Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Obama We Hardly Knew Ye

There are days--many days--when it seems it was all a dream.  Barack Obama was President?  For eight years, without the breath of a scandal, without a lie or a serious misstatement of fact, with intelligence, a mastery of fact and logic, with dignity, grace, humor and kindness?

Nah, couldn't have happened.

To say that the current incumbent makes the Obama presidency look better is very faint praise indeed.  I often think that the greatest beneficiary of the apprentice dictator in the White House has been George W. Bush.  He is quite unexpectedly yet undeniably no longer the worst president in American history.  Lucky guy!  And in less than a decade after he exited, taking an extra helicopter turn to view the more than a million and a half very excited and very relieved people assembled for his successor's inaugural.

In his columns and his book Audacity, Jonathan Chait made the case that Barack Obama's achievements are such that he will be viewed as one of the best and most accomplished US presidents in history.  Recently (in what reads like the introduction to a paperback edition of Audacity) Chait looked again at the Obama legacy six months after he left office. (Six months?  Seems like six years.)  And despite the obsessively thorough efforts of Obama's successor to undo and reverse his achievements, Chiat sees only more reason to value President Obama's legacy.

Chiat notes that those who complained about inaction as well as opponents may now realize that "governing is hard. "Obama’s critics complained endlessly about the slow pace of legislation and the endless compromises wrung by interest groups and recalcitrant moderates. Liberals spent his presidency pining for imagined alternatives who could overpower the opposition. High-minded centrists endlessly blamed the president for his failure to dissuade Republicans from their strategy of total opposition, and in so doing helped reinforce the success of that opposition. Throughout his time in office, Obama labored against the contrast of hazy memories of presidents of yore who could supposedly reason with or overpower their foes and impose their legislative will."

Turns out "governing is hard."  Though around here I noted that the same complaints were made about President Kennedy, there apparently was the sense that somebody with bluster and will could get things done.  Hasn't worked out so well.  And there are many more examples of magical thinking that didn't come true, though you had to be awfully stupid to believe they would.

As for Obama's legacy being wiped out, even with such malevolent intensity, Chiat disagrees:  "Large chunks of Obama’s achievements are not even theoretically vulnerable to reversal — most obviously, the stimulus, bank rescue, and auto bailout, which rescued the economy from a second Great Depression."  

Other achievements won't be touched without a 60 vote Senate majority, while others--like the jumpstart to alternative energy technologies--have taken lives of their own in the business economy and are very likely to triumph despite the worst efforts of this apocalyptically regressive regime.  The situation is similar generally in regard to addressing the climate crisis--Obama's quiet gains and his international leadership have created a momentum that so far survives.

Then there's Obamacare, which is more popular now than at any time in the Obama administration. "Half a year of Republican-run government has systematically exposed the right-wing arguments against Obamacare as bad-faith rhetoric or outright fantasy. One small-business owner, who told the New York Times in 2012 that he opposed the law as something jammed down the public’s throat, was re-interviewed this year. “I can’t even remember why I opposed it,” he now says."

Chiat makes no claims for current Democrats but notes that the Obama coalition has proven more potent than the one boasted about by the current incumbent:

"Even coasting on the crest of the Obama-era economic expansion, and having yet to face a crisis he did not create himself, Trump’s approval rating sits in the 30s...
When the wreckage from this presidency is cleared away, there will be only one party that possesses a politically and substantively workable governing model. Trump’s administration may have the power to destroy, but Obama’s had the power to build."

Also in recent days, another view of the Obama years as well of the current regime came from an unlikely source: the conservative Senator Jeff Flake.  Most of the stories derived from his book emphasize his rebellion against that current regime and its fearful leader.  But he also acknowledges that whatever lack of achievements there were in the Obama years were the Republicans' responsibility, with consequences we're seeing now.  In his Politico excerpts he writes:

"But we conservatives mocked Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on his pledge to change the tone in Washington even as we worked to assist with that failure. It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime. 

It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. 

It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued. To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial."

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