Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Barack Obama: Great President Or The Greatest President?

With apologies to Stephen Colbert, the title of this post is not meant as parody (for the most part).

Not that I don't have serious issues with some of Obama's policies and positions.  His refusal to investigate, much less prosecute, the Bush Administration officials who authorized torture and lied us into war remains his most egregious mistake.  (See Just Some Folks Torturing Other Folks.)  His unwillingness to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis is another glaring failure.  His resort to drone warfare is a deeply troubling approach to national security.  And his first term was badly marred by an infuriating inability to recognize or confront the utterly obstructionist nature of the Republicans in Congress.

While far from perfect, I would argue that Obama's presidency -- particularly in light of the domestic and foreign shitpiles he inherited and the racially and politically motivated efforts by the GOP to oppose everything Obama -- has been a transformative one, and should be ranked as one of the greatest. 

Obama has resuscitated a key pillar of liberalism  -- discredited not only by Republicans but by the last Democrat in the White House -- that big government can be an important, positive force in the lives of Americans.  The Affordable Care Act is not ideal, but it has provided health insurance for more than sixteen million people who were previously uninsured.  Its success has instilled in a majority of Americans the notion that health care is not just a benefit, but a right.  Indeed, the panic among Republicans concerning the potential political fallout, when it appeared that the Supreme Court might invalidate the portion of the Act that provided federal subsidies in conservative-leaning states which had failed to set up exchanges, speaks volumes about how quickly expectations about government-mandated health care have changed.  [Updated: see Obama's Mic Drop in Flint]

The nuclear arms deal with Iran provides a stark contrast between the Obama Presidency and the dead-enders in the GOP, whose response to every international crisis seems to be a call for bombs in the air and boots on the ground.  Particularly since 9/11, but really since the Cold War, our foreign policy has been dominated by fear --  resulting in overreactions to real and perceived threats out of fear of attack from abroad and fear of being called weak at home. 

Recall Obama's response to a question during the 2008 campaign about whether he would be willing to negotiate with our adversaries without preconditions:  "I would," he said, reasoning that "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration — is ridiculous."  As Dylan Matthews writes, what was then considered by many to be a "gaffe" now feels like a statement of purpose:  "Obama has reestablished productive diplomacy as the central task of a progressive foreign policy, and as a viable alternative approach to dealing with countries the GOP foreign policy establishment would rather bomb."  This thoughtful, measured approach to foreign policy has also led to ending the pointlessly destructive embargo with Cuba.

The president of the United States has the unique ability to use his lofty position as a bully pulpit -- to give a powerful voice to issues and ideas that might otherwise be muffled.  At least in his second term, Obama has embraced this prerogative with intelligence, passion and grace unparalleled in recent times -- and he has done it on the most fraught of subjects.  Obama's discussion of race in America is helping to upend the long-held whitewashed and uncritical narrative of our moral superiority and exceptionalism, building momentum to forge meaningful policy changes that can begin to repair the long-lasting damage caused by slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism.  His speech on the 50th anniversary of Selma (see President Obama's Exceptional Speech) encouraged us to confront our shameful past -- "loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths." And, as he explained in his eulogy for Rev. Pickney in Charleston, it isn't just about the past: "for too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present."   

The Charleston speech, known mostly for Obama's poignant rendition of Amazing Grace, covered a wide swath: gun violence ("for too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation"), the Confederate flag ("a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation" and removing it from the state capitol "would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history"), the pervasiveness of racism ("maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal"), and voting rights ("so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.")

This was followed by a series of remarkable moves aimed at highlighting the unjust nature of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects men of color and has led to mass incarceration.  Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people, most of whom were serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. He delivered a speech proposing wide-ranging reforms at the annual convention of the NAACP, where he pointed  out that "a growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime."  He talked about root causes of crime and police abuses, calling for investment in early childhood education, police reform, ending mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and reducing the use of solitary confinement. 

And then, Obama visited a federal prison -- the first president to do so (though, it must be said that certain of his Republican predecessors should have been more than visitors).  This simple but unprecedented act acknowledged the humanity of the incarcerated -- in this case, those serving mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses -- and further underscored the human toll of thoughtless, overly punitive crime policy.

One need only compare this with the rhetoric and reality of Bill Clinton's "tough on crime" and "war on criminals" approach -- which even Clinton has belatedly (and rather lamely) apologized for -- to get a sense of the historic nature of this call for ending mass incarceration that, as Obama put it, “by a wide margin … disproportionately impacts communities of color.”

Although late to accept same-sex marriage until it was more politically palatable, Obama has been a strong supporter of LGBT rights, stating unequivocally that LGBT rights are “human rights.”  He ended the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and ordered his Justice Department to reverse itself and stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.  Last year he signed an executive order banning workplace discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors.  And, more recently, his Administration sided with the parties who argued against state bans on same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court.  

Coming into office during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Obama had to fight the deficit fetishists of both parties to push through a stimulus package that led us to a recovery.  While he should have pushed for larger stimulus and remained too long in the thrall of the aforementioned fetishists, as Paul Krugman notes, "there's overwhelming consensus among economists that the Obama stimulus plan helped mitigate the worst of the slump."

While the Obama administration failed to go after the architects of the financial crisis, he did sign Dodd Frank into law -- a law that provides significant oversight and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Just look at how badly the Republicans want to overturn or neuter Dodd Frank to get a sense of how effective it is or will be.

In the wake of Congress's inaction on immigration, Obama did an end run, signing an executive order that allows "four million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years to apply for a program that protects them from deportation and allows those with no criminal record to work legally in the country."  Another "one million people will get protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration enforcement system, including the expansion of an existing program for 'Dreamers,' young immigrants who came to the United States as children."

Obama's environmental record is mixed, but faced with a Republican Party that does not believe in climate change and is trying to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama has pushed back -- issuing executive orders to curb greenhouse gas emissions and achieving an historic climate change agreement with China. 

Obama has appointed two extremely well qualified, liberal justices to the Supreme Court -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  Approximately a third of the federal judiciary are Obama appointees.  Although there are far too many former prosecutors and corporate defense lawyers among them, it is also true that Obama has literally changed the face of the judiciary -- with the majority of his appointments being women and nonwhite males.

So, to recap, while rescuing the economy from a disaster of President Bush's making, President Obama risked his political capital on an admittedly unwieldy plan to reach a goal attempted and abandoned by so many presidents before him -- national health insurance.  He has achieved critical foreign policy successes by relying less on reflexive military action and more on cooperative, thoughtful diplomacy.  In response to the unspeakable outrage of police killings of so many young black men by the police, and the unspeakable tragedy of a seemingly endless series of tragic shootings, Obama has spoken -- and by doing so he is forcing us to confront not only our history of slavery and Jim Crow, but the institutional racism that persists today.  He is engaging us in a national conversation about crime, gun violence, and mass  incarceration  -- and he is committed to pushing through Congress a series of landmark criminal justice reforms that appear to have bipartisan support.  He is the first president to fully embrace the LGBT community.  And the first to recognize the devastating reality of man-made climate change.  He has appointed the most diverse federal bench in history.  And he has done all this while the opposing political party, having purged itself of moderates, has produced the most reactionary and obstructionist legislative branch in modern times.

A great president or the greatest president?


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