Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reflections on 8 Years of Obama

(Another 8 years have come and gone, so it's time to do this again.  For the last time I did one of these, my reflections on Bush's legacy, see here.)

If I'm being completely honest, my primary emotion upon realizing we're coming to the end of the Obama era is just surprise at how fast the time went.

8 years already?  Where did that time go?

They say time passes faster as you get older.  The Reagan years, the Clinton years, and the Bush years all felt to me like long stretches of time.
At the end of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years I felt like I had gotten so used to seeing their face on TV that it was difficult to remember a time when they hadn't been president, and it seemed impossible to imagine that anyone could ever take their place.

But with Obama? Man, it feels like 2008 was just yesterday, and that I've barely gotten used to seeing him behind that podium.

Anyway, like a lot of liberals, I was absolutely in love - with Barack Obama in 2008.  I remember getting chills down my spine when I listened to him speak, and I recall at least a couple conversations from 2008 when I was passionately telling other people that Barack Obama was the kind of leader our country desperately needed.

At the same time, though, I knew enough history to be somewhat cautiously pessimistic.  Liberals had had enormous optimism for Jimmy Carter back in 1976, and then he had let them down.  Liberals were also unrealistically optimistic about Bill Clinton in 1992.

If history had taught us anything, it was that Barack Obama was likely to disappoint his liberal supporters.

And yet, remember the aura Barack Obama had around him back in 2008?
He seemed so sincere, so earnest, and so capable.  It was hard not to think we were witnessing the birth of a new George Washington, and I had hopes that I was privileged enough to be living when America was entering a new golden age.  (I had some fantasies of one day being able to tell my grandchildren what it was like to be living when the great Barack Obama was president.)

Writing immediately after the 2008 election, I was conflicted between my historical pessimism, and my infatuation with Obama.  And so I hedged my bets and wrote up both possibilities.  To quote myself from November 5, 2008:

Of course the graveyards of politics are littered with young charismatic eloquent politicians who turn out to be total duds. Most of them were Democrats. (Both Carter and Clinton came into the white house on a wave of optimism promising change from their Republican successors).
But perhaps on this night, in spite of everything we can allow ourselves a bit of optimism. And so I admit that I, as much as anyone, have high hopes for Obama. I imagine he'll carve out a path in history, and perhaps join Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson as the greatest US presidents in history. I like to think that someday he'll be the next face on Mount Rushmore, and the next portrait on our currency. Bush has sure left the country in a mess, but if anyone can sort it out, it looks like Obama can.

When, inevitably, Barack Obama turned out to be a lot more moderate than we liberals had hoped, I contented myself with saying, "Oh well.  At least he's not as bad as Bush was."

I was, therefore, somewhat taken aback when I started encountering leftist students who told me that Barack Obama was much worse than Bush.  (I was in grad school in 2010, and so spent the year on a university campus).
I didn't believe it at first.  Obama wasn't perfect, but surely he wasn't worse than Bush!
And yet, these kids made a very convincing case.

First as background:
A critique that leftists often make of Democrats is that Democrats get away with worse stuff than Republicans, because people only get outraged when Republicans do it.  (Nader had made this critique of Clinton-Gore back in 2000, arguing that Clinton-Gore's economic policies were actually incredibly right-wing, but liberals had been lulled into inaction because Clinton seemed to be one of our own).

Now, the same argument went again, because Bush was no longer in charge of the war on terror, people had stopped getting outraged over it.  And as a result, the war crimes were actually getting worse.

Under Barack Obama, the US military presence was actually expanding into parts of Pakistan and Yemen.  The war on terror was getting bigger than it had ever been under Bush.
Drone strikes were increasing.  Assassinations and extra-judicial killings increased under Obama.

And Obama's legacy would continue to get more problematic as the years went on.
The Obama administration aggressively moved to destroy Wikileaks.
And Bradley Manning (as she was still known in those days) was held in inhumane cruel conditions in solitary confinement.
And then the NSA revelations.
And the fact that Obama's administration punished whistleblowers more aggressively than the Bush administration had ever done.
Or that Obama's administration had prosecuted more people under the 1917 Espionage acts than all the previous administrations combined.

And yet... and yet for all that, Obama was so skilled at saying all the right things in his speeches, that whenever I listened to him speak, I would almost be won over by him all over again.  I suspect most liberals had the same problem. (Ditto with Michelle Obama).

Inspite of everything, I always had a hard time believing that Barack Obama wasn't a good man at heart.  Which made it so much harder to accept all the bad things his administration had done.

Perhaps future historians will puzzle over the Barack Obama problem.

It may well be that he was just a very good actor, and he fooled us all.
Or, this may be an indication of what happens to a good man when he gets to Washington, and the limits of the power of the President.


Back in 2008, Obama's critics were already predicting that his oratory would be more impressive than his actual governing skills.
This prediction turned out to be correct.

And yet, although making good speeches isn't the only job of the president, it is part of the job of the president.  He is the voice of the nation.  His speeches carry influence at home (like FDR's fireside chats) and abroad (like Kennedy in Berlin).
Having a president who is a skilled speaker is at least of some value.

Whatever else Barack Obama's faults may have been, it was at least of some value to have a President who could speak well.

In that respect, at least, we're all going to really miss him when he's gone.
Now that we have a thin-skinned narcissistic monosyllabic man-baby buffoon coming into the White House, we're going to miss a President who used to talk to us like adults.


Also in Barack Obama's favor: he was really popular abroad.

The Japanese loved Barack Obama.  So did the Vietnamese.  (When Obama came here to Vietnam, he absolutely charmed the young people here.)

I suspect this popularity abroad translated into some sort of "soft power" for the USA during these years, but someone better educated in political science than me would have to quantify it.

For us expatriates, though,  2008 was a turning point.  During the Bush years, and especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was really embarrassing to be an American.  Then, suddenly with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it was cool to be an American.
Now, it's gone back to being embarrassing.


On June 4, 2008, after winning the Democratic Primaries, Barack Obama made this speech:
generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal;

I remember seeing that speech on the news at the time, and getting really optimistic.  I really wanted to believe that this was the start of the end of global warming.

Now, 8 years later, and not only have we not made any progress on global warming, the situation is much worse than it ever was.
It is looking increasingly likely that I, and my generation, will witness ecological catastrophes within our lifetime.

Future generations will probably resent us.  But I hope they won't judge us too harshly.  It's not that we didn't care.  We did, after all, vote for politicians who promised to end climate change.  It's just that those politicians never did what they promised.


Okay, last thought:

For most of my childhood, until I was 10 years old, Ronald Reagan was the only President I knew.

I was born in 1978, so technically I lived through 2 years of the Carter administration.  But I don't remember those years.  From my earliest memories, until the time I was 10 years old, Reagan was the only President I knew.

As a result, the words "Reagan" and "President" are forever linked in my mind.  To this day, if you asked what my image of an American President is, it would be someone resembling Ronald Reagan.

Of course, back then, the idea that a black man could ever be President was unimaginable.

But for any kid who is around 10 years old today (or younger) Barack Obama is the only President they have ever known.  So for them it is entirely normative to have a black person in the position of the highest authority of the United States.
That should be worth something, right?

At the moment, we're seeing a reversal in progress in race relations.  But I wonder if this will be eventually offset when the the generation that grew up under Barack Obama reaches political maturity.
Time will tell, I guess.

That's the glass half full side of the equation.
The glass half empty side of the equation is when you think about the children who will grow up under President Trump, and will think it normative to have a buffoon in control of the country.

Link of the Day
Chomsky: Obama's Imperialist Policies

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