Like many Americans, I felt sad at your departure from the White House. Your dignity, grace, wit, intelligence, honesty, compassion, innate goodness and sheer competence, shone with a light that burned brightly throughout your eight years in power.
Nor was yours a presidency without signal accomplishments. You took over in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, saved the auto industry, and turned around practically every economic indicator that matters. And in the teeth of fierce opposition from Republicans you pushed through the Affordable Care Act, a new agreement to restrict the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, and a Paris Accord that brought hope to those wishing to reduce global warming. If your popularity ratings are any guide, a solid majority of Americans are grateful for both the example you set and the success you achieved.
Unfortunately, your record also has a negative side. It seems worth examining this, not in a mood of blame, but rather in the hope that the Democratic Party, now in its deepest funk since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, will learn to do things differently. Surprisingly, we need look no further than your own farewell speech to see how great is the gap between aspiration and reality.
You warned us “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.” The direst threat, surely, is from the indefensible practice of gerrymandering. From 2008 to 2016, Republicans succeeded in achieving majorities in both houses of Congress, winning in addition 13 governerships and over 900 state legislative seats. Self-evidently, these victories played a huge role in undermining your legislative agenda at both the national and state level. To a significant degree, these Democratic losses resulted from the Republicans’ aggressive gerrymandering in the 2010 cycle of redistricting. This effectively gave rise to a system where, as Eric Holder remarked, “the politicians are picking their voters, as opposed to voters making selections about who they want to represent them”—the exact inverse of democracy.
Asked about your own responsibility in the matter as de facto head of the Democratic Party, you rather lamely responded that the presidency is a time-consuming job. The real tragedy is that had you urged the party to make this matter a top priority, as it should have done, you might well have had a more pliable Congress to work with. Since leaving office you announced that gerrymandering will be a “primary concern” of yours, aided by Eric Holder. Excellent! But what took you so long?
With a nod to the growing politics of resentment, you rightly declared, “Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity… if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.” Now you can boast of having presided over the longest expansion since WWII. Unemployment, at 4.9, is flirting with what many economists regard as the lowest feasible number without stoking inflation.
The trouble is, as you well know, too many of those jobs represent low-paying employment in the service industries, often replacing well-paying manufacturing jobs lost to overseas countries. Many have left the job market altogether, having become too discouraged to continue looking. President Trump, in his inaugural address, spoke of the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” That may be political hyperbole, but there is enough truth in it to have lost Hillary Clinton the election.
You point out that “While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind. The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful.”
Now where could they have gotten that idea? Could it have some connection with the fact that you did very little to help the people who failed to benefit from the 2010-16 economic recovery? Too many lost not just their jobs but their homes as well, even as you helped engineer a hugely profitable rebound in the banking industry and one of the biggest stock market recoveries in Wall St. history. Your political indifference created an embittered class of rural whites of both genders that helped chase the Democrats from power.
Perhaps mindful that president-elect Trump had already warned he would shred the TPP, you had nothing to say in your speech about trade, beyond declaring that “our trade should be fair and not just free.” Yet during the entire period during which the TPP, the most important trade agreement since NAFTA, was being negotiated, you resisted multiple pleas from interested parties to make the negotiations less secret. As you well knew, this secrecy enabled whole cadres of corporate lobbyists to shape the agreement in accordance with their masters’ interests, without allowing timely input from opposing voices. Is this your concept of fairness, of democracy at work?
Noting the growing threat from automation, you urge the forging of “a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need…” Great. Yet on your eight-year watch, America remained stuck at around 20th in basic skills like math and language out of a list of 30 or so industrialized countries.
Perhaps even more distressing is the fact, widely noted in the press, that the current generation of young people will be the first in American history to earn less that their parents. So much for creating opportunity. Granted you had a recalcitrant Congress, but was there really nothing more you could have done to ameliorate this distressing situation?
Of all the areas where your achievement fell short of what Americans expected, none is more distressing—and puzzling—than race. Many people, especially African Americans, had high hopes of what might be achieved to advance race relations during your eight years as president. But as Cathy J. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, remarked in a recent book review, you “seem[ed] to view…issues of racism as a hindrance or obstacle that [you were] forced to address if only to get to the more important business of governing a nation.”
Cohen goes on to suggest that you shared the overall Democratic party’s commitment to a neo-liberal agenda that included prioritizing markets, shrinking the safety net, expanding incarceration, and promoting individual responsibility, none of which did much to help the poorest or most marginalized, and by extension a majority of blacks.
This is not to say that you did nothing. You initiated the My Brother’s Keeper program aimed at helping boys and men of color succeed (though alas not girls or women). And you also stepped up to the plate to protest police violence against blacks as the “Black Lives Matter” campaign took off. And there were other, relatively minor political actions as well. But as Michael Eric Dyson, whose book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the politics of race in America Cohen is reviewing, says, your “refusal to address race except when [you have] no choice—a kind of racial procrastination (my italics)—leaves [you] little control of the conversation.” Dyson also notes that you not infrequently used the bully pulpit to lecture blacks, shaming them on issues ranging from absentee fathers to parents who feed their children junk food.
The most forceful critique of your presidency in regard to race comes from Cornel West, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton: “Despite some progressive words and symbolic gestures, [you] chose to ignore Wall Street crimes, reject bailouts for homeowners, oversee growing inequality and facilitate war crimes like US drones killing innocent civilians abroad… [You were] reluctant to target black suffering—be it in overcrowded prisons, decrepit schools or declining workplaces…. Trump’s election was enabled by the neoliberal policies of the Clintons and [you] that overlooked the plight of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Harsh words, but with more than a little truth in them.
You end your farewell speech by triumphantly declaring, “Yes, we did.”
Well, OK. But also, alas, in too many important ways, No we didn’t.