On January 14, 2008, in Reno, Nevada—during the Democratic primary—Barack Obama said that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
In an attempt to turn progressives against him, Hillary Clinton framed Obama’s remark as a compliment of Reagan’s politics. It was clear he was not being complimentary to Reagan’s conservatism, but was acknowledging Reagan as a transformational president. His presidency wasn’t labeled “The Reagan Revolution” for nothing.
There are very few presidents who could truly be considered transformational. They arrive rarely, and cause such a political shift that they define American politics for a generation or more. Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Reagan are ahead of the pack. One can disagree with the results (personally I find much about Reagan’s legacy reprehensible), but one can’t deny the transformative effect they had on the country.
Barack Obama—The Cosmopolitan President
Everything about Obama’s 2008 campaign suggested that he was going to be a transformational figure. From the “hope and change” of his campaign branding, to the contrast between him and the outdated stodginess of both his primary and general election opponents.
It’s also true that who he is added a transformational aspect to both his campaign and presidency. His mother was from Kansas, his father was from Kenya, and he spent his childhood in both Indonesia and Hawaii. More than just being the first black president, he was the first truly cosmopolitan president—innately at ease across culture.
This naturally drew young people, minorities, and the liberal class (college educated professionals) to him. There was even a book about The Emerging Democratic Majority, with a chapter called “George McGovern’s Revenge.” The liberal coalition that once represented the failed McGovern campaign was now ascendant, or at least the wonks within the liberal class thought.
Who Obama is also ignited the reactionary right-wing. Obama turned out to be a moderate—in many ways conservative—president. But the very essence of who he is (black, cosmopolitan, democrat) caused the reactionary right to see him through a racialized lens.
A New Deal…for Wall Street
After spending decades renouncing their New Deal heritage, a global financial catastrophe caused the Democratic Party to embrace Roosevelt’s legacy once again. The November 24, 2008 issue of Time Magazine featured a cover of Obama photoshopped as F.D.R. The copy read: The New New Deal: What Barack Obama can learn from F.D.R.—and what the Democrats need to do.
It was at this point that Obama had an opportunity to be a truly transformational president. He had a mandate and his party held both houses of congress (though the idea he had total control is revisionism—the Democrats still lacked the 60 Senate votes needed to defuse legislative obstructions).
But it was the selection of Obama’s cabinet that signaled the real direction of economic policy. Tim Geithner—who helped to run the Bush administration’s bailouts—now ran the Obama administration’s bailouts as Treasury Secretary. Ben Bernanke was another holdover from the Bush administration.
Larry Summers was appointed as the Director of the National Economic Council in January of 2009. As Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Summers was influential on the deregulation that is now held responsible for the financial crisis—such as the repealing of the Glass-Steagall Act.
Rather than frightening Wall Street, this team took none of the bold measures the situation called for. No large institutions were broken up, no major bankers were terminated. These banks were deemed “too big to fail,” and enjoyed protection against bankruptcy. No one was held responsible.
Meanwhile, the president’s stimulus contained many good things, but proved to be insufficient to truly heal the damage of the recession. Following Clinton rather than Roosevelt, Obama’s team advised him not to frighten markets by spending too much.
At the time, Elizabeth Warren worked as a bailout oversight official. She concluded that when there was only so much time and so much money to go around, the president’s team chose Wall Street.
From Anti-NAFTA to Pro-TPP
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were critical of NAFTA during the campaigns. So was Obama—he denounced NAFTA as a candidate. As president such criticism of past trade deals stopped, and he then wanted to push his own trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, commonly called TPP.
TPP became a talking point during 2016, but few knew the background. It was Obama’s attempt to expand the trade policies of NAFTA to many countries on the Pacific Rim.
It was major industries, such as Big Pharma and Silicon Valley, who were involved in negotiations for the TPP—not workers. Like NAFTA, it was designed to protect their investments abroad. To use one example, the TPP would obstruct trade in cheaper medicine.
Those who dare to oppose trade deals like TPP are often accused of being backward protectionists—reactionaries against innovation and free trade. The ones implementing these deals frame themselves as pragmatists.
Fortunately the public backlash to TPP became so great that the Obama administration grudgingly abandoned it. But it was just another example of how “hope and change” transformed into “complacency and status quo.”
An appealing aspect of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs is their simplicity. Roosevelt’s Social Security provided income to retired wage earners. Johnson’s expansion of Medicare meant publicly funded healthcare for everyone over sixty-five.
But simplicity is replaced by complexity for contemporary technocrats—and no more is that evident than Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Make no mistake, Obamacare is an improvement on what came before: a health insurance system solely guided by private interests, with no regard to those with pre-existing conditions. It was a cruel system, and one that will soon return if Republicans get their way.
Yet it was a compromise with the private system that lead to Obamacare becoming increasingly complex. It’s a maze of exchanges, mandates, subsidies, and countless other moving parts. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller called it “the most complex piece of legislation ever passed by the United States Congress.”
All of this is the result of the neoliberal approach to policy-making—which Obama inherited from his Clintonite predecessors. It was an attempt to make healthcare more affordable without damaging the health insurance industry—as single payer would have done.
Just as the administration went easy on the “too big to fail” banks, it protected Big Pharma and the health industry. What it ended up with is a compromise between fundamental healthcare reform and the inefficiency of the private system—which lended Obamacare’s critics plenty of ammunition.
Now the Democrats are fighting to protect important parts of Obamacare, which is important. But the fight would be much easier if they were defending a Medicare for All program. The simplicity and effectiveness of fully government-run programs make them very popular with the public.
The Big, Bad Republicans
A certain defeatism set in among Democrats well into the Obama presidency. The agitating left were dismissed as overly idealistic and naive—after all, once Republicans took over, Obama had to deal with the most obstructionist Congress in history.
It’s true that the GOP Congress has taken obstructionism to absurd levels, but as Obama proved, there was still much power within the Executive Branch. Franklin Roosevelt used it to enact antitrust enforcement.
At one point monopolies were illegal in America. Why? Because it was understood that concentrated economic power threatened the economic freedom of individuals (the person who wanted to start a family grocery store or farm, for example). But ever since the neoliberal Reagan era, antitrust laws have been dropped, and this has led to large mergers.
Again, it was within Obama’s power to be a transformative president, and reverse the neoliberal paradigm of the last 40 years. The antitrust laws are still on the books, and it is within the executive branch’s power to enact them.
One couldn’t blame the big, bad Republicans for everything. Why wouldn’t Obama push for these sort of changes?
What remains is that Obama may be a social progressive—an identitarian concerned with how discrimination effects marginalized groups. But much like Bill Clinton before him, he wasn’t interested in making the structural changes needed to adequately redistribute wealth.
In short, he was a far cry from the socialist rightwingers accused him of being (unless one counts socialism for Wall Street).
A Not So Bad President
In a time when social media is filled with sentimental farewells to President Obama, and both left and center prepare for the horrific reality of President Trump, this article might seem harsh. But I would argue a sober look is needed to address the successes and failures of the Obama presidency—and to learn from them.
Growing up during Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, Obama is easily the best president of my lifetime. But that’s not saying much.
Like John F. Kennedy was for the baby boomers, Obama will remain a cultural icon for the millennial generation. Not only as the first black president, but he also ushered in a new social progressivism in line with the diversity of the country—not only with race, but with LGBTQ rights (though he was initially slow to support them).
America is a cosmopolitan nation—and though the Trump administration may try to reverse Obama’s policies—it cannot reverse the cultural changes he symbolized.
Obama has been a good president for the environment, helping to draft the Paris Climate Accord. He preserved more than 1 million acres of land, including a beautiful marine refuge in Hawaii. There has been a great increase in solar and wind power. Under his leadership, the EPA has enacted the toughest climate rules in history.
There are many other accomplishments: Opening relations with Cuba, a settlement to the nuclear standoff with Iran, ending a ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and making it easier for women and minorities to fight wage discrimination.
There has also been much to criticize from the left: expansion of surveillance state, failure to close Guantánamo, and the excessive use of drones.
But even two of the greatest Democratic Presidents had stunning flaws: Roosevelt opened Japanese internment camps, and Johnson’s far-reaching domestic agenda was dampened by his debacle in Vietnam.
So relative to other presidents, Obama was a not so bad president.
A Transitional President
Though Obama had the potential to be a truly transformative president, he ended up being merely a transitional one.
In many ways Obama resembles the last decent Republican president—Eisenhower: a leader who showed restraint on foreign policy, and who believed government should have a substantial role at home. Yet Eisenhower was hardly a transformational figure.
History may look back on Obama as a bridge—from the neoliberalism of the Clinton era to a more unapologetically left-leaning Democratic Party. But that depends on the direction of the party—whether it learns the lessons of the 2016 election, or doubles down on the centrism of the Clinton wing.
If the party does travel leftward, Obama will be seen as the catalyst for a new coalition. Then perhaps a transformational president will build upon his socially progressive legacy, with comprehensive structural reforms that will reduce economic inequality.
Or—if the party stumbles into irrelevancy—the Obama presidency will be seen as a lost opportunity for a truly progressive era.