Flux comes easily to mind as the word that best fits the legacy growing from the Obama presidency in its seventh year. It swims in so many pressing uncertainties whose outcomes will tell Americans whether they have a democracy that still delivers “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or a future largely written in oligarchy, if not something worse. Consider but a few of the sharks that nibble today at that legacy: climate change, unwanted wars, overpriced health care, stubborn recession, unprecedented poverty, exploding technology, lost value of labor, unstable immigration, insecure borders, drug mania, crumbling infrastructure, banks too big to fail, trade agreements that breed more corporate power and trade deficits, raging ideologies and evangelical zealotry.
So at which targets will President Obama aim to round out his legacy? Will it be distinguished by hard choices, or by dilemma and paradox?
So far, the Affordable Care Act has been his biggest score. More than 10 million Americans now have health insurance who didn’t have it before. He is standing tall too in the gradual recovery from the Great Recession, aka the Bush-Cheney Recession, the worst since the Great Depression, which closed out the B-C presidency, and history may well show to be our most destructive. Steady growth in employment is now running five full years under Obama.
He has sided with science on climate change, in words at least. But his actions are not matching those words. His ardent advocacy of the pending Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement show a lack of concern for the environment that is alarming, and at odds with science and the consensus developing in his own Party. It puts him on the side of Wall Street, not the rainbow rank-and-file who elected him. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats are digging in their heels on trade agreements that lack firm safeguards and security for both the environment and American workers. American labor has in fact been burned in previous such agreements.
His overall performance has shown more concern and favor to the banks and Wall Street than to the priorities that fortify his own Party. His White House staff has been built more around Ivy League connections than the grassroots within his Democratic base. Specific economic gains of the recovery were not detailed in the talking points fed to party precinct workers, which could have lessened the Republican sweep of the 2014 elections, and left the president facing an unfriendly Congress in the months that will wrapped up his administration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has assured one and all that his mind and ears are open and his posture friendly for the duration of this last Congress of the Obama presidency. But the flat-out hostility toward the first black president that was the drumbeat of his recent years as Minority Leader can’t be erased overnight, amid the doubt over how hard he’ll really try. Mitch might think twice about his own legacy. Will he be remembered most for using his leadership in the Senate to refight the Civil War, conspicuously in his rejection of the first minority to capture the White House – won twice, no less?
President Obama and the First Lady are Democrats, with the capital D more in name than substance. Both his presidency and his party have been tested and continue to be tried by it. Their rapid ascent in Illinois politics came more from good fortune than from service in either office or party, or their performance in either. His service in the Senate was neither long enough or deep enough to complete his seasoning in either party politics or high office. Perhaps his Harvard degrees helped.
With more grassroots party seasoning, his election would have grounded him better as the first black president. That distinction alone assured him of trial by fire. The economic collapse in the last year of the previous administration of Bush-Cheney had greeted him with forests of finance turning to ashes.
Even before his inauguration, in spite of the downturn, the Republican leader of the Senate, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, swore that whatever the president was aiming to do, he would do his best to torpedo. At the same time, the Republican minority in the House declared their intent to do the same. It was a unanimous vote of their caucus. It was a show of racism the public musn’t forget, however hard the right-wing has tried to paint it as something else.
Such blind unity was also at odds with the well-worn traditions of bipartisanship and compromise, and actually turned in the president’s favor, even his reelection. It ultimately paved the way for the enactment of a norm typical of nations that elect their government: national health insurance, under the Affordable Care Act, which has enrolled millions in coverage they could never qualify for in the past. It could rank him in history as the first important president of the 21st century, better still if complemented with a major overhaul of immigration.
Yet his relatively shallow grounding as a Democrat turned his White House into a team that suffered from the same deficiency. The staff are heavily Ivy League, consistent with the educations of both Obamas, and thus more elitist than traditional Democrat. It is not a staff well-rooted in his party base.
This showed very unhappily in the 2014 mid-term elections which went heavily Republican, not unlike most elections in the sixth year of a two-term administration when the party out of power ordinarly scores well. Yet in 2014, the economic tide ran so strongly in the president’s favor that it should have helped the Democrats more than it did. It was in large measure a failure of White House wonks to get the message out. Nearly five years of steady job growth and rising productivity, with the first inkling in a generation of a recovering middle class, yet none of this was documented on bullet sheets that in the hands of party faithful could be spread door to door, precinct by precinct.
On February 22, 2015 (birth day of the first President, no less) he laid out the case in rich detail: “For tens of millions, Obamacare is working.” Much of that data was available in the fall, but never played in the campaign. An FDR, or Truman, or Clinton would never have missed such a bet. But the Obama team were not deep enough in party ties or experience to know this was their job, to boost both incumbent and party.
Just how much, and for how long, this bungle will hurt the party is uncertain. Will Hillary Clinton, coming from the Obama cabinet, be hurt? Never has the country been quite so ready for a woman becoming commander-in-chief, but Hillary’s Obama link is at play in the Progressives’ push to get their erudite champion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to challenge Clinton. Little doubt that a few TV debates between the two would arouse party faithful and stir voter interest in degrees that no one in the GOP pipeline could muster.
Roughly speaking, the Progressives are to the Democrats what the Tea Party is to the GOP. But it’s more in the nature of Progressives and Democrats to find common ground. As the old saying goes, when Democrats fight each other, they produce more Democrats. It’s a game the conservatives can’t play; if they do, their faith suffers. They trip on their egos, when they try. Ego is a common Republican hang-up. No one shows it better than Ted Cruz, but his rivals have plenty also to spare.
Despite the recent mid-term setback at the polls, Democrats are eager to play in 2016, to draft a new platform and pack historic Philadelphia for their convention. The Progressives seem especially eager to show their colors. Color itself will work in the Democrats’ favor, with the very beautiful Obama family then rallying both their old base and legions of admirers who appreciate the class they’ve shown in the White House.
What have the Republicans got to match that show. The Bushes? Jeb, now their standard-bearer, has the early lead in the money chase, but is tarnished by both his governorship and the name. Americans cannot easily forget the the George W. presidency was the most destructive run in White House history, from the devious and reckless war to the Great Recession on which it ended. Even the surge of Jihad and the grisly Islamic State show dots running back to Bush-Cheney.
The Obamas will be remembered happily for their class, their style. People who wanted to see a minority leader win the White House should feel they were fortunate. They could hardly have done better.
Far more important, history is beginning to smile on this president. His Affordable Care Act is proving monumental, enrolling tens of millions thus far in health insurance for which a great many could never qualify before. It may be fine-tuned by the Republican Congress, but the USA is not about to give it up and thus tell the western world that the one superpower is the only party in that world that can’t afford universal care for its people. Too, he has shaken off the Great Recession now with an unprecedented run of consecutive months of job growth. He’s well on his way to rank as the first important president of the 21st century. Should he bring the Republican Congress into a compromise (that cherished word of the Founding Fathers) on immigration reform, he could easily find himself firmly placed among the ten (or fewer) most important presidents.
In any event, he will be remembered as a better president than Democrat. Which is the way our politics should work, anyway. And, as the first First Lady of color, Michelle will surely be remembered as a superb complement in that highly sensitive responsibility, perhaps more deeply educated for it than any predecessor. The Ivy League might take a bow. Does it ever miss the chance? It’s obvious now that Michelle is a political force in her own right, whose popularity at the moment tops any other figure in the Party.
If it turns out that she actively campaigns for Hillary, and makes it clear she is doing it purely because she wants to, if that’s close to possible, the respect and trust people have for her is bound to help the ticket. Who’s to say that in eight years she won’t become our second black president? That could easily make this first couple the most prominent Democrats of this century, a certification larger than their Ivy League degrees.
Frank Mensel — March 2015