The state of the Obama Presidency
Economic Record: President Obama
Given that caveat, during President Obama's presidency, the economy performed worse than average for GDP growth, job creation, median income and debt. However, the performance of the stock market was spectacular. It is also important to put the economic performance in global context. During President Obama's presidency, the United States' GDP growth beat the GDP growth of the other original NATO member countries by the widest margin of any president since World War II.
Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961, to Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. Between six and ten years old, he attended local schools in Indonesia before returning to Honolulu in 1971 to stay with his grandparents and attended a college preparatory school known as Punahou School. After graduation from high school, Obama moved to Los Angeles where he joined Occidental College. In 1981, he made the transfer to Columbia University in New York City where he studied political science with a focus on international relations as well as English Literature. Eventually, he graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Immediately after, he spent a year working for the Business International Corporation as both a writer and researcher. In 1985, he spent three months at the New York Public Interest Research Group as a project coordinator.
Obama, the slide back to Iraq and the power of the "Deep State"
By Andrew O'Hehir
Published September 20, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)
Barack Obama, Michael Moore (Reuters/Charles Dharapak/Lucas Jackson/photo montage by Salon)
It was certainly impolitic of filmmaker Michael Moore, and possibly unfair as well, to tell the Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview that Barack Obama would only be remembered, a century from now, as the first black president of the United States. I am tempted to respond that while Obama’s race will always be the headline, its real significance is more like a footnote. He will quite plausibly be remembered more for other things, and some of them (though not a lot of them) are laudable. He began the process of moving the country away from our profoundly unfair and overpriced catch-as-catch-can private health insurance system toward some kind of socialized medicine. (Yeah, I said it.) That’s no small achievement, considering how many previous administrations have impaled themselves on the same sword, although God alone knows how long it will take for that process to play out.
Obama may also be remembered, somewhat less favorably, for embracing and even extending the notion of the “imperial executive” bequeathed to him by the Bush-Cheney regime for promising the most transparent administration in history and delivering instead the most secretive and most paranoid for running on the now-infamous promise of “hope and change” and presiding over an era of disillusion and stagnation. Now we get to witness the tragicomic denouement of Obama’s presidency, as he gets suckered into riding the slippery-slide of doom into another Iraq war, and so undoing the principal campaign promise that got him elected in 2008. (If you believed any syllable of the “no ground troops” pledge, for even a second, before the chair of the Joint Chiefs called backsies on it the other day, I’ll have to think of something much more impressive than the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.) Has any previous president ever fulfilled a major campaign promise and then unraveled it again, all by himself? I’m guessing the answer is yes, but let’s leave that challenge to the history buffs.
Some of those things can be rationalized away, I guess, as byproducts of partisan political paralysis or international crisis. There’s no doubt that Obama has faced intractable opposition from a party that has bet its electoral future on villainizing him, and also that he has confronted a highly unstable geopolitical situation and a sluggish economic recovery. But those things cannot all be blamed on the Republicans or the terrorists. While the right-wing caricature of the president as an inept and disengaged executive who has been pinioned by circumstance and buffeted from crisis to crisis is a simplistic and self-serving fiction, it offers a convenient frame for comprehending the Obama enigma. American media and American politics always long to revert to familiar and comforting core narratives, to Great Man (and, someday soon, Great Woman) myths about “character” and “leadership,” rather than looking for deep-rooted systemic or structural explanations that are more likely to be true.
If the key to an effective presidency lies in some list of individual qualities out of a business-school self-help book, then the problem is simply that we misjudged the quality of the job applicants last time around. My diagnosis is that anybody who tells themselves, “Gosh, wouldn’t things be different if we had elected Hillary” – or McCain, or Romney, or Howard Dean, or whomever the hell you like – is missing the point, whatever their supposed ideology may be. The real secret of the Obama presidency lies in a set of facts that appear to be contradictory on the surface, but taken together serve to mask the true nature of the American state in the 21st century. On one hand, the president now resembles a species of elected king, with the power to wage secret war on multiple continents, spy on anyone and everyone, and conduct assassination campaigns against civilians (including U.S. citizens), all without any congressional oversight or public explanation. On the other hand, the range of real-world options available to this imperial executive, in practice, appears curiously and stringently limited.
Gosh, it almost looks as if the overheated bipartisan circus in Washington, which eats up so much media bandwidth and so much of the oxygen in public discourse, despite the fact that we all hate it and all understand how useless it is, functions as a grand distraction while the most fundamental questions of economic policy and foreign policy are never discussed or debated in public. I can’t be sure, for example, whether Obama came to the White House already determined to let the same pack of billion-dollar criminals who had brought the financial system to the brink of doom shuffle the deck a little and carry on, or whether it became clear to him that no other option was really available. Similarly, I don’t know whether Obama had already been swayed to the Dick Cheney “dark side” doctrine of permanent covert warfare before he became president, or whether he was immediately surrounded and hypnotized by the Orc-spooks of what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls the “Deep State.” How we interpret Obama’s motives or mind-set doesn’t matter much in the end, and only serves to twist the focus back toward delusional questions about individual character.
If you haven’t read Lofgren’s essay, “Anatomy of the Deep State,” which was published on Bill Moyers’ website last February, it might be the most important document of American political journalism in this decade, let alone this year. It’s even more trenchant now than it was in the relatively innocent days of last winter. He discusses the contradiction I mention above in great detail: Even as the Republicans have succeeded in bringing the most routine parliamentary business of Washington to a grinding halt, the president is permitted to “liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in … witch hunts against federal employees.” While Republicans indulge their constituents’ cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs fantasies about Obama the Kenyan-socialist dictator, almost no one in Congress ever mentions any of this stuff. (The notable exceptions are Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who appear to have actually read the Constitution and are treated as left-wing and right-wing kooks, respectively.)
Lofgren, who spent almost three decades on Capitol Hill as, in effect, an adjunct or employee of the Deep State, describes it as “a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently ruled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.” Its principal institutions are mostly large and obvious: the immense professional bureaucracies at the State Department, the Defense Department, Treasury and Justice, along with the CIA and NSA and Homeland Security and a laundry list of smaller and more mysterious entities like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose every action is a highly classified state secret. As Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have partially made clear, the Deep State is tied by many subterranean threads to both Wall Street and Silicon Valley, so much so that it is not always clear who is the servant and who the master. While the functionaries of the Deep State profess to be non-ideological and above politics, they actually represent the “Washington Consensus,” a self-reinforcing combination of neoliberal, free-market economic policies and an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy that defines the zone of American interests as the entire globe.
Lofgren makes clear that he is not claiming the existence of a secret conspiratorial cabal, but you could almost say he's protesting too much. What he really means is that the operatives of the Deep State do not see themselves in that light. They are the grown-ups who actually run things, irrespective of which party the bozo in the Oval Office belongs to, while the rest of us fight over marriage legislation and history textbooks and football players who beat their wives and other cultural effluvia that (to them) don’t much matter. One of Lofgren’s most interesting hypotheses comes in a footnote, the idea that the Deep State operates via stage-managed crises that force the hands of political leaders toward desired outcomes. (He doesn't mean that 9/11 was an inside job or whatever he means that al-Qaida in 2001, and ISIS in 2014, are framed as problems that can only have military solutions.) In other words, to an outsider the Deep State sure as hell looks and functions like a conspiratorial cabal, one that operates according to its own principles and views democracy with undisguised contempt. In practice, it is not much different from the entrenched bureaucratic elites that ran the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire or whatever other top-heavy, sclerotic and self-deluding state apparatus you can come up with.
Writing many months before the rise of ISIS became headline news and the prospect of an American reentry into Iraq emerged, Lofgren notes that “the Deep State is populated with those whose instinctive reaction to the failure of their policies is to double down on those policies in the future.” Stalemate in Iraq (or worse) led to stalemate in Afghanistan (or worse), which led to the chaos in Libya that produced Benghazi and the confused effort to overthrow Assad in Syria. That whole concatenation of events – all of which, arguably, flow from the American invasion of Iraq in the first place -- has now produced a new threat that the wise men of the Deep State have declared worse than all the old threats put together.
Now, I’m not claiming I know exactly what to do about ISIS, which seems to be a thoroughly hateful organization, and for that and many other reasons I’m grateful that I will never be president. As this helpful article from Psychology Today explains, it isn’t true that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It’s really the definition of “perseveration,” meaning the pathological repetition of an act that is meant to solve problems but is likely to leave the sufferer frustrated and unsatisfied. America’s foreign policy brain trust -- supposedly the most grown-up and hard-headed of all Deep State denizens -- has been stuck in a pattern of perseveration since at least 9/11, if not since Vietnam. That would be bad enough on its own even without the fact that it has killed innocent people in enormous numbers and shredded what remained of our constitutional liberties.
Michael Moore’s problem, and the problem of old-school Democratic liberals in general, is simply that they dared to hope for something different, and that “change we can believe in” turned out to be an especially cruel hoax, even by the standards of campaign rhetoric. But as I said earlier, if they blame the Republicans for doing exactly what they said they would do, or blame Obama for his perceived personal failings, they are missing the point. When we look at what became of the Obama presidency, and the inexorable slide toward another Middle East war that anyone who’s immune to the Ivy League pixie-dust of the Deep State can see is a terrible idea, it may be helpful to resist the most conspiratorial interpretation. I don’t think we’re looking at an especially mendacious or ineffective politician, just one who has been given a historically unusual combination of immense power and very limited freedom to use it.
I would not claim, for instance, that Barack Obama was a human poison pill all along, a Manchurian candidate designed to apply a final coat of ideological cement to the marriage between the liberal-cosmopolitan social policies of the Democratic Party and the perma-war, pro-corporate agenda of the Deep State. At least, I wouldn’t exactly claim that I only claim that was the effect. Let’s remember that Obama ran for president in the first place promising to govern as a rational, bipartisan architect of compromise, a centrist who would break through idiotic political divisions and get things done. Yeah, he defeated Hillary Clinton by positioning himself slightly to her left on national-security issues, and he possessed a unique ability to energize African-American voters, who are (somewhat misleadingly) considered a “liberal” demographic. But he was essentially the friendly face of the Deep State from the get-go. Why should we be surprised that it devoured him?
Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.
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Top 10 Highlights of Barack Obama's Presidency
U.S. President Barack Obama takes the official oath of office from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, as Obama is sworn in for his second term as the 44th President of the United States, at the White House in Washington January 20, 2013. | REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool
In 2008, the United States of America made history when it elected the first-ever African-American president, Democrat Barack Obama.
Eight years later, much is being made about the legacy that President Obama leaves as Republican Donald Trump is set to take power.
What follows are ten highlights of Obama's administration. These are major developments that grabbed headlines and garnered controversy.
The surprising failure of the Obama presidency
Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was a brilliant fusion of unique ingredients. Among them was the astonishing feat of persuading tens of millions of Americans to suspend their disbelief.
Seduced by his presence, his soaring oratory and his vision, a new coalition of voters set aside concerns about his inexperience, his reputation for a certain cool querulousness, and his almost bizarre mélange of political values.
Americans said, in historic numbers, “Well, maybe he can!”
Sadly, less than halfway into his first term, many of them seem now to be concluding, “Well, maybe not…”
If successful political leadership is about expectations management, the President and his advisers had signally failed long before he even won the Democratic nomination. They would respond that only by reaching for the stars could they have overcome the “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton’s nomination.
It was that stellar vision, in some of the most stunning demonstrations of the power of sweaty outdoor political oratory — even in a digital age — that enabled them to slowly grind the Clinton candidacy into submission, and then to win a greater general election victory than any since Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. More Americans came out to see Obama in the flesh — more than 150,000 in one long weekend alone — than ever in American history.
A venerable political cliché — “those who got you there may not be whom you need to make you a success” — has come to haunt the administration. Though Obama showed creativity and courage in reaching out to Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other former opponents in building his leadership team, the core White House team remains those who were with him on the campaign trail.
The leaders of his economic team, Larry Summers at the White House Economic Council and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who advised him when he was a candidate, have come in for particular attack as risk-averse conventional policy advisers and exceptionally weak communicators. At a time when the economic crisis demanded greater creativity and an exceptional ability to build confidence and support, Geithner and Summers have succeeded in uniting Wall Street, the unions, and the business press as political opponents.
The likely departure of Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel for a run at the Chicago mayoralty, and Defence Secretary Bob Gates into retirement, will launch a shakeup of the insiders that could be highly beneficial for a post-midterm Obama administration.
The administration’s supporters fairly observe that managing the worst financial and economic crisis in three generations was bound to weaken support for any president. But Obama over-promised and under-performed. The stimulus package was supposed to have delivered a growing economy in time for these mid-term elections. This was to have been “the summer of recovery,” a slogan Republicans are now using to make sport of the Obama record in heavy television advertising. There was no sunny recovery this year, and the electoral damage to the Democrats will be severe.
Whether you agree with those who say “too much and too wasteful” or those who say “too little, too late” about stimulus spending matters not. By promising that his economic leadership would work where the Bush administration had failed, Obama set a threshold he will fail to meet. His September efforts to combine tax cuts and more infrastructure spending are welcome signs he understands that he needs to be seen to do more. Opinion was instantly divided, however, on whether these moves made sense or had any prospect of getting Congressional support.
There have been curious failures of grace and tone from the White House almost every month. On race, Obama has made more serious gaffes than one would have expected from a Southern Democrat of an earlier generation, first siding with the vainglorious Cornell West in a battle with local police, then permitting the attack on a dedicated black civil servant, Shirley Sherrod, by a cabinet member. Both incidents resulted in damage to Obama’s message of a postracial, inclusive presidency.
The Obama family’s choice of Hawaii, Martha’s Vineyard and the Spanish Riviera — often as guests of the super-rich — as their holiday destinations has similarly clanged badly with supporters of a president leading a nation through its most wrenching recession, as Obama himself says often, “in our lifetimes.” Choosing the interior designer who was responsible for some of the most offensive multi-million dollar bank presidents’ offices to re-do the Oval Office provoked a ferocious attack by one of the New York Times most liberal columnists, Maureen Dowd.
Obama over-promised and under-performed. The stimulus package was supposed to have delivered a growing economy in time for these mid-term elections. This was to have been “the summer of recovery,” a slogan Republicans are now using to make sport of the Obama record in heavy television advertising. There was no sunny recovery this year, and the electoral damage to the Democrats will be severe.
This tone-deaf political management extends to his response to crisis, sadly, as well. Misunderstanding one of the basic precepts of crisis management, the Obama administration seems to show up late and say little. The Christmas bomber and the Gulf Oil spill were only the most damaging of a series of missed opportunities for Obama to assume the father-of-the-nation mantle that was so useful to presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. Worried voters want a sympathetic father figure in the Oval Office at times of crisis, not Dr. Cool.
Political management involves driving the legislative train as well as the communications agenda. Here too, the White House has missed one home run opportunity after another. The various stimulus bills at the launch of his presidency appeared to be driven by Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi — not the Democratic Party’s more compelling faces to independent voters — as much as by the White House. Obama featured little and his somewhat hapless economic advisers got mauled on the Hill, on cable TV, and by their own caucuses.
The recruitment of former federal reserve chairman Paul Volcker to salvage the financial reform package highlighted that the White House knew Geithner and Summers could not carry the ball for them. Their continuation in their roles only heightened the contrast between them and the dour central banker’s overwhelming credibility and confidence-building capability.
In campaign terms, it was important for Obama to plant his flag firmly in favour of bipartisan outreach. He was coming to power following the most deliberately divisive American administration in half a century. He needed to offer to independent voters, in particular, the promise that he would try to be more inclusive. But he should never have believed his own campaign rhetoric, let alone followed it so literally, even after having sand kicked in his eyes the fourth or fifth time by the robotic rightwing Republican leader, John Boehner, and his acolytes.
It merely served to make him look naïve and unprepared for the big leagues to the media, offensive to his own caucus and supporters, and like a passive punching bag to the hardest of hard-edge Republicans and their extensive network of propagandists masquerading as fair and balanced journalists. And it meant he wasted valuable time chasing political mirages until well into this year time he could ill afford to squander.
It was the bungling of the tactical management of the health reform package that was the source of the deepest angst among Obama’s supporters. Allowing the centrepiece of this presidency to drift from committee to committee on the Hill, to be kicked to pieces as the GOP/Tea Party’s first political football in the summer of 2009, and then to have it make it across the finish line with only the smelliest of smelly back room deals, was a hanging offense for his political team. The President squandered a precious political year and far too much political capital getting a victory that should have come earlier and cleaner with a tougher, more hands-on approach.
It was the loss of the rock-solid Edward Kennedy rotten borough of Massachusetts in January of last year that had committed Democratic activists shrieking in rage, however. Mangling a legislative campaign is one thing losing a key Senate seat unnecessarily is a gaffe of an entirely more serious kind to party donors and activists. Even more stunning to those watching the slow motion train wreck was learning that the White House only became aware that the race was doomed days before the end. Senior Democratic political heavies muttered over the Christmas holidays that such a fiasco would never have happened in a Karl Rove-led political team. Such a disaster would have meant heads on stakes on the White House lawn the following morning. No one was fired for losing the Democrats’ Senate majority.
“Unfair!,” shout the loyalists to media friends. “Look at the record, not the cable TV noise!” This is a sad failure of liberal and progressive governments in all democracies. Delivering the goods is essential in a successful government controlling the narrative that describes your success is equally so. Celebrating a legislative victory only when your own team’s blood and body parts are scattered around you is not usually recommended.
Ten years from now historians will record that the Obama administration managed to deliver the most comprehensive reform of health care, the keystone of the American welfare state a victory that eluded legislative geniuses such as FDR and Lyndon Johnson. They will hail his careful and confident hand on the tiller of the ship of state as he successfully navigated the most challenging economic storms in half a century only days into his presidency. They may even hail his cleanup of the financial services swamp, perhaps delaying and certainly smoothing the cleanup of the next financial crash. He will get credit for having restored America’s prestige internationally, and for finding a graceful exit from Iraq.
Two years from now, President Obama may have drowned the sneers that greeted his Nobel Prize with historic diplomatic victories in the Middle East, Iran and North Korea. His epochal Cairo speech may have been followed by leaders from the Arab world united in endorsing the Palestinian peace deal that has eluded every president before him.
The shoots of a green economy and a massive rebuilding of public infrastructure may be delivering, once again, the kind of American national self-confidence lost in the turmoil of the sixties. Big-city public schools may be once again delivering to black and Hispanic American families the kind of career advantage they delivered for generations of immigrant Americans for a hundred years before.
Today’s nasty, raceand class-divided politics, driven by the most vicious phony journalists and their allies in parts of the social conservative movements and the Republican and Tea Parties, may be only bitter but happily distant memories. The Know Nothings of the twenty-first century may have been put down just as firmly by cooler heads on left and right in the Democratic and Republican parties as were the Father Charles E. Coughlins and George Wallaces of another era.
Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch’s corrosion of American democracy may have been arrested by a new inclusive politics seeking shared bargains about national goals. The world would be a much more wobbly enterprise if today’s political conmen and the nightmares they peddle were to prevail. Those who doubt that a stable and confident America is the “one indispensable nation” — in Madeleine Albright’s phrase — would quickly panic in a world without that deep keel. Progressive Americans, their friends internationally, and friends of a strong and prosperous United-States everywhere can only hope that all these dreams are delivered. But in November of this year, voters will thrash Democrats from coast to coast, angry at 10 percent unemployment and a president who seems not to feel their pain. Those dreams of a fairer, greener, healthier, more prosperous future seem very far away for the nearly 20 million Americans unemployed today.
Political pundits and Pinot Grigio drinking voters sneer at the emotional, sometimes even tearful, storytelling appeal of a Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney or Tony Blair. Our political elites are far more comfortable with the radiant brainpower of a Pierre Trudeau, Dalton McGuinty, or Michael Ignatieff. The problem is that the best story wins, the best teller of stories wins, and the best stories contain tears and triumph, sometimes in maudlin quantity.
The curious gap in the Obama story to date is the one between his power on the stump and his pale pomposity in the studio, between his empathy and charisma in one setting and his chilly flat affect in the other. On a massive stage, in an even more massive stadium in Denver to a steaming audience of nearly 100,000, Obama delivered a speech that has already become a political classic. He did it night after night in a gruelling 20-month campaign. A spellbinding storyteller about his Kenyan father and his weapons-making grandma, and his Indonesia/Hawaii/Harlem/Chicago biography captured the nation and much of the world. In the Oval Office, in front of a TV camera, he turns wooden, inauthentic, even nervous.
FDR was a crippled, wheelchair-bound, private-on-the-verge-of-paranoid personality who trained himself to soar on stage and to seduce in front of the radio microphone. JFK dazzled at dinner parties and in dirty union halls while suffering teeth-grinding back pain and frequent bouts of severe political doubt. Obama’s presidency, following the bitter pill that the mid-term elections will deliver, will turn on his ability to demonstrate the same performance skills, to rebuild the emotional connection with the American people that he forged so masterfully only two years ago.
There is another, gloomier analysis of the slide of the Obama presidency, and that is that its decline was inevitable. Some analysts of the challenge of democratic leadership say that towering statesmanship will never return to any of the old democracies, because their electorates are too jaded, too cynical, and too battered by the grinding economic pain of the last two decades. Their machinery of government is too vast to be flexible or transparent, and its will provokes anger.
Removing the brief uptick of popularity always delivered by war, no American president since Kennedy has avoided crashing popularity in his first term in office. In terms of personal popularity, Tony Blair, Paul Martin, and Nicholas Sarkozy all went from hero to zero with astonishing speed. John Howard may be the only elected leader of a major democracy to hold off such a collapse till near the end of his long reign.
Disrespect for parliaments, legislatures and government is at an all-time high. Cynicism about every institution in society continues to rise. Social engagement in traditional arenas of activism — politics, the church, local charities — continues to fall. In his latest book, Power: Where Is It?, Canadian government and civil society guru Donald Savoie cites gloomy anecdote after dour statistic after cynical insider quote to paint a portrait of the failure of institutions in Canadian society. Like most who have examined this sobering decline, he is much better on descriptionthanprescription.
Ten years from now historians will record that the Obama administration managed to deliver the most comprehensive reform of health care, the keystone to the American welfare state, a victory that eluded legislative geniuses such as FDR and Lyndon Johnson.
It is easy to paint such a portrait in almost every developed democracy. It does seem that there is no arena in which it is not possible to sketch a picture of societal decline and decay: educational attainment, social inequality, levels of tolerance, substance abuse, on and on. It is the case that no democracy is free of a good-olddays nostalgia that sometimes translates into an anti-immigrant sentiment, sometimes into an anti-tax movement, and sometimes into an attack on political and business elites.
Taxes were lower when the state provided only ports, roads, and schools. Parliament and civil servants were more accessible and accountable in a rural agricultural society. And unless you could tell a Ukrainian from an Ulsterman on the sidewalk, you might not have been as easily spooked about the foreigners stealing jobs as some are today in a city like Toronto, which has become a majority nonwhite metropolis in a single generation.
So the challenge for Obama and every democratic leader like him is this: the state is a monster in scale and sometimes in behaviour the complexity and opacity of huge public bureaucracies will always alienate their citizens immigrants of colour will from now on be a majority taxes will never go down in any meaningful amount, and the services they buy will appear to be deteriorating as far in to the future as one can see. Is it any surprise many voters are furious?
And yet, at the depressing end of a presidency that was by most measures one of the worst in more than two centuries, in a country that knew it was on the verge of a massive economic collapse, at the nadir of two failing wars abroad, a political miracle occurred in the United States.
To see a sunnier path forward, it is important to recall that an unknown Illinois junior senator — a black, Harvardeducated community organizer at that — moved an entire nation. He won the largest majority, in more places, in more demographics, with greater turnouts, than any Democratic president other than FDR and Lyndon Johnson. It will remain a high-water mark of American political genius for decades to come.
So how can Obama get his mojo back, as so many American commentators have put it recently?
First, he needs to reconnect with those who joined the Obama crusade in his transcendent campaign: deliver more potent speeches to large crowds, whack Republican recidivism, and crystallize a simple narrative about his achievements and his vision. He made a good start in early September, but quickly retreated to the routine of the White House.
Conservative and progressive political activists are typically self-obsessed and politically immature. They expect the revolution to be finished by Friday afternoon, and feel free to attack their own governments if they fail to deliver every promised detail, in their favorite colour, on time. Obama needs to fight back, and to demand Democratic leaders fight back against these attacks from the rear. Robert Gibbs’ explosion at “professional leftists’“ was understandable as a reaction, but was not the required cure for the disease.
Estimates of campaign spending this year are, unbelievably, higher than the record-shattering levels set in 2008. In a nonpresidential year, at the end of a recession, some experts predict spending will be 50 to 100 percent higher than the $4 billion of two years ago. Since the Supreme Court struck down spending limits, an eruption of cash is flooding into so-called independent PACs and other political vehicles. Not surprisingly, given how angry the Obama administration has made both the financial and the energy sectors — the two largest donor groups — most of that money is pouring into GOP primary and general election accounts. One of Obama’s less heralded achievements in 2008 was that he raised and spent more money on his own campaign and to support Democrats nationally than did the GOP. This was a first since the early 1960s. It’s time he combined his speechifying with an intense fund-raising tour.
We are in new terrain for a presidency governing in a serious recession. Unlike his predecessors attempting to rally a nation drifting in the economic doldrums and the inevitable political blame-game that drift creates, Obama has two new adversaries: social media and cable news hysteria. FDR faced an overwhelmingly hostile press as he battled the Depression, but their ability to torque hostility hour by hour was trivial by comparison with the power of American talk radio, Fox News and its local TV allies, and the vicious conservative blogosphere. (It should surely be more embarrassing to Americans than seems to be the case that these pseudo-journalistic forces have persuaded two out of five Tea Party supporters that Obama is a Muslim, and two out of ten Republicans that Obama is not an American!)
Bill Clinton was sneered at for making small politics his signature following his 1994 drubbing, focusing on censorship chips and school uniforms. Obama has the cruel fate to have been successful at enormous legislative policy achievements — health, infrastructure renewal, financial reform — that are so far relatively invisible and therefore meaningless to ordinary Americans. This makes them susceptible to Fox News fantasies about bankrupting the nation. The administration needs to find its own small-gesture politics — hopefully items emblematic of bigger battles to come in energy and immigration — that connect with American families in a gloomy year ahead.
FDR developed the fireside chat as his way of reaching over the heads of a hostile media to American living rooms. Obama was the first presidential candidate to demonstrate he knew how to harness the power of social media on a national scale. In government, he’s lost that magic. Again, it’s time to reassemble the young team that pulled off his domination of Facebook, the early days of Twitter, and personalized messaging. They need to remobilize his base and hammer the opposition as powerfully as they did in 2008. Obama needs to find his form of digital fireside chat that reaches voters over the heads of the cacophony of instant gossip-driven news.
One thing is clear: there is an enormous appetite for a message of change, renewal, tolerance, and inclusion of the sort that got Obama elected less than two years ago. How well he recaptures his ability to connect with the white, middle-class, independent voters who were seized by his vision the first time will define his presidency.
The stakes could not be higher. If he can regain his political mojo through the adroit execution of the mobilization, marketing, and management skills he demonstrated as a candidate, he will be re-elected in 2012 and probably remembered as one of the great presidents of the postwar era — no matter what happens to Democratic senators, congressmen, and governors in November. Richard Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all came back from serious midterm poundings, after all.
But if 2011 is a repeat of 2010 in the Obama White House, he will be one of the great one-term disappointments of all time.
Historical partisan control
The table below shows the partisan control of all state legislative seats between 1921 and 2017 broken down by two-year increments to correspond with the aftermaths of even-year general elections.
The three largest shifts in partisan control followed elections in 1932, 1922, and 1958, resulting in Democratic gains.
The largest shift followed the 1932 presidential election when Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover (R) during the Great Depression. Democrats held 1,149 more state legislative seats in 1933, a 14 percentage point increase. This gave Democrats control of a true majority of state legislative seats, which would continue until the 1946 midterm elections, the first following Roosevelt's death in 1945. The second-largest shift followed the 1922 midterm elections during Warren G. Harding's (R) term in office. Democrats held 962 more state legislative seats at the start of 1923 than they did in 1921. Before the midterm elections, Democrats controlled 34% of state legislative seats, the party's lowest level of control at any point between 1921 and 2021. The third-largest shift followed the 1958 midterm elections during Dwight Eisenhower's (R) second term in office. Democrats held 758 more state legislative seats at the start of 1959 than they did in 1957, a shift of ten percentage points in the party's favor.
Ballotpedia defines peak control as the point where one party held its largest percentage share of state legislative seats. Both party's peak levels of control corresponded with the election of a president of their party. Democrats' peak control followed Jimmy Carter's (D) election in 1976, the first presidential election following Watergate. Democrats controlled 67.6% (5,116) of state legislative seats. Republicans' peak control followed Harding's election in 1920 following the end of World War I. Republicans controlled 62.2% (4,637) of state legislative seats.
How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America
The first lady went to Bowie State and addressed the graduating class. Her speech was a mix of black history and a salute to the graduates. There was also this:
But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of "separate but equal," when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can't be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.
If the school in your neighborhood isn't any good, don't just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children's promise.
. And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.
At the most basic level, there's nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor. Hip-hop has produced some of the most penetrating art of our time, and inspired much more. My path to this space began with me aspiring to be a rapper. Hip-hop taught me to love literature. I am not alone. Perhaps you should not aspire to be a rapper because it generally does not provide a stable income. By that standard you should not aspire to be a writer, either.
At a higher level, there is the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them. My son wants to play for Bayern Munich. Failing that, he has assured me he will be Kendrick Lamar. When I was kid I wanted to be Tony Dorsett—or Rakim, whichever came first. Perhaps there is some corner of the world where white kids desire to be Timothy Geithner instead of Tom Brady. But I doubt it. What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don't extend past entertainment and athletics. That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are the direct result of American policy.
Enacting and enforcing policy is the job of the Obama White House. When asked about policy for African Americans, the president has said, "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of all America." An examination of the Obama administration's policy record toward black people clearly bears this out. An examination of the Obama administration's rhetoric, as directed at black people, tells us something different.
Yesterday, the president addressed Morehouse College's graduating class, and said this:
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there's a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: "Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness."
We've got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.
This clearly is a message that only a particular president can offer. Perhaps not the "president of black America," but certainly a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses"—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."
It's worth revisiting the president's comments over the past year in reference to gun violence. Visiting his grieving adopted hometown of Chicago, in the wake of the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the president said this :
For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue it's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.
Two months earlier Obama visited Newtown. The killer, Adam Lanza, was estranged from his father and reportedly devastated by his parents' divorce. But Obama did not speak to Newtown about the kind of community they were building, or speculate on the hole in Adam Lanza's heart.
When Barack Obama says that he is "the president of all America," he is exactly right. When he visits black communities, he visits as the American president, bearing with him all our history, all our good works, and all our sins. Among recent sins, the creation of the ghettos of Chicago—accomplished by 20th-century American social policy—ranks relatively high. Leaving aside the vague connection between fatherhood and the murder of Hadiya Pendleton. Certainly the South Side could use more responsible fathers. Why aren't there more? Do those communities simply lack men of ambition or will? Are the men there genetically inferior?
No president has ever been better read on the intersection of racism and American history than our current one. I strongly suspect that he would point to policy. As the president of "all America," Barack Obama inherited that policy. I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history, to speak as though the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame. Moreover, I would say that to tout your ties to your community when it is convenient, and downplay them when it isn't, runs counter to any notion of individual responsibility.
I think the stature of the Obama family—the most visible black family in American history—is a great blow in the war against racism. I am filled with pride whenever I see them: There is simply no other way to say that. I think Barack Obama, specifically, is a remarkable human being—wise, self-aware, genuinely curious and patient. It takes a man of particular vision to know, as Obama did, that the country really was ready to send an African American to the White House.
But I also think that some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks and the timidity it showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis, which devastated black America (again). They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.
I think the president owes black people more than this. In the 2012 election, the black community voted at a higher rate than any other ethnic community in the country. Their votes went almost entirely to Barack Obama. They did this despite a concerted effort to keep them from voting, and they deserve more than a sermon. Perhaps they cannot practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn.
America's hangover from hope: A look back at the historical state of the Obama presidency
By Conor Lynch
Published January 18, 2016 1:00PM (EST)
Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Since the day Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a state senator from Illinois, his oratorical prowess has become widely known and celebrated (or, for many of those on the right, a subject of cynical contempt). It is a gift that helped the president in his meteoric rise, and one that no current presidential candidates seem even close to matching. So, then, it was not a surprise that the president gave an eloquent and inspirational speech for his final State of the Union address on Tuesday , sounding very much like the man progressives fell for back in 2008, and addressing everything from climate change to economic inequality to our broken political system. As with last year’s address, which had a theme of inequality and “middle-class economics,” the president tackled some of the most important issues on the minds of progressives (while also pleasing the centrists with praise for the private sector).
And with the rise of another underdog presidential candidate looking to repeat Obama’s impressive feat of stopping the Clinton machine back in 2008, progressives are beginning to feel as energized as they were when Obama was still a junior senator without a streak of gray in his hair. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, is not a young man nor a supremely gifted orator, and he would be both the first Jew and the first self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” to be elected president, which would be quite historic in and of itself. (According to polls, his association with the word socialism is much more detrimental than his Jewish background or his apparent agnosticism.) But with new polling data released this week showing Sanders and Clinton neck and neck in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and a narrowing lead for Clinton among Democrats nationally, the feeling of déjà vu is becoming more and more apparent.
One cannot help but think of the optimism that Obama’s election brought seven years ago, and the many letdowns that have come since. As Obama discussed last week the various problems that also have helped Senator Sanders become a major force in the Democratic primaries, it was hard not to feel disappointed that, after seven years, economic inequality has steadily risen, the big banks have grown only bigger, hardly any villains of the financial crisis have been prosecuted, political spending has gotten more out of control, mass surveillance has become even more omnipresent, and the Obama administration has virtually waged a war on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. As Sasha Abramsky writes in The Nation:
“Obama was elected in the wake of a catastrophic housing market and broader financial collapse. He spoke of big and bold reforms, and voters presented him with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact systemic change. He could, and should, have broken up the big banks. At a time when there was double-digit unemployment, he could, and should, have used his podium to push a Democrat-controlled Congress to enact public-works programs on a scale far larger than that envisioned by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He could, and should, have used the moment for healthcare reform to argue the case for a single-payer system.”
After almost two terms, there are many things that Obama could and should have done, but did not. Contrary to what many right-wingers still (incredibly) believe, Obama was never a leftist or socialist or even democratic socialist, and since entering office in 2009, he has governed like a centrist, preserving the status quo and keeping special interests relatively happy. (Many forget that some of Obama’s biggest contributors were Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, JP Morgan & Chase and Citigroup.) True, following two years of having majority control of both the Senate and House at the beginning of his term, Republicans have made governing increasingly difficult, and Obama would have no doubt accomplished more had he had support from Congress. But there is little reason to think that his administration would have been overwhelmingly progressive.
Consider Obama’s ardent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the massive free trade deal that some have called “NAFTA on steroids” -- and also a “bill of rights for capital.” Like NAFTA, this deal is more about providing corporations and investors with increased rights than simply lowering tariffs and promoting trade. The TPP would greatly extend intellectual property rights so that corporations could collect more in rents, while also providing investors with the right to sue a country’s government if they deem that a new law or regulation has made their investment less profitable. (Tobacco company Phillip Morris has used a similar provision in other trade deals to sue countries for enacting plain-packaging laws). The deal is widely opposed by environmentalists, labor unions and progressive activists. And yet, Obama has fought hard for its passage. Very different from the 2008 Obama, who told an audience in Ohio: “I voted against CAFTA, never supported NAFTA, and will not support NAFTA-style trade agreements in the future.”
The Obama administration has left many progressives cynical about real change, and this is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders has managed to put up a fight against the “inevitable candidate,” Hillary Clinton. Unlike Obama, who was young and relatively new on the national political stage when he became president, Sanders has been fighting for progressive ideals for many decades, and there is almost no chance he would suddenly become a status-quo-preserving centrist if elected president. Clinton, on the other hand, would almost certainly govern this way.
None of this is to say that the Obama administration has been a failure. It has many accomplishments, including Obamacare, the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, the Iran nuclear deal, and more. After inheriting the worse economic crisis in eight decades, the economy has recovered, slowly but surely, and the deficit has been cut by two-thirds. But these have been the accomplishments of a centrist, not a progressive. (Obama arguably falls into the center-left of the political spectrum.) To think of how much more the administration could have done (or how much less, when considering mass surveillance or the drone program) leaves a lot to the imagination.
An important lesson that progressives should take from the Obama years is that you cannot rely on a single person or administration to change an entire system. Even if Sanders were to be elected (which is still, admittedly, a long shot), it would be extremely naive — especially after witnessing the Obama years — to think that he could “fix our politics,” as Obama put it in his speech, without a committed mass movement behind him (and not just a grassroots movement every four or eight years). The many letdowns of the Obama administration could easily fuel cynicism, but would it not be wiser to learn from them and push forward with a more committed and comprehensive movement?
Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
How Obama has turned back the clock on race relations
Americans celebrating Martin Luther King Day today should be proud of the incredible progress made since the civil-rights leader’s birth 87 years ago. At the same time, we should lament one of President Obama’s greatest failures.
The last Democratic president and the last Republican president both managed race relations more effectively than Obama has. Seven years after American voters made history by electing the country’s first black president, racial tensions have worsened.
It didn’t rank on Obama’s one-item list of his “few regrets” during his State of the Union address. But signs of Obama’s failure are on our streets, on our campuses and among our leaders, left and right.
“Ferguson” has become shorthand for African-American fury objecting to insensitive white cops harassing young blacks. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has spilled into American campus culture, as privileged kids attending the world’s finest universities bemoan their alleged oppression — bullying anyone who challenges them.
This black backlash has prompted a white backlash, personified by Donald Trump. Every justifiable police shooting called “racist,” every Halloween costume labeled politically incorrect, every reasonable thought censored makes Trump look like America’s last honest man.
Amid this tension, Obama has been disturbingly passive — even during America’s first serious race riots since 1992. He acts like a meteorologist observing the bad weather, not a president able to shape the political climate.
How embarrassing that Obama’s most memorable act of presidential leadership on race may end up being inviting a black professor and a white cop to the White House for his 2009 “beer summit.”
By contrast, consider Bill Clinton’s proactive attempts to reconcile blacks and whites. In November 1993, Clinton preached in Memphis against black-on-black crime, urging African-Americans to tackle the problem from “the inside out,” through family and community, not just from the “outside in,” meaning government.
His crime-fighting package and welfare reform promised poor blacks safe streets and dignified employment, without “dog whistling” — blaming blacks to woo whites. In 1997, Clinton and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee welcomed into Little Rock High School the “Little Rock Nine,” the blacks blocked in 1957 at the schoolhouse door. When one of them — now older, grayer, heavier but freer — stumbled, the Republican governor and the Democratic president tenderly caught her.
The 1990s had racial clashes, too. Still, although it was foolish to call Clinton our “first black president,” Clinton reassured blacks that they had a friend in the White House, while encouraging blacks and whites that we could create Dr. King’s moral America.
Even though only 9 percent of black voters chose George W. Bush in 2000, his presidency’s biggest controversies dodged race, focusing on terrorism, the Iraq war and the economic meltdown. Bush’s outreach to Arab-Americans after 9/11 calmed many African-Americans — just as Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery today offends many blacks.
Bush integrated his administration naturally, appointing Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice because of their smarts, not their race. Obama’s election in 2008 was a natural progression of the Bush era’s racial progress.
Last August, Gallup reported that “Americans rate black-white relations much more negatively today than they have at any point in the past 15 years.” White optimism dropped 27 percent in the last two years, with black optimism down 15 percent.
Since at least the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, managing racial tensions has been an important yardstick of presidential success. It’s fair to ask: What has Obama done to reconcile blacks and whites? How has he helped beyond being America’s first black president? And yes, expectations are greater for him, even as the politics are more volatile.
After this fall’s volatility, quickly calling for unity in this State of the Union was feeble. While championing America’s redemptive dynamism, Obama should also recalibrate the debate, acknowledging the diverging fears and anger of both blacks and whites.
Only once the atmosphere changes can he start pitching solutions — from the “inside out” and the “outside in” — to improve race relations by next Martin Luther King Day, which will fall just days before his presidency comes to a close.
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.”