Out with the old and in with the new. New Year, New President. However your feeling on it, with #45 successfully inaugurated, I think it’s a good time to reach back and examine #44, and the last 8 years of the Presidency.
Historians and Political Scientists primarily rate Presidents according to the challenges they faced and how as leaders they dealt with those challenges. They are also rated on their ability to realize their political will, ability to work with Congress, and how their achievements last in the long run. I will attempt to do the same here, as objectively as possible, save for some
critical comments given with the benefit of hindsight.
Without doubt the past two decades have been some of the more challenging ones in recent history, both domestically and abroad. We’ve seen a major recession, social challenges, the metastasizing of various terrorists groups into the Islamic State (Daesh), a resurgent Russia led by the dictator Vladimir Putin, all in turn leading to overall uncertainty about the future worldwide which, if not equal to The Great Depression of the 1930’s, at least warrants the same general malaise as the immediate post-Vietnam era. Personally, I think we are in a period of history which fits somewhere in the middle, making an evaluation of successes and failures over the past decade ever more poignant.
To be sure, when President Barack Hussein Obama II came into office on January 20th, 2009, it was to enormous fanfare and optimism. At the time, Obama’s inauguration was the largest single event witnessed in history. With a campaign personifying “hope and change” his election as the first African-American US President seemed to indicate to some a post-racial America. In an August 2008 issue, The Economist wrote:
“Whatever happens in November, Mr. Obama’s candidacy still marks an important turning point in American History…Mr. Obama is a black man in a country that denied black people the vote as recently as 1964…That in itself, is an extraordinary comment on how far America has come over the past half-century.”(1)
The rest of the world seemed to agree, and celebrated this new, promising future. Obama-mania reached impressive lengths. In a rather confusing move, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009, less than 10 months into his Presidency, despite the fact Obama had yet to achieve any tangible results on the worldwide stage. The Nobel Committee awarded him the prize due to “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (2)
Given the levels of expectation the world had for President Obama, it’s easy to see why he would fall short of them.
A. Domestic Policies
1. Recession and Recovery. Grade: B
It’s hard to understand the responses to The Great Recession made by both the Bush and Obama White Houses without first reviewing the root causes of the crises. The first indications that something was going wrong with the economy occurred in 2007, when real estate market prices began to collapse. The primary reason for this was lenders of financial institutions not subject to standard banking regulations were offering sub-prime mortgages (mortgages for people with poor credit scores) and selling them to other financial institutions in large blocks as better investments than they were. When the bubble burst in home values, people found themselves underwater in their home value – mortgage debt. Many of these people, who could barely afford their homes in the best of circumstances began defaulting on their loans. This in turn, caused a cascading effect and continued downward spiraling of home prices, eventually capsizing the entire industry. The Harvard Law website sums up neatly how bad the situation was, which I will quote from here:
“The interbank credit markets seized up. The market value of US financial institutions, especially US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,  collapsed throughout the summer. The US Government was particularly concerned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because of their size and importance to the US housing market. On 30 June 2008, these two institutions had combined liabilities of over US $5.5 trillion, on a combined total regulatory capital base of approximately US $100 billion.” (3)
With the housing market being such a vital part of the economy, other segments of the economy soon followed. GDP dropped sharply, unemployment rose, and Bush administration efforts to stabilize the markets through government spending may have led to further devaluation of the dollar compared to other world currencies. In the waning days of the Bush Administration, Congress passed TARP, which, while stopping the bleeding, still left the economy in shambles. (3).
Into this financial rubble walked President Obama and the 111th US Congress. Aided by a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, Obama expanded TARP with the passing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The main principles which were:
- Providing funds to states and localities—for example, by raising federal matching rates under Medicaid, providing aid for education, and increasing financial support for some transportation projects;
- Supporting people in need—such as by extending and expanding unemployment benefits and increasing benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp program);
- Purchasing goods and services—for instance, by funding construction and other investment activities that could take several years to complete; and
- Providing temporary tax relief for individuals and businesses—such as by raising exemption amounts for the alternative minimum tax, adding a new Making Work Pay tax credit, and creating enhanced deductions for depreciation of business equipment.(4)
Republicans in Congress resisted the measure, concerned mainly over uncertain regulatory requirements and massive government spending, and not without good argument. According to the bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the estimated cost of ARRA from 2009 – 2019 is $840 billion dollars.(4)
That’s billion. With a B.
What Republican were concerned about was many of the regulatory requirements in the law were vague, potentially allowing for the ability of financial institutions to find loopholes in following them. (3) Here is where Obama missed an important opportunity for far more meaningful regulatory reform. While I oppose strong Federal regulation on the free market and business, regulation of the financial and lending sector at the Federal level is critical. History has shown time and time again that when financial deregulation occurs, boom and bust cycles typically follow.
Despite those important concerns, President Obama’s quick action on the economy most likely helped to continue to stabilize the economy, raise GDP, and create jobs (though it must be added, many of those jobs were of a low paying variety, and the numbers are skewed by the 2010 Census, where census takers were hired en masse as temp workers). It is also true that earning growth was relatively stagnant, and that some economic models suggest GDP would have recovered on its own.(5)
Nevertheless, the housing market stabled, unemployment dropped, and the economy (slowly) recovered, albeit at enormous tax payer expense. Given the fact that it could have been a lot worse, President Obama’s performance on this action was above average.
An excellent product from CCPB.org (Chart Book) demonstrates the overall success/challenges of ARRA:
2. Obamacare. Grade: C
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the largest expansion of the Federal Government in a generation. That’s fact, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on. President Obama spent the majority of his public goodwill and political capital getting the legislation passed against fierce criticism by Republicans in Congress. To review, the principle tenants are as follows:
- Insurance Companies cannot deny health care to individuals with pre-existing health conditions.
- Individual Mandate (i.e. you MUST buy healthcare or face a tax penalty)
- Online Exchanges for purchasing health insurance if not provided by an employer (i.e. HealthCare.Gov)
- Costs for the uninsured will be paid for by government subsidies.
Obamacare was billed (it’s a medical pun, get it???) as a way to get uninsured Americans the health coverage they needed, while at the same time cutting overall medical costs, modernizing the US health care system, and lowering the Federal deficient. The law was purportedly going to be able to do so by controlling costs.
There are a lot of figures on either side of this hotly contested law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Obamacare, despite costing $940 billion dollars (with a B) over a ten year period, will lower the deficient by $143 billion. (6)
If you are thinking there is something wrong with those numbers, you might be on to something.
In The Fiscal Consequences of the Affordable Care Act, Charles Blahous writes:
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) enacted in 2010 will significantly worsen the federal government’s fiscal position relative to previous law. Over the years 2012–21, the ACA is expected to add at least $340 billion and as much as $530 billion to federal deficits while increasing federal spending by more than $1.15 trillion over the same period and by increasing amounts thereafter. These adverse fiscal effects are not everywhere understood because of widely circulated analyses referencing scoring conventions of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Medicare Trustees, which compare the health care reform legislation to a baseline scenario that differs from actual law. Moreover, there is substantial risk that the ACA’s cost saving provisions will not be enforced as currently specified. To avoid worsening the federal fiscal outlook, legislative corrections are required before the ACA’s provisions become fully effective in 2014. Roughly two-thirds of the law’s subsidies for health insurance exchanges must be eliminated to avoid worsening federal deficits and the entirety of their costs eliminated to avoid further increasing federal health care financing commitments. (7)
Blauhous’ paper is heavy reading, but compelling. As I interpret it, in speaking of the “substantial risk” of Obamacare’s promised cost savings provisions, Blauhous basically says for saving to occur as intended, they have to occur in a vacuum where; everyone signs up as they should, tax income remains constant (or increases), prices on services remain constant (or constant with inflation) and no addendums of the law occur.
This of course, is a fairy tale. In no fathomable way would all of those conditions occur favorably. Health care costs have not decreased since passage of the law, and as we have seen, opportunists have taken advantage of a guaranteed government subsidy to jack up the prices on even life-saving medical tools like an Epi-pen.
To be sure:
- Subsidized Education does not drive down University costs
- Subsidized Farming does not drive down food costs
- Subsidized Health Care will not drive down Health Care costs
On top of all this, it has become apparent most Americans do not want Obamacare, at least as it exists today. In 2015, a CBS News / New York Times poll reported that 47% of Americans approved the health care law. This was the first time that a major poll indicated that more respondents disapproved ACA than approved of it. The recurring Kaiser Health Tracking Poll from December 2016 reported that: a) 30% wanted to expand what the law does; b) 26% wanted to repeal the entire law; c) 19% wanted to move forward with implementing the law as it is; and d) 17% wanted to scale back what the law does, with the remainder undecided.(8)
Nevertheless, President Obama did make affordable health care a principle tenant of his presidential campaign, and the bill was signed into law. Millions of Americans can no longer be denied health coverage for pre-existing conditions, which most Americans, including yours truly, believe is a good thing. Obama deserves credit for remaining doggedly determined to get the law passed despite fierce congressional minority opposition (though it could be argued that it doesn’t take considerable political acumen to get a law passed when your party controls both houses of Congress).
As such, his accomplishment in the end isn’t anything more or less what would have likely been the outcome if Hillary Clinton won the presidency. Also the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” manner in which The President ignored opposition concerns about some of the laws’ provisions almost guarantees most tenants of it being repealed during the Trump presidency. Ironically, a Romney Presidency probably would have ushered in a much more bi-partisan, and thus lasting, law. Finally, by passing the law in it’s current form, Obama considerably added to the national debt which continues to contribute to the government’s financial insolvency.
3. Dealing with Domestic Challenges. Grade: D
In his final address to the United Nations in September 2016, President Obama warned against growing tribalism in both domestic and foreign affairs, warning:
“We all face a choice,” Obama said. “We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”(9)
Given the President’s choices’ with the outbreak of the Black Lives Matter movement, The President’s hypocrisy is palatable.
It certainly didn’t have to be that way, and indeed, in the early years of the Obama presidency it appeared as if it wouldn’t. In the summer of 2009, after black professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr was arrested by white Cambridge Police Officer Sergeant James Crowley for disorderly conduct at his own home following a report of a burglary there, the media was in an uproar over what could obviously only be a racist arrest. Hell, I dunno…
Maybe Sergeant Crowley was a racist…
Maybe the Professor was a drunk snobby asshole…
Either way, it’s irrelevant to the President’s actions, because in this particular case he made an overture to both sides in his famous “Beer Summit.” The President, Sgt. Crowley, and Professor Gates sat around a table, had a few beers and talked things out. It was a magnanimous gesture that went a long way at smoothing out racial tensions despite the media’s attempts to blow things out of proportion.
Then came August 9, 2014, and Michael Brown. I will quote from Wiki here, because of the objectivity of it’s article.
Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer, after robbing a convenience store. Security camera footage, from shortly before the shooting, recorded Brown stealing several packages of cigarillos from a nearby convenience store and assaulting the store clerk who tried to stop him, according to the Department of Justice examination. Brown was accompanied by his friend Dorian Johnson. Wilson had been notified by police dispatch of the robbery and descriptions of the two suspects. He encountered Brown and Johnson as they were walking down the middle of the street. Wilson said that he realized that the two men matched the robbery suspects’ descriptions. Wilson backed up his cruiser and blocked them. An altercation ensued with Brown and Wilson struggling through the window of the police vehicle for control of Wilson’s gun until it was fired. Brown and Johnson then fled, with Wilson in pursuit of Brown. Brown stopped and turned to face the officer, then Brown moved toward him. Wilson fired at Brown several times, all shots striking him in the front, with the possible exception of the two bullets fired into Brown’s right arm. Brown was unarmed and moving toward Wilson when the final shots were fired. Witness reports differed as to what Brown was doing with his hands when he was shot, but the U.S. Department of Justice found that those witnesses who said that Brown had his hands up in surrender were not credible (10)
The shooting of Michel Brown grabbed national headlines and brought the town of Ferguson, MO to the world’s attention. Despite the later evidence to the contrary, the moniker “Hand Up, Don’t Shoot” became a rallying cry to anti-law enforcement street protests across the country. The protests eventually drew people from a variety of leftist causes, civil rights activists, bored inner city teenagers (I vividly recall a night watching the daily news where a mother dragging her tough looking son out of a protest crowd and giving him the business of being out and about with the protests), and college students with too much time on their hands. While seemingly well intentioned, these protests mostly denigrated to wanton looting, violence, and destruction of property as crowd agitators, anarchists, or any other rebel with a cause raged against gas stations, store fronts, and anything resembling law enforcement.
The efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement came to a head in Dallas on July 7th, 2016. Micah Johnson, a Facebook supporter of the New Black Panther party and avid consumer of social media, shot and killed Officer Michael Krol (DPD), Sergeant Michael Smith (DPD), Officer Patricio Zamarripo (DPD), Officer Brent Thompson (Dallas Rapid Transit), and Corporal Lorne Ahrens (DPD). Seven other Officers were wounded, along with two civilians. Johnson specifically stated his intent was to kill white officers. (11)
While making a lip service condemnation of the killing of the Dallas Police Officers at this racially and anarchist motivated attack, President Obama did nothing to condemn the ongoing movement, or even to work towards healing the racial divisions of the country.
This is unfortunate, because as the nation’s first black President, former urban community organizer, and chief enforcer of the law of the land, President Obama was uniquely qualified to do just that. This SHOULD have been the defining moment of his last year in office. This SHOULD have been a moment for him to demonstrate the moments of exceptionalism he had demonstrated occasionally during his time in office. More than anyone, he could have taken the time to be seen with leaders of law enforcement, leaders of the movement, and been hands on at finding solutions.
Perhaps this is too much to ask for a man raised with a liberal worldview who was inspired by black leaders of the 1960’s that dealt with actual institutional racism of the police. Biases are hard to overcome. Perhaps Obama did nothing because it was an election year and he didn’t want to disrupt the base of the Democratic Party. Or perhaps, as has been show time and time again, when the big unscripted decisions come up in the Obama Presidency, he merely quibbled, hoping the problem would resolve itself.
At best, he fiddled while American cities burned.
At worst, he chose not to get involved because of the same “Age-old” lines of tribe he condemns.
B. Foreign Policies
1. Osama Bin Laden. Grade A
The daring raid to kill/capture Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad Pakistan on May 2, 2011 was President Obama’s single greatest achievement of his presidency and brought an end to the first phase of the ongoing War on Terror we have been fighting as a country since September 11, 2001.
I’m not going to go in depth about the military operation, though I do recommend reading the Wikipedia entry for it’s thoroughness.(12)
What I do want to recognize is the pain-staking efforts of the intelligence community and military of putting the pieces together, as well as the political courage of the President for green-lighting the operation.
The intelligence on the matter was not guaranteed. There was knowledge that purpose-built compound was constructed sometime in 2004, less than a mile down the road from the Pakistani Military Academy. Through a variety of techniques it was determined that the compound housed a high level Al-Qaeda leader, likely Bin Laden.
Given the uncertainty of the information, Obama could have been forgiven for not taking the chance. However, I think Obama realized that despite the risk, this was something that had to be done not just for a military objective, but for the Country, and regardless of the consequences and potential fallout. Failure could have led to strained relations with Pakistan, or worse, a Desert One situation (the desert landing strip from the failed operation to rescue the US prisoners at the US Embassy in Tehran in April, 1980) which would likely do for Obama’s Presidency what it did for Carter’s. Worst, American lives could be lost and Bin Laden might not even be there.
Thankfully, Bin Laden was there, the operation was success, and now Bin Laden is fish food.
Obama was at his most presidential when he announced to the American public and the world the successful operation that killed Bin Laden. He spoke of national unity, of peace through strength, and of continued work to be done. He artfully addressed the nation of Pakistan and skillfully worked behind closed doors to make sure the two countries were on the same page before the address. The message however, was clear. Regardless of political consequences, if you mess with America, we will fly across the planet to your house in the middle of the night and shoot you in the face.
Conservative criticism of Obama on this matter is unjustified. Presidents are leaders, and are responsible for everything their people do, or fail to do. The success is his, the militaries, and the country as a whole.
As the cartoon above shows, however, Bin Laden was only one head of the hydra, and it was dealing with the rest of the monster that lead to Obama’s greatest failure as President.
2. Syria and ISIS. Grade: F
The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 after President Bashar Al-Assad began cracking down on Pro-Democracy demonstrations. These were the culmination of the “Arab Spring” that began in Tunis in 2011 and spread throughout the mid east. After protestors started being shot by government troops, regular Syrian citizens began taking up arms and fighting for their country. They were joined by a variety of Islamic terrorist groups including members of what would become ISIS, in a push that would later come to define the ongoing conflict.(13)
The fact that the Islamic groups took over the fight from the pro-democratic militias is a testament to a growing lack of American leadership in the region. To be sure, there were not many good options in Syria: the composition of the opposition was unknown, making it hard to ascertain friend from foe. There was and still is a reluctance from many American citizens and allies to invest anymore time and effort back into the Middle East after Iraq. The President, too, was cautious of getting the United States dragged into a potential mid-east quagmire.
President Obama is guilty of two mistakes in regards to Syria:
- Failure to build an effective coalition to deal with the problem as it grew.
- Bluffing on the level of US involvement.
A unilateral response to the situation in Syria would have not been an effective strategy. It’s likely mission creep would occur and we would have found ourselves in another Iraq War situation. Obviously I wouldn’t advocate this approach.
What should have occurred is an operation that fit somewhere between George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Shield and NATO’s intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The establish of safe zones protected by UN Forces within Syria’s borders would have allowed for humanitarian assistance to occur, as well as vetting and training of pro-democratic forces. What would be critical to success is a much more liberal rules of engagement for ground forces than what occurred in Bosnia (there are many stories of peacekeeping troops being forced to leave towns by their chain of commands only to watch government troops enter and slaughter thousands) and specific, limited goals(14)
What Obama decided to do was quibble and over analyze and proceed with an overabundance of cautions, a failure in leadership he compounded when in August 2012 he gave his famous “red line” speech, declaring that the use of chemical weapons would be “game changer” that brought severe military consequences. When this event occurred in 2013 Obama stalled, and it was a clever diplomatic move by Vladimir Putin that provided The President a graceful exit from his obligation – at the cost of US influence in the region and Europe, and at the cost of the Syrian people. Speaking to the press, the Secretary of State stated:
John Kerry told a painful truth on Sunday, admitting that President Obama’s “red line” fiasco in Syria “cost us significantly” by leading other nations to see America as weak. (15)
As bad as the plight of the Syrian people was, as we have seen U.S. inaction made it worse, leading to the current diaspora of the Syrian people throughout the Mid East and Europe. Current estimates put the Syrian death toll at approximately 400,000.
The chart above does demonstrate a correlation between a lack of U.S. involvement and rising death tolls. Additionally the U.N. currently estimates the total number of Syrian Refugees at over 6 million people. (17)
Besides the humanitarian crises, these refugees are raising security questions in Europe, since it’s now known ISIS has infiltrated refugee groups.
and, speaking of ISIS…
If George W. Bush is the father of ISIS, then Obama is it’s step-father. ISIS went through many variations, but solidified as Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the Iraq War. AQI was a combination of both former Baathist military officers as well as foreign fighters. President Obama was famously dismissive of ISIS when they started their Iraq offensive in 2014, calling them a “JV team.” They have since gone on to be the world’s most recognized and lethal terrorist organization. They filled gaps in the void created in Syria created by a failure in U.S. leadership and continue to spread their worldview of hate across the internet; influencing troubled minds to murder and maim the innocent at any opportunity.
To give credit where credit is due, The Obama White House has since made forward movement in the fight against ISIS – he has more drone strikes than George Bush on terrorist targets – and U.S. Forces are getting involved in greater numbers. Iraqi forces are poised to retake Mosul, and with continued pressure, ISIS’s influence will begin to wane.
There is however, a long way to go.
C. Closing Thoughts and Evaluations
- Overall Grade: D
President Obama isn’t the worst president in history, but neither is he some zion of presidential amazingness.
In domestic affairs, Obama showed tenacity in achieving his goals. He also deserves some credit for the economic recovery after the Great Recession, trickiness of Keynesian economics notwithstanding. He also got his most desired project, the Affordable Health Care Act through Congress despite fierce opposition. However, his plan and the massive government spending on the economy considerably increased the Federal deficient and puts American fiscal solvency in doubt. Like most progressives, Obama looks at expanding government, and worrying about paying the tab later. His greatest domestic failure was not being the bridge between those of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Law Enforcement charged with protecting their communities.
Internationally, Obama has proved a disaster. Like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, he was so timid in making the tough decisions that American leadership on the world stage has been seriously eroded, allowing Dictators like Vladimir Putin to gain credibility and for the Syrian crises to occur.
A opinion poll of Presidential Approval ratings over time help to demonstrate what can only be said to be lackluster performance.
2. No, YOU look, Mr. President
Obama was an intelligent, motivated President that led an underwhelming Oval Office that had moments of greatness. His graetest strength was his causual charisma and intelligence.
His intelligence however was also his greatest weakness.
If there was one thing that irritated me most about President Obama, it was his catchphrase rebuttal argument “Now, look.” Anytime Obama was presented a difficult question by reporters or critics it was his go to. The last time I heard it was in a CBS interview after the election, when he was being pressed on Syria.
Think for a moment, if you were having a debate with someone, and they told you, “Now, look…”
What that phrase actually means is “Your argument is invalid, I’m right, you are wrong and because you don’t agree with me I will be dismissive or your position.”
It’s the language of a lawyer and college professor who is much more used to pontificating to others than on hearing someone else’s position. I will tell YOU what your position is. It’s the language, in the end, of elitism.
It is that elitism, and indeed intellectual arrogance that kept Obama from ever being the voice of all of the American People, and it’s that elitism that at times caused him to misstep as he did. That is a shame, because, as was illustrated on the campaign trail of his first election, there was a capacity for greatness.
(1) The Economist, Vol 388 Number 8594