart? Living in the short term can get you power – and you can use that power to do good. But if your goal is to make your district, your state, your country, and/or the world better in the long term, is the cost too much? The smartest strategies depend upon your goals and priorities.

  18. This “false equivalency” nonsense is so transparently rubbish. For there to be a false equivalency, there has to be a *claim* of equivalency. No such claim has ever been made. It is a classic straw man.

  19. You continue to surprise me, sir. I already knew that you were a multi-faceted artist to some degree, but I was not aware black satire was part of your repertoire. Not since Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. have I been caused to both laugh out of humor and cry from sadness simultaneously.

  20. I have seen the equivalency claim made sometimes on Facebook. When I see it, it’s usually a throwaway comment. “They’re both the same”.

    Rather more often I see a lesser equivalency claim that goes “They’re both just as bad”. This is a judgement call and not subject to a search for objective truth. Say somebody thinks that gun control is one of the big horrors of the modern world. In his judgement that might balance out something that you would think makes the Republicans worse. Is gun control really that bad? Who gets to decide which person’s judgement is right? I do. I am the ultimate authority when it comes to whose judgement calls are right or wrong.

    I pretty often see the claim “They both have the same owners”. This is a lesser claim still. If you get a Chevrolet Spark or a Cadillac Escoville you are not at all getting the same car, but you pay GM either way. The same owners could offer us two different products. The different products could perform differently except when the owners care about the result.

    And it might be different owners. There could be two different sets of oligarchs. One of them is more conservative and wants to stomp on us so we don’t get airs. The other is more liberal and wants to help the little people out of the kindness of their hearts. Do you like that story? I can tell another one but not until bedtime.

    The two parties are two different brands. Of course they have special flavors to make them distinct. If they were both just generic parties with nothing distinctive about them, they would both be Brand X.

  21. Jonah–

    I agree with you. The superficial differences are critical to the entire wheeze. Voters can choose, every four years, which absolutely reliable member of the .01% will be the “leader.” Do you want to leader who will serve Wall Street and the MIC but pay lip service to equality for LGBTQ folks? Or would you prefer the leader who will serve Wall Street and the MIC but will also have extreme views on gun rights, prayer in schools, and will discuss outlawing abortion without actually doing so? Take your pick, America, and then, as Bill Hicks said “Go back to sleep.”

  22. This is funny. But I never believed Obama would be “a progressive hero”. Why? Because he made no real promises and issued no manifesto.

    I’m from UK. Our political parties issue printed manifestos. Why don’t yours? American two-party politics is a puppet show for children.

    Obama is a slick nonentity. Trump is a forthright nut. The US public has voted for the nut.

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