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Obama Audacity

Reader Feedback: Obama's Audacity of Hope?—Jaime O'Neill

We had it, The Audacity of Hope, those eight years ago. It seemed a new beginning for a country cursed from the cradle with racism, to have elected a young, accomplished biracial man with a vision of unity in pursuit of our common goals. That his successor, after a campaign unrivaled in divisiveness and mendacity, is Donald Trump, tells us how well that new beginning went.

Barack Obama certainly had the vision of a society that could come together to make life better for everyone. His life story gave him that vision. Son of a white academic mother who died young, and an absent Kenyan father, he was raised in Kansas by his mother’s parents. Even as he learned that his appearance would always make him a black man in this society, he also became fluent in the culture and language of white middle America. His intellectual gifts opened the way to a first class education. His rhetorical talents put him on a fast track to political success, culminating in his election as one of the youngest Presidents. Along the way he was joined by an equally talented wife, Michelle, and two fine daughters to make up an ideal family. There were no surprises, no improprieties, no scandals in the First Family of Barack Obama. Why wouldn’t he be optimistic?

And yet, on balance, he failed. We all failed.

While democracy cannot work without opposition and conflict, we have failed to remember how to have those while maintaining civility and mutual respect.

Obama failed principally because he had a contradictory agenda: both bringing the country together and enacting a sweeping progressive program. He didn’t recognize until much too late that since the mid-1990s the country had become far too polarized politically to be pulled together on anything of substance. Health care reform, his signature issue, floundered even in a Democratic-controlled Congress because Obama kept making concessions in pursuit of bipartisanship. In the end he got no such support, but the major weaknesses of what the Republicans derisively called Obamacare were results of concessions made to Republicans.

Obama inherited an economy in free fall toward another Great Depression. Just stopping the bleeding consumed much of the rest of his attention. With nothing but carping criticism from the Republicans, we have still had a quite impressive recovery—for which Obama gets no credit. That we did no better was largely due to long-term income stagnation among middle- and working-class people, who thus had little disposable income with which to stimulate the economy. Obama never seriously confronted this issue: that was for Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Obama was famously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after his election and before he had actually done anything. The Committee apparently had the audacity to hope that he would be a major force for peace. In his acceptance speech, he cited Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism as his touchstone for action on the world stage: while we are all sinners, that does not excuse us from using force to defend against tyranny and aggression, if peaceful avenues are exhausted.

His implementation of that Niebuhrian principle was messy and inconsistent at best. Inheriting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were bloody, costly and inconclusive, he failed to completely extricate us from either, but kept our presence to much lower levels than under George W. Bush. In an era of turmoil in the Middle East, he tried to support and manage the changes unleashed by the Arab Spring, but largely failed. He got rid of Gaddafi in Libya without direct US military intervention, but was stuck with chronic anarchy—and Benghazi. He tried to support democratization in Egypt, but ended up having to accept a new military dictatorship. He tried, like all previous post-WWII presidents, to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, but he failed. Perhaps his biggest failure was to try to support anti-Assad rebels in Syria while being clearly unwilling to commit troops and unable to sort out which rebels, after all, would be both democratic and effective. Confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine, Obama could have realistically accepted that Ukraine is part of the Russian sphere of influence. Or he could have had a direct military response to aid Ukraine. Not liking either option, he chose sanctions which proved ultimately ineffective. Niebuhr would have been the first to point out that you will be ineffective in such situations if you do not credibly threaten the use of force.

But if Obama can point to one clear success on the international scene, it is that (as they said about Woodrow Wilson in 1916) he kept us out of war. He didn’t get us fully out of the wars he inherited, but at least he didn’t start any new ones. His counterterrorism strategy (especially the use of drones to assassinate bad guys) is disquieting but effective: we have gotten rid of a significant number of sworn enemies at a cost to innocent bystanders that is far smaller than would have resulted from conventional military operations. Due only to Republican obstructionism, he has at this writing failed to close the prison at Guantánamo, though he has greatly reduced the number of inmates.

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Obama rationally calculated that we should not remain bogged down in the Middle East when we have diminishing vital interests there. But in the end he could not execute the announced Pivot to Asia, because he could not extricate us from the Middle East.

Obama’s political staff failed, most consequentially in their failure to respond effectively to Republican attacks in the 2010 midterm election. Indeed, the pattern was set in the special election early that year to replace the late Senator Kennedy. Even though the seat was key to a filibuster-proof majority, it was apparently assumed that Martha Coakley was a sure thing. The national party should have been all over that race. Scott Brown’s upset set the tone for the year.

The significance of Republican victories in November 2010 is simply overwhelming. While Democrats kept their Senate majority for awhile longer, the House saw a big Republican majority. Even worse, Republicans won many governorships and took over majorities in the majority of state legislatures. They were ready. After the 2010 census, both the US House and legislative chambers were up for reapportionment, and plans were enacted across the country that locked in those Republican majorities for the rest of the decade. For the Democrats, 2010 was a strategic defeat in which the vaunted Obama electoral machine was never effectively engaged. Add to that the hundreds of substantive laws passed which yanked the country sharply to the right on a wide range of issues.

Though Obama himself was easily reelected in 2012, he and his political staff failed the Democrats, big time.

Now having spent so much time on the painful task of critiquing Obama’s tenure, let me turn to the Republicans. They have been the major victors of the whole Obama presidency, and they stand today in a position of nationwide dominance that we haven’t seen since at least the 1920s. And yet they too have failed. Presented with a president who was widely liked at the start (and even still today), who was manifestly anxious to find common ground so that he could achieve his ambition of bringing the country together, the response of the GOP, from its base to its top leaders, was total opposition, mendacious, racist demonization, and unremitting obstruction, even when it meant abandoning positions they had previously held, so the they would never be found on the same side as Obama.

Vitally supported by the right-wing media (which now have a place of honor and power in the Trump administration), Republicans systematically debased the quality of public discourse and cynically paralyzed not only the Federal government, but any states where they lacked total control. What they have lost in this tawdry display of power for the sake of power, is any sense that the interests of the country might not be the same as the interests of the party. That way lies tyranny.

Finally, we—all of us—have failed. We have failed to cherish the ideals of our democracy, we have failed to take seriously the obligations of citizenship in such a democracy, including most immediately participating actively in our own local communities. While democracy cannot work without opposition and conflict, we have failed to remember how to have those while maintaining civility and mutual respect. We’ve failed to call our leaders to account when they run for office by disrespecting, even demonizing their opponents (“Trump unqualified!”, “Crooked Hillary!”).

john peeler

And so, we deserve what we get. Let’s try to do better.

John Peeler