Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Looking Back without Anger

There's a lot of talk about "holding Donald Trump accountable"--as if we actually wanted him to keep his promises.  I am nearly the opposite--I want him to go back on all of them.  With some, the result would be an improvement; with the others, he would alienate his base and make it impossible for him to be re-elected.  That would seem to be the best possible outcome, given that he completes his single term.   That, and not getting us into a stupid war.

Now, holding Barack Obama accountable--that is a different question, and one on which I have prepared my expectations from the very beginning.

On the Issues -- The Ten-Point Program:  10 Years Later
Let me be clear:  this was my 10-point program for the 2008 election, not Barack Obama's.  I did do a subsequent post comparing mine to his and found plenty of similarity, but this was one I outlined ten years (plus a month) ago, in December, 2006.  This was two months before Obama officially announced his run, but it was clear at this point that he would, and I set these down as the basis for my evaluation of the candidates on the issues.

On the issues!  That's how far we have fallen; ten years ago we were considering a host of possible candidates (Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards on the Democratic side; John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, George Pataki),  respectable, proven politicians who had meaningful, considered positions on the principal issues.  In this last general election campaign, the issues were barely noticed (somehow "conflicts of interest" got overlooked, too), and we remained mired in controversies about emails and pussy-grabbing.

Anyway, to begin my retrospective on the subsequent 8-year Obama presidency now about to end, let's review the progress, or lack thereof, on the issues around which I built my hopes and long-term expectations at the time.  Here they are, in order:

1. Get control of climate-changing gases.
2. Preserve our biosphere.
3. Rebuild our relations with the world.
4. Visualize our children’s / grandchildren’s society, and the implications of that vision.
5. Reform the UN Charter.
6. Get control of armaments.
7. Establish clearly the political dimensions of privacy and of permissible government intrusions into it.
8. Provide health care to our people.
9. Electoral reform.
10. End the "War on Drugs" (or at least give it some focus on the more harmful ones).

I would say, looking at the Obama Administration's accomplishments, that they did not do half-badly against these ambitious goals.   

The good:  On the #1 priority, the Paris Conference agreement was a huge step forward, and I do not believe the Trumpists will be so blind as to reverse or withdraw from it (perhaps overly optimistically), and even if they do, it will survive four years of Drumpfen depredation.   #2 is a big, long-term one, but the recent executive actions Obama made with regard to offshore drilling, the dreaded tar sands pipeline, and expansion of protected lands show that they had the right idea. Obama made huge progress with #3, however, it is reversible progress, and Trump & Co. will do a lot of damage to that progress, maybe more than the original gains since the Bush era.  

We will come back to #8 in a moment, but I would give the greatest credit to Obama's efforts on #10. Decriminalization of marijuana was always going to be a second-term initiative, at best, and would have needed a Congressional majority which was never present.  Still,  the progress on reducing the harm of Federal mandatory sentencing rules, the commutation of many excessive sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and the tolerance shown toward states adopting liberalization of marijuana--even for recreational purposes--turned a corner in the decades-long, failing "War on Drugs".  There is still a real possibility of a U-turn--the Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions would probably favor one, while Trump, though non-committal, seems inclined to leave the status quo. 

Health Care (#8)--the mixed bag: Well, Obama tried, he really tried.  There were flaws in the initial concept, which borrowed heavily from Republican free-market approaches.  Perhaps they were necessary: For this to succeed, Obama and his team needed to line up the willingness of the private insurers to support the exchanges in the states.  He was able to make the other two key compromises with Congress:  to define the juice which needed to flow to make it work (the additions to Medicaid made available to states), and the individual/employer mandates and taxes to make it fiscally sound. 

The biggest failure was a political one:  too many states' regressive governments gambled on creating failure through denying their own constituents the benefits of increased Federal aid   In the long run, such a policy would have been self-defeating in a number of ways, but the short-term refusal to accept "Obamacare" worked as a political rallying cry, and we are now here.  What will happen seems unclear from the variety of Republican postures, but I think it is clear:  They will take the unilateral step of "ending Obamacare", while preserving its most popular features.  Private insurers will get an even better deal, the individual/employer mandates will wither, and the question of thee Federally-funded expansion of Medicare to all age groups (the so-called "public option" which Obama's team eschewed), exactly contrary to Paul Ryan's inclinations, will return as a major political issue for 2020. 

Bridges Too Far:   I put #4 and #6 in this category, long-term goals which could never be accomplished in one eight-year administration, especially with intransigent partisan opposition, ones that were overly ambitious in this contentious political atmosphere. #4 is all about making the adjustments in taxation and endowment benefits needed to stabilize the long-term fiscal approach (and de-escalate the generational conflicts now emerging with the retirement waves of Baby Boomers).  There were programs put forward which could have been the basis for bipartisan negotiation (the only way this can happen), but they died due to the Republicans' phony obsessions with debt limits and their threats to shut down the government to get a balanced budget (where are those concerns now?).  As for more controls on armaments, nuclear and otherwise, Obama had the will, but the prospects soured when Russian President Putin decided to pursue instead a policy of Cold War revanchism in the Crimea and Ukraine.  The agreement with Iran, brokered with the assistance of all the major powers, was a significant achievement preventing a new wave of proliferation in the Middle East: let's see if it holds, or if Trumpian freelancing will destroy it. 

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: On the U.N. (#5), Obama gave the organization  the respect due, no more or less.  There was no leadership, and the organization is now in serious trouble due to the reactionary wave of xenophobic nationalism; already reduced to a debating society, the will to continue funding the essential functions of the Security Council and General Assembly at an adequate level may once again be endangered.  I'd have liked to have seen some structural recognition for the rising power of responsible nations like India, Germany, South Africa, and Brazil.   It's still possible, but I also admit that nine nations with veto power is nine too many. 

The limits on government intrusion into private communications (#7) remains a sensitive area, and one about which advocates of a right to privacy can only be pessimistic.  The odious Patriot Act from the hysterical post-9/11 period was rolled back somewhat, but notions that Americans can speak and act, secure in the protections which enable truly free "speech" are illusory.  Meanwhile, TV cameras monitoring everything, designed to reduce various forms of crime, are functioning largely to protect property rights, not individuals' ones, and we are all ever more dependent on the digital realm, which is also tending toward increasing vulnerability. Nothing good happening here. 

Last, and most egregious, only negative progress was made on electoral reform (#9) during Obama's watch.  More and more is being spent every campaign to produce less and less of substantive result. Voting rights are being eroded to prevent fictional electoral fraud; elementary measures to increase voter turnout are spurned. Finally, I included in my announcement of my 10-point program in 2006 that we must eliminate the Electoral College; my opposition is not partisan (nor is mine to the Citizens United world of unlimited spending), and I pointed out in 2009 that Obama must not be deceived by his apparent advantage from the E.C.  What the Electoral College produces is randomized havoc which undermines the legitimacy of our elections, and that is not not new news, nor fake. 

A Few Items I Didn't Include in My Program
Filling The Great Crater - In 2006 the collapse of the economy was two years away but nowhere in sight (except to a handful of people--see "The Big Short").   I do not fault the Obama Administration's handling of the economic crisis which he inherited one bit.  Given the limitations of his job and the willingness of Congress to spring for remedies, he did nearly the best possible.  I don't feel the Dodd-Frank bill did enough to prevent a relapse (requiring huge capital for banks with the combination of investment trading and consumer assets could have done it), and I don't feel enough was done--after the crisis was ended--to punish some of the worst offenders in investment banking, and credit rating agencies, but still--given the way I feel about "job creation", I cannot and will not complain

The Middle East/Russia - Obama had a very clear mandate to keep the US out of new wars in Asia and to get us out of the ones we were in.  With the single exception of the surge in Afghanistan (barely memorable now), he did not violate his mandate.  The ballyhooed use of "soft power" did not turn out to be all that was suggested (if not promised).  Two signal successes for it were the above-mentioned Paris Conference agreement on climate changing emissions and the Iran nuclear agreements; otherwise, though, it failed badly when put to the test in the Arab Spring (Egypt, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula), and with ruthless countries like Syria, Iraq, Russia, and, most unfortunately, Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinians.  With Syria, I would not say our intelligence was too bad--most of the groups we decided not to back ended up being about as bad as Assad was; with Russia and the Ukraine, I would say we did too little, though we were right not to overpromise--the fact remains, though, that Russia had promised (in the Budapest agreement) to protect Ukraine, in exchange for its giving up its share of Soviet nukes, and we did not punish Russia nearly enough for overtly violating its promises. Our President-elect should be reminded that, with regard to that, a deal is a deal, and deal-breakers must not be rewarded, no matter how seductive their propaganda may be to a narcissist's ears. 

The Racial Thing - I guess I was not expecting race relations to blow up in the way that they did--around allegations of police bias toward blacks, and whites claiming to be under-privileged by left-center government. My greatest concern in this area was that there be an attempt on Obama's life, and the consequences of that.  So, given that did not occur, things did not go as well as I would have thought. And here we are, with reactionary forces ascendant.  Do I blame Obama, though?  Of course not--I blame the Republicans for their dog whistle approach to stirring up resentments, and I blame the canine humans who responded to them. 

Finally, The Democratic Party - I do think Obama and his team deserve a share of the blame for the amazing failures of the party which climaxed with the 2016 disaster. They weren't particularly generous about sharing resources in 2010, 2012, or 2014, and the support provided in 2016 didn't turn out to be too effective.  Particularly at the state level, Obama's popularity and governing successes were not well translated into local campaigns. This past year was supposed to be the year the wheels came off the republican Party; the bolts holding them on were extremely loose, but it was the Democrats instead that got ejected from their vehicle with a brutal face-planting.  I accept that reality, though I do not consider it definitive and still feel their opponents are the ones that history will find in the dustbin. 

By my critical analysis (let no one say I am insufficiently critical of our President) and scorekeeping, I have: 
  • Five big successes (#1,2,3, 10, plus the  response to the Great Crater)
  • Two very large mixed bags (#8, and the Middle East/Russia)
  • Three areas where my expectations were simply too high (#4, 6, and the Racial Thing); and 
  • Four areas where I was disappointed (#5, 7, 9 and the Democratic Party). 
I know, I am falling into the trap of which I accuse others--expecting too much of a US President. Guilty. I am grading on the curve, though, and by the standards of postwar Presidents, I rate him in a tie for second, behind only Eisenhower, tied with Truman, who shared some characteristics with Obama (dropped into a hot mess, good with the allies, far-sighted, but left some sticky foreign entanglements himself), and just ahead of Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan.   In the all-time list, he would be in the back half of the first quartile, somewhere between 7th and 11th. *

We will be missing him--daily--for the next four years, at least. 

*Top 6:  Lincoln, Washington, FD Roosevelt, Jefferson, T Roosevelt, John Adams; Obama grouped with Jackson, Truman, Wilson, and Madison. 

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