Politics & Policy

Obama’s Last Report Card

(Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
He is Lyndon Johnson without the expertise.

Man, that did not go as planned at all.

Remember 2008. President George W. Bush, who had planned to spend his presidency reforming education and overseeing a Texas-style economic renaissance on a national scale, had been for years mired in the unpopular and thankless project of trying to build liberal democracies for backward desert tribesmen who have neither the capacity nor the desire for them. Vast sums of money were spent, many fine soldiers gave their lives, and no obvious progress toward that larger end was made. The American people grew weary of it, and then grew frightened for their own immediate economic prospects as a financial crisis followed by a series of unusual government interventions into the economy gave them every reason to believe, and to resent the fact, that the politically connected were playing by a different set of rules. People in decaying Rust Belt towns and other communities that had failed to thrive in the early 21st-century economic order asked, not unreasonably, why it was that Wall Street firms were “too big to fail” but their former employers were not.

And so they turned to Barack Obama. He was young, eloquent, and at times inspiring, apparently unflappable, and, in spite of his origins as a jumped-up Chicago ward-heeler — or perhaps because of them — he was, he assured us, above anything so petty as ideology. He was vague enough: “Hope and change” at the macro level, “do what works” at the operational level. To the extent that he had anything like a substantive vision, it was, roughly: Stop spending all that money over there, and start spending some of it over here. It was a message we had heard before and have heard since, not only from populists such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump but also, in some form, from more-traditional Democrats such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and from libertarian-leaning conservatives such as Rand Paul. That sentiment has long been a part of mainstream Republican rhetoric: It is what Dwight Eisenhower meant when he said that every dollar spent on bombs and bullets was stolen from the poor and the destitute.

Obama’s mandate (here I use the ordinary sense of the word, not the special political sense) was clear enough: stabilize the economy and get it back to regular growth, bring our active military entanglements in the Middle East to some sort of orderly and honorable conclusion, and use the savings to fund some sort of national health-insurance benefit.

It is a shame that Lyndon Johnson did not live long enough to see his 1964 election reprised.

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Johnson ran as the peace candidate in 1964, promising to get us out of Vietnam or at least to stop any escalation of American involvement there. The opposite happened. Johnson promised that Medicare would be efficiently run and financially self-sustaining. The opposite happened. Johnson said that his Great Society programs would usher in a new kind of America, one in which government-directed investments in anti-poverty campaigns and educational projects would not only lift up the poor but would, by helping them to maximize their own economic value, lift the entire country, too. The opposite, or something close to it, happened there, too. Johnson, who in Congress had opposed not only a great deal of civil-rights legislation but even anti-lynching bills, would in 1964 reinvent himself as a civil-rights champion. It is pleasant to think that, in whatever afterlife he finds himself in, he is both amused and pleased to see himself politically reincarnated as a black man.

The key difference is that while Johnson may have been a rotten S.O.B., he knew what he was doing, more or less. He didn’t fumble into Vietnam in 1965 — he lied about his intentions in 1964. He was sufficiently intelligent, and sufficiently a man of the Senate, to understand that the particulars of legislative architecture were going to be the deciding factor in the success or the failure of his programs. He knew that they would have to be revisited over the years. He was a deeply weird man — and a monster — but he was also a resident of the real world.

Barack Obama? Less so.

#share#In the eight years of his presidency, we have both abandoned and re-invaded Iraq, launched new engagements in the Middle East and in Africa, and contributed mightily to the mess in Syria with President Obama’s empty talk of “red lines” and sundry ultimata, none of which was taken seriously in Damascus — or Moscow, or Tehran, or Beijing, or Washington, for that matter. The United States and Russia are at the moment engaged in an escalating tit-for-tat confrontation over Moscow’s minor-league meddling in the presidential election, which is, of course, what President Obama really cares about: Vladimir Putin can annex Crimea and test out new weapons on civilians in Syria, but release a bucket of embarrassing DNC e-mails (the veracity of which is, incidentally, not in dispute) and the Obama administration swings into action.

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On foreign policy, the predictions of President Obama’s most trenchant conservative critics have come to pass: Neither our allies nor our enemies have confidence that we will say what we mean and do what we say. Beyond the squabble with Russia and the mess in Syria, our relations with Israel (speaking of meddling in elections overseas) are in tatters, our critical allies in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are both confused by our meandering indecision and alienated by the Obama administration’s pettiness and arrogance. The Europeans, who had hoped for so much from the Obama administration, have returned to their traditional view of the United States as the rich, powerful, oafish uncle kept at arm’s length until the moment of crisis, when he is irreplaceable.

Democrats should be asking themselves what Barack Obama has accomplished, too: He has decimated their party.

Obama’s record at home is no more impressive. He punted his health-care reform bill to his team in Congress, where the fine legislative minds of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid oversaw the creation of what the president proudly called “Obamacare,” which has created absolute chaos in the health-insurance market. The artificial marketplaces it created are collapsing, insurers are abandoning the program, premiums and deductibles are skyrocketing, consumers have fewer choices rather than more numerous ones, Medicaid is swollen, and the American people, who elected Barack Obama in no small part because they thought he could apply that cool intelligence for which he was famous (at least in the pages of the New York Times) to the health-insurance mess, absolutely hate what he has done. The Affordable Care Act almost certainly will be undone in the coming months, and the people who supported Barack Obama will be happy to see it go.

It is foolish (and superstitious) to credit the president with the overall performance of the economy. But, holding President Obama to his own standard, things do not look too good there, either. Growth has been anemic for most of his presidency, and the outlook for employment and wages has been mediocre. Obama likes to boast of being the green-energy president and has been a terrible adversary for the traditional fossil-fuels business, but the fact is that much of the recent improvement in GDP growth is related to the recovery of the oil-and-gas business. The American energy renaissance is to be celebrated, but, at the same time, we should be mindful of the dangers of relying too heavily on any one source of growth and wealth. American homeowners felt pretty good about their economic prospects when housing prices were skyrocketing in the run-up to the financial crisis, but prices move both ways, including the price of oil, “peak oil” nincompoopery notwithstanding.

#related#Republicans know what Barack Obama has accomplished: The GOP practically has never been in a better position politically, with the state legislatures and governorships, the House and the Senate, and a newly minted Republican president. (A ritual acknowledgement of Hubris, who is also a jealous god, is here appropriate.) But Democrats should be asking themselves what Barack Obama has accomplished, too: He has decimated their party. The things they care the most about are, from the progressive point of view, mostly either in stasis or in regress: climate-change legislation, economic inequality, abortion, transnational governance, etc. The Left is strangely focused at the moment on exotica such as which dressing room transsexuals use at the gym and whether nonconformist bakers can be obliged at gunpoint to bake a cake for Bill and Ted’s excellent wedding. Their national leaders are elderly, intellectually narrow hacks of the kind who give hacks a bad name. Their great hope is an author of self-help books who smoothed her academic career by pretending to be a Cherokee.

Barack Obama, bless his heart, still hasn’t figured out that the job of the president isn’t giving speeches. And when was the last time he gave a speech that was worth a damn, anyway?

No, that did not go as planned, at all.


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