Evaluating Obama’s presidency

UnknownPresident Obama’s approval ratings have risen as his tenure nears an end. That’s a typical pattern. And there may be anticipatory Obama-nostalgia, given his potential successors. And some always considered him the most wonderful president since FDR, or Lincoln, or Jesus.

I give him points for intellect, integrity, eloquence, and demeanor. In such respects he’s actually a model president, so the admiration is understandable. Alas however, he’s failed in three crucial respects.

images-1First, he promised a new post-partisan politics. But it was all talk and no walk. Obama’s intellect here disserved him, by making him arrogantly contemptuous toward lesser mortals with different views. It started even before he took office. There was never an effort to meet the other side half way, or even a tenth. Instead he was all about demonizing them, imagining he need only point out their errors, and they would just capitulate, or be punished by an enlightened electorate.

It doesn’t work like that. Opponents usually have reasons for their stances. And please don’t quote Mitch McConnell about making Obama a one-term president. For a political party, winning the next election is its raison d’etre, entirely legitimate. And while Republicans did refuse cooperation with Obama, that was only after he’d established a modus operandi of disregarding them.

Obama felt he could, having congressional majorities at first. He didn’t change that when the landscape changed. The result was a political climate so poisonous that Trumpery is a natural upshot. There’s blame all around. But it rings hollow for Obama to complain of partisan enmity by people he’s relentlessly sneered at.

Unknown-1Secondly: Obama fans point to the economic crisis he inherited, and how well we’ve done since. Fair enough. Though really the credit belongs far more to the Fed than the White House. But meantime, Obama’s biggest economic legacy lies in the future, and it’s not good. As ever more people are not working but collecting benefits, deficits and debt will explode. We’re skating along for now only because interest on our borrowings is so low. But at some point unsustainable debt levels will spook the markets, interest costs will balloon, and we’ll be busted.

To head this off, Obama appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission, which came up with a balanced deficit reduction plan. So far so good. But then Obama just ignored the whole thing. Now, his wasted eight years make the problem far tougher. That’s his chief economic legacy.

Third: the world situation has undeniably deteriorated on Obama’s watch. Queered by Bush’s bungled Mid-East intervention, Obama fell into the opposite mistake of hands-off. Iraq was making progress when he took office, but then he disengaged, and all hell broke loose. It also did in Syria where again his phobia of involvement made things much worse. How many times have we seen this movie? – where a little action at a critical juncture could head off so much agony later.

imagesHis signature moment was drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria, then funking it when the line was crossed. Shredding America’s international credibility, making Uncle Sam a monkey’s uncle.

More generally, the Arab Spring was an epochal moment of opportunity, where U.S. engagement might have helped midwife positive outcomes. We’ve done this before, like in post-WWII Europe, where deep and steadfast American involvement helped hugely – to our benefit. The Middle East cried out for this. Obama feared the consequences of acting; but inaction has consequences too.

imagesIt’s no surprise that a villain like Putin, taking Obama’s measure, would push the envelope. Russia’s Ukraine aggression up-ended a crucial norm of international conduct that had prevailed, pretty much, since WWII. Putin basically got away with it, and won. This is terrible for the global future.

All considered, President Obama has been great on style. Pity about the substance.

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5 Responses to “Evaluating Obama’s presidency”

  1. David Michaels Says:

    Spot on!

  2. Lee Says:

    It is hard to debunk your specific examples of Obama’s arrogant contempt, because you did not give any.

    Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama know that you run deficits, even big ones if necessary, to jump start an economy, and you run surpluses when everything is going well. Our future President Johnson will inherit a strengthening economy and will be expected to produces surpluses before his first term ends.

    I have to disagree on Syria or at least observe that it is premature to label “all hell breaking lose” Syria under Obama as worse than “making progress” Iraq under Bush. There were more fatalities resulting from the “making progress” conflict.

    However, Obama definitely blew the Arab Spring thing. In Egypt, when the democratically elected government that arose was later undone by military coup, Obama quickly befriended the dictator. Obama did not stop the Ukraine mess nor did he stop Brexit.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    President Johnson will not have surpluses. In fact they will NEVER occur again. We are instead on a trajectory guaranteeing rising deficits and debt that future fiscal policy can ameliorate, if at all, only at the margins.

  4. Paul Landsberg Says:

    Ach. Wrong in so many ways. On bipartisanship I would simply point at how suave and moony-eyed Paul Ryan rode in on a gallant steed to coalesce the Republicans in Congress into a party that governs versus a part that simply shouts slogans. Not working out so well. Remember, all an obstructionist has to do to win is stall, deflect, and obfuscate. Governing is much much more complex. I am actually not really sure who Obama would “negotiate with” (based on current behaviors, the statement deserves quotation marks) in the Republican party.

    Simpson-Bowles. It had two prongs – raise taxes, reduce spending. Very basic math would show that you indeed need both to get to a long term sustainable trajectory. Can you point at 3 Republicans that do not want to 1) lower taxes and 2) increase military spending. The President doesn’t write the budget. Oh, wait, these days nobody seems to be writing Federal budgets. We just say “yeah, do more of the same.”

    On the third point – “where a little action at a critical juncture could head off so much agony later.” So much stupidity has been justified by a mistaken rush to war. Vietnam…..Iraq……Afghanistan. The reality is that we all suffer from the dullard mistakes of our friends, colleagues, or fellow citizens. The numb nut who tried to shoe bomb a plane means we all gotta remove shoes for the TSA. The dipstick who insists on open carrying a rifle into Starbucks means they gotta post policy signs. So, the total dumbassery of the Bush administration means that Americans are sick and tired of paying for foreign policy blunders in blood and sunk money.

    Actually, this latest Iraq offensive to retake Mosul, if it succeeds, will be strategically brilliant. The Iraqis absolutely need to be able to focus, and win. If their military can build out from the loyalty, commitment, and skill needed to take Mosul, that alone is worth 10 times any commitment of US troops. And, maybe the 4500 US troops left in Iraq act as lethal eyes and ears for any ISIS folks trying to escape.

    On Ukraine and Putin. As satisfying as it would be to maybe give the Ukraine a few thousand tons of advanced weaponry and swagger up to Putin, the current use of soft power to hamstring the Russian economy looks pretty good. If you notice fewer Russians walking the aisles at coin shows, it is directly related to the Russian economy being in the crapper.

    Obama’s true failures: Guantanamo. Domestic spying.

  5. Lee Says:

    Holy role reversal, Batman! Usually it is the Democrats and liberals who get criticized for disrespecting the current state of the country and doubting America’s ability to overcome obstacles.

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