Barack Obama has been the hallmark figure in Democratic politics for fifteen years.
He is celebrated – for his intelligence, for his cool, for being the first black president.
He is remembered fondly as a liberal reprieve between the eight year Bush administration and the four year Trump administration. But Obama’s administration had a checkered history.
Yes, Obama had some wins. More Americans had healthcare when Obama left office than when he entered. He entered into important international accords, like the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Agreement. He normalized relations with Cuba. He endorsed gay marriage (albeit never in a campaign, only in his second term). And throughout, he operated with a composure and a civility that many Americans have since realized they took for granted.
But the Obama administration had some losses, too. Some glaring mistakes. The biggest? In my opinion: Obama’s general abandonment of liberal mores, while still posturing as a liberal, thus degraded the expectations of what a liberal president could and should do.
Barack Obama abandoned his soaring rhetoric
Obama was elected on the wings of his soaring rhetoric, his yes we can messaging. But the moment Obama was elected he revealed himself as an incrementalist. Instead of yes we can he began equating the federal government to an ocean liner that could only be turned a few degrees at a time. Basically, he said it doesn’t look like we’re doing much but the incremental changes will get us where we need to go eventually. Inspiring! Imagine that as a campaign slogan: we’ll get there eventually.
Indeed, much of Obama’s legacy isn’t about what he did do, but about what he didn’t do. Like getting US troops out of Afghanistan. Granted, Obama inherited the Afghanistan War from his predecessor. But Obama did have an eight year window to end the doomed national-building project. Instead, Obama allowed the conflict to linger, before handing it down the line to his successor.
Similarly, Obama was complacent in building out the judiciary, appointing federal judges at a restrained tempo – an effort that culminated in the failure to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
But it wasn’t just incrementalism that Obama employed to degrade liberal expectations. It wasn’t just non-action that mars Obama’s legacy. Obama also engaged in nefarious decision-making, at-home and especially, abroad.
Obama’s less savory legacy
Obama made some decisions that you’d think would disqualify him from his pedestal atop the Democratic Party. He carpet-bombed Libya, for example, helping to overthrow Gaddafi in a move that led to Libya becoming a failed state. Obama also backed the Saudi-led war/blockade of Yemen – which led to a mass casualty and mass starvation event, what is commonly referred to as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Obama embraced Bush’s War on Terror, even expanding drone and special forces deployments. Under Obama’s sprawling drone program, even US citizens were assassinated – which Obama, a former Constitutional Law professor, should have recognized as a violation of due process.
And at home, Obama prosecuted whistleblowers and journalists with a vigor that no president before or since has matched.
In many respects, Barack Obama’s presidency dashed the hope that a mainstream party head could be benevolent. What I mean is that, everyone (well, the left at least) expects Bush and Trump and the Republicans to do heinous stuff. Torture people and jail journalists and drone strike Americans. But Obama was supposed to be a civil rights leader. He’s supposed to be the guy from South Side With You and Dreams of our Father’s and Becoming. Instead he was an incrementalist with an over-willingness to shed blood abroad.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.