The Thinker

Assessing the Obama administration

Nearly eight years later it’s not too soon for a final critique of the Obama administration. How you feel about the administration is probably tied toward your feelings for Obama himself, and few seem to be neutral. In spite of Donald Trump’s general election win though it’s clear from Obama’s final approval ratings that overall Americans approve of him and his administration. The last approval rating I saw had his approval rating at 54%, and it’s been above 50% for some months now. Given our highly polarized political climate, this is pretty good. This means that overall Obama would probably earn a B as president.

Americans expect their presidents to be supermen. Trump’s election proves this is still true. Indeed, it’s probably true to say Trump won by projecting this superman image. Trump has famously promised to drain the swamp. We’ll see how well he does over the next four years. It’s not hard to predict that he will fail at this. As President Obama found out, institutional forces are stronger than any president or Congress. That’s because real change is hard.

Obama though started out his term with a Democratic House and Senate. Trump will have the same privilege but not with the veto-proof Senate that Obama enjoyed. When you have this trifecta real change is possible. Obama’s success here was really due to having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2008. That’s how the Affordable Care Act got enacted into law. It almost certainly would not have happened otherwise.

The ACA is arguably his greatest domestic achievement, one that Trump and Republicans seem intent to unravel if they can. Getting it even through a Democratic congress though proved frustrating and nearly didn’t happen at all. Obama’s mistake was to stay relatively disengaged from its creation. The wheeling and dealing in Congress in its creation gave it structural deficiencies that may cause it to be repealed. It’s unclear whether if Obama had bashed some heads it would have emerged in a form that would have been more viable. It’s clear in retrospect that not having a public option was a serious flaw, as it made it harder to contain costs. Still, much of the ACA worked. It ensured twenty million Americans who hadn’t had health insurance before, mostly due to the expansion of Medicaid. For at least four years these people will have had quality insurance, mostly for the first time, although how affordable it was is debatable. If “affordable” means plans with high deductibles and copays, it sets up a losing scenario for those with the least income.

So I think it’s fair to criticize Obama for being too disengaged in the politicking aspect of his job. It’s clear that he preferred the cozy White House to the grubby business of wheeling and dealing with Congress. Particularly after the Republican wave in 2010 it was clear that his wings were clipped and that the remainder of his administration would be tactical in nature to keep what was earned. His game became mostly defense at this point. To his credit, he played an excellent game of defense against an implacable and united Republicans in Congress.

It’s also quite clear to me that his effectiveness was undercut substantially by being mixed race. Perceived as black it pressed all the unstated buttons of racial animus among Republicans, feelings that were clearly expressed in the election of Donald Trump. Republicans were not ready for a black president, not even a black Republican president, let alone a woman and it unleashed a powerful and almost primal rage from them. His race caused them to dig in their heels to an extraordinary degree and animated opposition against Obama. It arguably created the Tea Party, an overwhelmingly racist group of people. Certainly if Obama had been white there would still have been tension, but it’s unlikely he would have been so relentlessly stonewalled by Republicans.

So as a wheeler-dealer Obama gets at best a C. That’s not to say that he didn’t show other extraordinary strengths elsewhere. As Commander in Chief, he gets an A from me. We haven’t totally gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but our presence in both countries is minimal while people who live there are shouldering more of the burden. He proved intelligent and tenacious as a Commander in Chief, famously tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

Obviously he had some foreign policy failings, principally Syria and Libya. In truth though neither of these, particularly Syria, was solvable and bound to explode in anyone’s face. Some of his decisions were controversial, such as the use of predator drones, often killing innocent people. But he adroitly kept us from getting entangled in yet another foreign war. If Trump proves to be typically Republican, our armed forces will be back into these melees soon after he is inaugurated.

One of the most amazing aspects about his administration was its scandal-free nature. This is virtually unheard of and was certainly not representative of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations. Obama proved himself to be a man of integrity and those values projected down through his entire administration. I expect this to change quickly in a Trump administration. In retrospect this will be seen as one of Obama’s greatest achievements. In addition he never succumbed to the moral failings that dogged other presidents.

Obama proved a seasoned administrator who was systematically cautious and thoughtful before making any decisions. He was adamant that decisions should be based on facts and by diving deeply into the underlying policy issues. He was uniformly cool under pressure, and made smart decisions like using diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.

Personally, Obama was a consistent gentleman. He was thoughtful and always measured his words carefully. He was truly inspirational but like any president he was caught in a political web notoriously difficult to fundamentally change. It’s not clear to many Americans, particularly those who opposed him, but he did work in their best interest, such as economic policies that caused resurgence in the auto industry and spurred the growth of green technologies. Time will make this clearer. It won’t take many years (or even months) under a Trump administration before even his critics will feel wistful about the man, someone at least consistent, reliable and caring. He will be missed and appreciated, and distance will make this fondness grow.

Thank you, Mr. President for being a truly model civil servant.

 

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