By Robert A. Vella
During World War I, the phrase “no man’s land” referred to the deadly ground between opposing armies which soldiers on both sides dared not cross without great trepidation. In a political context, Barack Obama charged blindly into such a danger zone with his presidency which he believed would bring America back together and finally fix the broken bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. He had armed himself with only technocratic pragmatism (see: Pragmatism versus Ideology: Understanding our Geopolitical World) and the adventuresome spirit of a young warrior who had never seen the ugliness of war.
Not only was Obama’s charge soundly repulsed by a determined and calculating political foe, the President’s retreat was met with hurtful scorn fired at him from within his own ranks. Now, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, and a nation torn by destabilizing internal strife, the once promising leader laments over his utter failure to achieve what he had previously thought was possible (see: Obama seems increasingly resigned to spinning his wheels in Washington).
However, Obama’s greatest failure was not that he couldn’t shape America in the way he had envisioned. His greatest failure was having profound naiveté about his country, human nature, and how to accomplish such lofty goals. Today, he feels betrayed and insists that his plea in 2008 was an inclusive “yes, WE can.” To me, that smacks of self-pity and an aversion for self-reflection.
When he took office in January 2009, America was suffering economically, politically, and culturally. Eight years of the Bush Administration had plunged the country into a deep recession in addition to the costly misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, three decades of neoliberal economic policies and conservative social policies had seriously divided the populace along class and racial lines. Added to those woes was a growing public distrust in the nation’s traditional institutions which were rocked by scandal after scandal. What America needed at that time was a leader, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, who defied conventional pragmatism and set a bold principled course for the future.
Where FDR relished in making political enemies, knowing that he had objective truths on his side, Obama recoiled at political confrontation and chose appeasement instead. Obama’s lack of commitment to his beliefs was perceived as weakness by Republicans and Democrats alike. This triggered aggression by the former and disillusionment by the latter. Instead of being taken where it didn’t necessarily want to go, America sank further into the depths of disunity and disrepair.
From the very beginning of his presidency, Obama’s troubles became America’s troubles. In retrospect, his only complete success was the stimulus package passed early in his first term which turned around the Great Recession (see: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). His signature achievement, Obamacare (i.e. Affordable Care Act), was and still is a political disaster even though it has succeeded rather admirably as a healthcare policy.
After enactment of the ACA in 2010, President Obama’s performance falls off precipitously. His party was devastated in the subsequent midterm elections primarily due to that healthcare reform bill. Much was made of his administration’s killing of al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, although murder under any circumstances is hardly reason enough for joy. Later that year, he caved-in to GOP demands to slash the federal budget and the resulting sequester cuts largely reversed the economic progress that had been achieved in 2009 (see: Budget Control Act of 2011). Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 was nearly ruined by his puzzling lack of energy and focus in the first presidential debate versus Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The Edward Snowden revelations on NSA domestic surveillance operations made public in 2013 dealt a serious blow to Obama’s credibility on civil liberties, as did his administration’s ongoing crackdown on leakers, whistleblowers and journalistic sources. The President’s abandonment of an economic populist message for the 2014 midterms doomed the Democratic Party once again, and in some ways led to an even worse electoral defeat than in 2010.
Today, Obama is hitting the rock-bottom of political relevancy. His inexplicable push to pass the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal – which few seem to want other than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, multinational corporations, and their Republican allies in Congress – is opening a deep fissure within the Democratic Party similar to the one which caused its two-decade long demise in 1968 over the Vietnam War. Even the corporatist Hillary Clinton, who is running for president in 2016, is beginning to speak out against the TPP.
Meanwhile, racial tensions in America are heating-up to dangerous levels as law enforcement struggles to cleanse itself of bias, brutality, and corruption, and as white supremacists feel emboldened to murder black people and other minorities at will. Middle class-destroying economic inequality is rivaling that of the Gilded Age, the nation’s education system is in shambles, politicization and right-wing extremism have corroded judicial integrity, and the journalistic independence of the Fourth Estate has been sacrificed to corporate power.
Across the globe, religious fanaticism (ISIS, etc.), megalomaniacal dictators (Putin, etc.), capitalist hegemony (led by the U.S.), and environmental catastrophe (i.e. global warming), threaten to send the world into dystopian chaos.
What a legacy, President Obama. What a legacy.