A Backwards Glance at the Obama Years
By Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
Much of the Democratic Party--the establishment elements of it, anyways--seem to habitually engage in a sort of wistful pining for the bygone days when Obama was president. Then, they say, was an era of civility and decency: government by worthy men, when the policy debates were always productive and the tomato soup in the Capitol cafeteria was never oversalted. The president was an intelligent man of principle, who governed ethically and with great care, who guided the American ship of state as it rode the upward wave of greatness which has been growing ever higher since 1776. The Obama era, they will tell you, was the twilight age of the essentially good governance that America has always maintained--before the vicious and evil aberration of Trumpism came entirely out of left field and set the whole thing on fire. Obama was everything good about the past, they say: reasonable, ethical, civil, and full of eloquent appeals to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Why can’t we go back to that? they ask. The old days were golden days.
This, of course, ignores most of reality--and yet it essentially sustains Joe Biden’s campaign for president and still enamores much of the Democratic Party in its trammels of unfounded nostalgia. A factual look back at the Obama administration, stripped of the myth-making which so thoroughly envelops it, hardly paints a pretty picture.
It’s worth noting the circumstances under which Obama took office. The economy had tanked; the big banks which had been called “too big to fail” were failing and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was growing worse in runaway fashion. Millions of Americans were out of work. Obama had promised “hope and change” and encouraged Americans to say yes we can--but his handling of the crisis hardly left him looking like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In response to the big banks teetering on the verge of collapse because of their own misconduct, the government bailed out the banks to save them from going out of business--spending billions of dollars to keep fundamentally unethical organizations from destroying themselves and foisting that cost on the taxpayer. Obama’s first major piece of legislation to combat the crisis--the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act--was watered down to make it palatable to Republicans, which still enticed exactly no Republican representative to vote for it. What resulted was an essentially fiscally conservative law that was far too weak to deal with the crisis that it was supposed to address. Instead of the massive federal investment in public works that the New Deal had employed to lower the rate of joblessness and fight economic stagnation, the Recovery Act offered 51 billion dollars worth of tax incentives to corporations and paltry amounts for social welfare programs. The Act set a trend for much of the next two years: watering down legislation in order to make it acceptable to Republicans (for the sake of the veneer of bipartisanship), only to find that Republicans would not vote for it anyways. The Dodd-Frank banking reform act followed suit. Again, it provided the useful appearance of reform without cutting to the heart of the problem: that the big banks could play dangerous games with other people’s money, then expect the government to take on their losses. The people who were responsible for the crisis suffered no consequences, and the legislation Obama pushed was based more on the appearance of fixing the problem than actually doing it.
Most Democrats look back on Obamacare with a great degree of fondness; a heroic legislative achievement that may or may not be expanded upon at some point in the future if the government feels like getting around to it. It is essentially a good law, they say, something which reined in the excesses of the American health care industry--when in fact the opposite is true. In spite of having a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, the Obama administration again pursued a middle-of-the-road policy in the hopes that Republicans would find it palatable and vote for it--which none of them did. The public health insurance option was cut out of the bill, leaving a law that essentially relied on the same private health insurance providers to suddenly behave ethically when they had not done so before. The law actually drove prices up; health insurance costs rose faster than the average national income in the years following the implementation of the act. Insurance companies still have the ability to reel in consumers with artificially low initial plan costs and then tack on an avalanche of hidden fees, to demand double-digit premium increases, and to exclude certain kinds of specialty care that is often the most expensive. Health care is no less expensive, insurance companies no less abusive. Obamacare did not address the inherent exploitation and abusiveness of the American healthcare system--it merely hung new drapes on a window that had been broken for a long time.
Obama’s administration hardly fought to make America a force for good in the world. Interventions in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq expanded the undeclared global war, and the conflict in Afghanistan was prolonged indefinitely. An air strike on a Yemeni wedding killed more than 20 civilians. American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was extrajudicially executed by drone strike in 2011, and his 16 year old son--born in Denver, Colorado, and entitled to all the rights supposedly afforded a citizen of the United States--faced the same fate two weeks later. Everywhere, under Obama’s watch, drones and fighter aircraft encircled the world and wreaked suffering and destruction in undeclared, covert wars--all watched over in saintly fashion by the better angels of our nature.
The Orwellian national security apparatus stretched its tentacles still further under Obama. Under codenamed programs like PRISM and Carnivore, the NSA and other intelligence organizations gained the ability to collect Americans internet and communication records and store them indefinitely. Indefinite detention without trial continued under Obama’s watch, with the prison at Guantanamo Bay remaining open and a network of CIA black sites--prisons for the extrajudicial detention of suspects--encircle the world in a veil of secrecy. The vaguely totalitarian Patriot Act--which laid the groundwork for mass surveillance and provided the ability for law enforcement to search property without the owner’s consent or knowledge--was gleefully renewed by Obama’s signature in 2011. When whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner attempted to disclose the illegal activities of the national security state, they were either forced into exile or thrown in prison. All by the administration of a man who had once taught constitutional law.
All of this together does not stop the nostalgia. We remember the warm and fuzzy feelings he gave us when he talked about hope, and how he exhorted us to boldly advance towards nothing in particular. But all the prettily-strung together words in the world cannot undo action, and all the progressive talk cannot overshadow the regressive acts. We ought to remember Barack Obama for what he was: a betrayal of his own high-flown principle, a man who promised so much and delivered so little, and who left the working people of this land grasping for a hand to save them from drowning while he recited platitudes about the better angels of our nature.
Remember this every time Joe Biden fondly recalls his time working with “Barack.” Remember this every time the candidates at a Democratic debate are forced into a circle of agreement about how excellent the achievements of the Obama presidency are and how we must take them as our starting point for anything in the future. Remember this every time a cable news host sighs for the bygone days of peace and civility. There is nothing civil about endless war and leaving oppressive systems untouched when one has the power to change them. There is nothing decent about imprisoned whistleblowers and indefinitely detained prisoners. There is nothing to be nostalgic for, nor anything to be proud of, nor anything to look back fondly on. If we want to return to the days of the past, then let us return to the time when the mass of us toiled away in the wheatfields of some feudal lord, so that at least we may live without the base hypocrisy of claiming a desire to “progress” when all we do is regress.
So I say, as he did, yes we can! Yes we can bomb wedding receptions in Yemen! Yes we can decline to prosecute bankers when they break the law! Yes we can illegally and indefinitely detain prisoners! Yes we can moderate for no true purpose! Yes we can sell the poor down the river! Yes we can have a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich! Yes we can wage endless war! Yes we can!
We already have. And we can again, if we’re not careful.