Thursday, September 29, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Long View on Obama

Tonight I was driving home after giving a talk in St. Paul and flipped on the radio. There was President Obama, in an informal discussion about veteran's issues. He was smart and easygoing and sincere and sometimes funny. What he said made sense, and he acknowledged that reasonable people disagreed with him on some of the points. It wasn't that different than many talks he has given over these almost-eight years.

It was a stark contrast from what we heard from both candidates in this week's debate, and it made me nostalgic for something-- the Obama administration-- that is not quite done. Certainly, I have disagreed with some things this president has done. In fact, I have written over a dozen critical op-eds and went on a rant at the White House itself. Still, I think that this president has done a remarkable job, and may be the best of my adult life. We did not get embroiled in war. He engaged in addressing important issues, including clemency. He spoke in a very real way to many of our nation's greatest needs.

Are you nostalgic? Or something less positive?

Something less positive.

True. President Obama represents the best of the intellectual aristocracy that has come to define our generation (it is no wonder that he is such a hit with guys like us; we would naturally gravitate to him and his eloquent reserve in a faculty meeting). Add to that his stellar example as a family man (loving father and conscientious husband), and there is much in the man that I find extremely appealing.

Of course, he also exhibits many of the darker elements of his class (a hubristic faith in the ideology he learned in holy places, a tendency to segregate within his rank, and a certain impatience or even contempt for disagreement outside his fixed universe of belief--even as he publicly poses (and probably honestly sees himself) as an open-minded man of reasonableness and compromise. Again, he represents the best and the worst of the academy and the society constructed upon its modern world views.

What about his presidential legacy? Too soon. I remember a conversation we had in 2008 in which we discussed the then ubiquitous assertion that George Bush-43 would be remembered as the very worst president in American history. I said (as I said a lot back then): "have you never heard of Franklin PIerce?" It takes a lot of doing to break the Bottom Five in this category. I said I thought 43 would be somewhere in the middle--not super memorable; he was just another POTUS who came along and did a middling job, certainly not "great" or "near-great," but not a "failure" either. You made the very astute point that he was bad (worse than I asserted) because he came along during a time in US history that required great leadership and then only proved a middling president--not horrible but not great, which, in the special historical case, deserved harsher assessment.

As time passed, I have come to agree with you on Bush-43 (brought home to me, in fact, on the weekend I visited both the HST presidential library in Independence and the Bush-43 library in Dallas). Bush-43 was no Truman. Of course, Iraq and the Middle East look much worse today than they did in 2008, which also plays a major factor in my analysis.

For President Obama, I can see him failing by that same measure. In a moment that required something great, he fell short in some significant ways. Aside from the the question of whether he enabled "Trumpism" (which he clearly understands so much of his legacy hangs on this election), like Bush-43, he presided over a radical re-orientation of American foreign policy and leaves the final success in the hands of a successor (very risky business). He spent eight years in office while our national debt and unfunded liabilities doubled--and failed to address that potential looming crisis in any significant (or even cursory symbolic) way. He presided over an executive more and more independent of checks and balances without any sense that reform must come (even though he campaigned on just such convictions). He certainly possessed a unique opportunity to direct a conversation on race in America, which he mostly abdicated and then finally (almost passive-aggressively) launched in an unhealthy direction. Of course, there is more (there is always much more). But just a few examples of why I will not miss the Obama administration in the short term and why I really doubt that I will look back on these eight years as the halcyon days of the American republic.
Your post and the first comment above make me nostalgic for the Clinton administration. Aside from the womanizing (on which he was not the first or the worst of our presidents!), he balanced budgets, reduced the national debt, kept us out of wars, and made progress (lost by his successor) on middle-East relationships.

Bush 43 is among the worst because he enable the Cheney faction of his party to lead us into a middle-East war on false pretenses, where we have been ensnared for thirteen years and more years to come, rather than focusing on the Afghanistan matter which could have wrapped up much better and earlier had we not been overextended into Iraq.
Waco Farmer: You are certainly right that it is too soon to write the legacy, and it will still be too soon in 2017. We agree on something essential, I think: That Barack Obama is an admirable man in many respects, and I admire him (even as I critiqued him) in a way I did none of his predecessors in my lifetime.

Actually, 2018 will be too soon, too, as will 2019 and 2020. When I look back, one crucial learning curve for me regarded President Reagan. People forget this, but when he ran for President in 1980, many people I knew treated him the way they treat Donald Trump now: As a bringer of the end of civilization or a Hitler for our age. They were wrong. It took a decade to see that his tactic of outspending the Soviet Union did something remarkable, and it took the release of his letters to understand his intelligence behind the facade of public life.

Waco Friend: Clinton had some economic advantages (the tech boom fueling the economy) that made some of those gains possible. I do appreciate, though, that he kept us out of senseless wars.

So, Wacoans-- I will be down there on October 12, talking about my book at 7th and James! Can't wait to be back.
Definitely too early. Look at Eisenhower's reputation. It has risen steadily over time, especially after the cold war ended.

And yes, in retrospect, the Clinton Administration is looking pretty good. Of course, the almost unprecedented 8 years of a booming tech-fueled economy, a moribund Russia and a not-yet developed terrorist threat helped. The last two years especially. By then, all the Arkansas hacks and Friends of Bill were gone, professionals were running the White House and the GOP had kicked Newt to the curb. Trent Lott, although perhaps a "southern sympathizer" and Dennis Hastert and Tom Delay wanted to govern and make the country work. They all fought hard, but when it came time to make a deal, they did.

I agree with the Farmer, Obama's aristocratic ivy league bearing and demeanor and his intellectualism kept him from being a man of the people. He has dedicated followers, but he's failed to transform in the way that he promised in 2008. (with the caveat, of course, that I did not support him). He's hip and cool to some, but to many he's arrogant and out of touch.

He tried to look like he was willing to compromise when he really was not. Then played hardball when he didn't have as strong a hand.

Yes, the GOP Congressional leadership was not a cooperative partner, but Obama failed to take the opportunities he was offered.

His failure to find true "shovel ready" (his phrase) spending projects in 2009 was a huge mistake. If he had put construction workers out on highways building bridges and tunnels and other visible vital infrastructure instead of spending it on solar panels and Democratic pork barrel projects and political payoffs, he probably wouldn't have lost Congress.

True, he did not get us into a new war, but his "red line" comments vis-a-vis Syria were foolish and deadly. Libya is worse off than it was 8 years ago. Sure Quaddafi was evil, but if hindsight says we should have left Saddam Hussein in power, the same is true for the late Libyan Dictator.

His worst foreign policy mistake was his decision not to base the defense missiles in Poland. He undercut and destabilized an important industrial ally new to The West. AS a result Putin took his measure as weak and has exploited that in Crimea, Ukraine and now the Baltics. This action is part of the reason why an extremist populist, anti-intellectual government now reigns in Warsaw.
Good to hear, Mark. Seventh and James is a good place to be.

Just to clarify: While I do find things to admire about President Obama, generally, I do NOT find him MORE admirable than the presidents of my lifetime (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush).
And despite the fact that the late Clinton Administration got more professional over time, just today, yet another report on just how juvenile and poorly managed they were:

or "it was"
I think it is hard to measure the success--or failure--of a presidential administration in real time. In many ways, it requires the historical perspective of people who lack the lived experience of those times.

For example, opinion is still probably sharply divided on Reagan. I, for example, see his legacy in the continual attempts at supply-side economics by our current politicians. I see the 1980s culture inculcated by such views as presaging our current income inequality and empathy gap. I see the deterioration of American community in the seeds of dissension planted during the 80s years coming to fruition in the 90s. In short, I see Reagan as a literally polarizing figure.

Whereas others are ready to praise him for "winning" the Cold War and the downfall of the USSR. I tend to think that was going to happen with or without Reagan, but one cannot discount his contributions.

But then again, I am a child of the Reagan and Bush years. I was a teenager by the advent of the Clinton administration, and a college student during the Bush administration. Of course my views of those administrations are going to be shaped in large part by my lived experience during those years.

Similarly, Obama took office after I graduated from law school, effectively beginning my "adult life." I remember standing in line at the church in Hewitt to cast my primary vote for Obama, feeling the energy and hope in the room as we did so. That kind of experience is inseparable with my judgment that the Obama administration has been, on the whole, a positive presidency.

But as with anything, the situation is always infinitely more complex than our conceptualizations of it, which is why distance is needed to make historico-critical judgments such as where said administration will fall along the axis of good and bad.

I can foresee the easy reaction to Bush II being knee-jerk bad, because there are some real black marks -- 9/11, Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, etc. But scholars love to take the common wisdom and upend it, so I imagine by 2050 or so some enterprising young liberal academic will write "Reinventing the Bush" and discuss the matter from a different perspective, the same as in 2040 a conservative scholar will pen an opus to Bill Clinton's forward-thinking on free trade and the global economy, upending a few years of conservative scholarship that picked the first Clinton administration as the time when our country went off the rails into political correctness and social permissibility.

The truth will lie somewhere amidst all of this fine scholarship, a shiny little nugget that does not insist upon itself or its relevance, but quietly states that "no matter what you think of me now, history has its own judgments."

Assuming course Giant Meteor 2016 doesn't reduce us all to ash.

More likely the combined effects of a major drought followed by record rainfalls wiping out several major cities while the storm surge floods the coastal metropolises!
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