Of all the traditions followed by the Washington, D.C. press corps during the start of a new president’s time in office, none is more insidious than “The First 100 Days.” There’s an expectation that what the leader of the free world does during that time will define his presidency for good or ill; with this prefab narrative in place, the fourth estate is all too happy to report events within that framework. And while it feels nice to think something as enormous and impactful as the American presidency can be so easily defined, it simply isn’t true. A vastly more accurate portrait can be drawn a few years in, when the hype has died down, victories have emboldened and losses left their sting, and the everyday business of keeping a country of over 300 million running and safe is a weight upon his shoulders.
Since I decided to end Re:Generator, the question of Barack Obama has been foremost on my mind. While we never limited ourselves to politics alone, a great swath of our content has been political in nature. In the 2008 election cycle, Re:Generator tended to have a pro-Obama bias, although cast through the lens of deep political cynicism (Perhaps a better way of putting it is we were even more cynical about Hillary Clinton than we were about Obama, and our cynicism extended further still when it came to the Republican field of candidates.). Before we recede into shadows, I feel it would behoove us to revisit our expectations around him, as well as charting the highs and lows of his actions so far. When I told a friend about my plans, he posed a question he thought deserved answering: Is Obama as bad – or worse – than George W. Bush, considering many of his actions echo his predecessor’s? It’s a controversial question to ask, but we’ve never shied away from controversy. I intend to give my friend his answer. And so it is we take a steely look at the first two-and-a-half years of the 44th president of the United States…
In part one, I revisited my cautious hopes and dreams for the Obama administration, which they exceeded beyond my wildest imaginings – if the phrase “exceeded beyond my wildest imaginings” now means “failed to deliver on many of their campaign promises, and went about things the wrong way much of the time.” In The first two-and-a-half years‘ riveting conclusion, I turn my eye to the specifics of Obama’s record. What has he done? What hasn’t he done? And what does it all mean?
Every president has their apologists and hero worshippers, those for whom their Commander-in-Chief was lovingly sent to earth by God Almighty, His every word and deed a thing of divine grace. If Dear Leader, in His infinite wisdom, did do wrong, it wasn’t His fault. They accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, write glowing biographies and publish websites with ironic titles like What The Fuck Has Obama Done So Far? No apologist is completely off the mark – unless a president spends every moment of his working day pillaging, murdering, consorting with demons and eating human flesh, a good deed here or there is bound to come out of the White House.
In that vein, Barack Obama reversed the global gag rule on foreign family planning services that made US aid contingent on their avoidance of offering or even talking about abortion. In a further show of respect for science and medicine, he repealed the ban on federal funding of stem cell research put in place during the Bush era. The Obama’s have advocated for healthy eating while avoiding the self-righteousness that can turn some Americans off to the message. Under Obama, the FDA has finally been allowed to regulate tobacco; not take it out of smokers hands, as the hysterics would bleat, but to prevent minors from ever getting hooked in the first place.
B-Rock is obsessed with keeping most of us alive, it seems. With his eye to the long term, he negotiated the New START treaty with Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries, cutting the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half, and establishing a new inspection and verification regime. There’s still a long way to go before the two countries’ stockpiles have been abolished, but some action on this front is better than none, and extends the spirit of “trust but verify” cooperation initiated by president Reagan in the 1980s. Obama has improved veteran services, expanded the children’s health insurance program significantly, and gave the country a small taste of health care reform (but more on that later).
President Obama pushed for, and got, a credit card bill of rights and established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Detroit was sinking under the weight of its own SUVs, the president took a politically unpopular stance and bailed out the auto companies, on the condition the government help them restructure. The Big Three came out of the experience better off than they’d been in years.
Unlike his predecessor, O made finding Osama bin Laden a priority, and the sustained focus paid off when the leader of al-Qaeda was assassinated in a manner befitting a Call of Duty game. His administration repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (eventually) and stopped defending the Defence of Marriage Act in court, declaring it unconstitutional (eventually). He made fair and equal pay a reality by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law, and took countless smaller steps to create an atmosphere friendlier to racial and sexual minorities.
Obama’s apologists are correct to cite his record on these matters. But the road his presidency is winding down is littered with missed opportunities.
Chief among them is the economy. In a time of flux, where the window for change was as open as it had been since the Great Depression, the president instead chose to focus his energies on propping up the ruling class. to the detriment of the middle and lower classes. Confronted with caustic excess, he could only assure the American people he felt our pain. Wall Street reform, when it did come, was tepid, nebulous, too open to interpretation by the same regulators who had failed to prevent financial meltdown in the first place. All that would have galled, but wouldn’t have been ire-inspiring at the levels they were, had we been given the stimulus package we needed, not the one Republicans said they would accept while holding their noses. Much loathed by the GOP (though not so much its governors wouldn’t take credit for the programs their constituents liked), the stimulus was inadequate, as this zombie economy of ours can surely attest. Perhaps Obama should have made a renewed focus on creating jobs before kicking off Health Care Reform.
“Obamacare,” or Health Care Reform, is a vast repository of “woulda coulda shoulda” scenarios. All-too-aware of the “HillaryCare” debacle of the 1990s, Obama’s administration learned the wrong lesson from the past. They were too cautious, too willing to leave it all up to Congress. And Congress, as the endless months of back-and-forth cemented for all time, is full of callous pricks who will spew false, incendiary rhetoric to please the money men keeping them in office. If Barack Christ, National Healer was ever truly for the public option, his hands-off approach and inveterate Fabianism doomed it, giving citizens a health care system nearly as broken as the pre-reform one. His eventual victory, slight as it was, inflamed a burgeoning tea party whose rage had been allowed to build as negotiations dragged on. Those of us not already retired and on Medicare were freed from the fear of being denied insurance for pre-existing conditions, while requiring we have insurance without offering the mechanisms to make it affordable or even free. Health Care Reform, then, was in actuality Insurance Reform, and Insurance Reform that panned out in favor of the insurance companies, at that.
All but the moon-eyed were confounded when Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize – as “encouragement,” said the Nobel committee. The chances he’s had to earn that prize have been squandered. Forget foolhardy foreign ventures for a moment; he can’t even close Guantanamo. He made a show of appearing serious about cutting the Pentagon budget, before turning around and gorging the Military-Industrial Complex. He won’t even make soft steps toward peace, refusing the end the Cuba trade embargo.
Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the churning environmental disaster along the Gulf Coast that dwarfed Exxon Valdez? It was bad enough that Obama ended up with egg on his face by touting deepwater drilling days before the event. It was worse when he didn’t respond to the spill as quickly as he should have. Worst of all, though, was failing to enact the comprehensive climate policy that had been languishing in the Senate. America was primed by images of black tar rising from the bottom of the ocean to kill sea life, and he couldn’t even get his act together to enact a major part of his agenda.
Oh, but it gets worse. Those with delicate dispositions are urged to turn back while they still can. We arrived at what the Obama administration is doing wrong. Not neglectfully, not accidentally, not with the best of intentions, but knowingly and actively. They’re the kind of activities that make one question whether there’s a point to voting at all, since whoever’s in charge will support the excesses of American power. Ready?
Barack Obama is following in George W. Bush’s footsteps on War Powers, starting and continuing conflicts without the formal assent of a congressional body. Conflicts such as Libya, the clearly-not-secret-enough bombing of Yemen, drone wars in Pakistan and Somalia (In Glenn Greenwald’s estimation, at least, this makes Obama worse than Bush). When we aren’t dropping bombs on repressive regimes, there’s a good chance we’re supporting them. America’s occupation of Iraq ended in name only, while our stay in Afghanistan meanders on with no hint we’ll be pulling out any time soon. For every time he butts head with Israel, there are two where he sabotages Palestine. It was his Texan braggadocio that pushed Bush to label himself a “war president.” Just because he knows better than to say it openly doesn’t make Obama any less of one.
If you can believe it, whistleblowers are punished more than ever under president Obama. The best known whistleblower is Bradley Manning, who is being indefinitely detained for his part in the release of WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs. Manning isn’t alone in confinement purgatory – Obama signed an executive order that formalized indefinite detention without trial. They don’t deserve Miranda rights, either. And we’re still torturing, were you aware? What was a moral outrage to Democrats in the Bush years gets crickets now, yet their discomfort doesn’t make what happens at Bagram any less real. Obama’s comfortable with targeting American citizens for assassination, and even okay with child soldiers – so long as they’re fighting terrorists.
The news isn’t any better on the domestic front. Big Brother is larger than ever under his watch, as surveillance of Americans is expanded. He extended the Patriot Act, is pushing for the removal of anonymity on the Internet, and has directed the Justice Department to target activists. To date, over 2,600 have been arrested.
Trends George W. Bush started in a shroud of secrecy, Barack Obama has brought out in the open and legitimized.
Perhaps the president finds war and spying so easy because even in the currently hyperpartisan atmosphere of Washington, D.C., on matters of national security they’re holding hands and making googly eyes at each other. When things are more contentious, however, Obama caves to the GOP ad absurdum, showing an aggravating willingness to trade or shave important programs to appease them, in effect punishing the poor. By renewing the Bush tax cuts, he didn’t help anyone but the rich, and kept billions of much-needed funds from going into the federal government’s coffers. It’s Clintonesque, which should be no surprise, all things considered…
The president keeps the drug war chugging along, filling America’s already crowded prisons with more non-violent offenders. We already have more prisoners than any other countries in the world, but why should that give us pause? That’s not even including secret ICE prisons, a phenomenon that should give anyone with a cursory knowledge of Latin American history in the second half of the 20th century reason to shiver. While little happens in the way of immigration reform on the legislative level, the Obama administration is more aggressively enforcing immigration laws than any other administration in modern American history. Let’s get those illegals back to Mexico! Where the ATF runs guns in a scheme that could in no conceivable way have major blowback!
There’s a lot to answer for, to those who know the right questions to ask. How does president Obama deal with the disappointment and revulsion at certain of his policies from the people who helped get him elected? He tells us to “stop whining” and “buck up.” Obamamania is dead, and we’re sifting through the rubble. Is Barack Obama an empty suit that works better as a brand than as a president, like Naomi Klein has written? Is he, as I’ve been wont to compare him to from time to time, like Transmetropolitan’s The Smiler?
Is he worse than George W. Bush? In matters on the imperial presidency, I’m inclined to say yes. Bush started it, and for that he deserves blame and scorn, but Obama continued it when he could have reigned it in before it calcified. Instead, he built on the unchecked executive powers, imperialistic ventures, big brotherism and all the rest, and he knew full well what he was doing. Obama wasn’t some coke-addled rube living off his father’s money until he found Jesus – he used to teach constitutional law. He can’t plead ignorance. He’s only put a better face on the same wretched bullshit. As for his domestic policy, he’s the best Republican president from 20 years ago the GOP could ask for. If they hadn’t swerved so far to the right in the time since and gone temporarily blind with hatred, they might appreciate it. You know who was more liberal on the home front than Obama? Richard M. Nixon, default political bogeyman until the the W. years. You know who, not on style but on the substance of his policies, I’d rather have leading the country? Richard M. Nixon.
It’s worse than I thought when I’m yearning for the Halcyon days just before Watergate.