The Case against Obama

Eli Zaretsky

During the last Democratic Party debate, Cory Booker, challenging Joe Biden, criticised Barack Obama’s deportation policies. Predictably, articles defending Obama immediately appeared. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, was especially eloquent. He framed his defence as a response to a friend who ‘repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact’. I do not know Marshall, but I share the views of his mystery friend.

Obama’s defenders often judge him according to imaginary, free-floating criteria such as how good he was at ‘getting things done’. According to such criteria, they say, he did ‘pretty well’. But presidents should be judged by how well they respond to historical situations, not by trans-historical criteria such as how many bills they get passed. We judge Lincoln by how he handled the Civil War and Roosevelt by how he handled the Depression. Obama came to the presidency at a potentially momentous crossroads, when the neoliberal order was deeply discredited because of the disaster in Iraq and the financial crisis. In that context, Obama was the object of charismatic longings of rare intensity. Grasping this, he ran on the promise of moving in a wholly new direction, claiming we needed not just new policies but a new mindset. Once elected, however, he governed on the basis of ‘pragmatism’, ‘little steps’ and ‘bipartisanship’. In the end, it was not Obama but Trump who answered the call for a wholly new direction, but in a disastrous way.

During Obama’s eight years in office, the Democratic Party lost 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, 12 governorships and 958 seats in state legislatures. Even more damaging is the record of school boards, city councils and commissions. While Obama concentrated on building relations with Republicans, even to the point of proposing entitlement reductions, progressive energies went into protecting his persona.In 2016, the Obama White House ‘stopped conspicuously short’, as the New York Times put it, ‘of affirming that the president would campaign for Mr Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee’. In the current primary season, Obama serves as Biden’s de facto ally, even though Biden has no chance of defeating Trump. In both cases, guarding Obama’s ‘legacy’ overrides all.

Obama had some achievements in foreign policy, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba, but they do not loom large against the backdrop of his continuing support for the myth that America is the victim of external aggressors. In Afghanistan, Obama dramatically expanded a disastrous war, sending tens of thousands of additional troops, not the mere five to ten thousand he had promised in his campaign. By contrast, he left Iraq in a hurry, which contributed to the rise of Isis. In other critical areas, Obama failed to rein in rogue subordinates, allowing John Kerry to support Sisi’s coup in Egypt, and Victoria Nuland to interfere in Ukraine in 2014. Contrary to his promises, his cautious, temporising policies were not linked to any overall shift in America’s global role, which remains aggressive, unilateralist and militarist.

It is often said that the Obama-inspired team of Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Lawrence Summers saved us from a disastrous financial crisis and in that sense outdid Roosevelt’s New Deal. This is entirely false. Roosevelt used the occasion of the Depression to transform the country, turning despised immigrant workers into a prosperous, unionised middle class and modernising the poorest region of the country, the South. By contrast, Obama’s policies vastly increased the wealth of the rentier class (the 1 per cent) while diminishing everyone else’s. Even the Affordable Care Act, despite the gains, was too piecemeal and market-based to nudge the country towards the structural transformation the times demand.

Obama complained about Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings on his nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court, but that was much too little. Many other presidents would have precipitated a constitutional crisis over that patently illegal coup. Obama’s failure to do more to challenge the Senate Republicans leaves a bleeding wound in American constitutional history.

Obama has many personally appealing traits and the symbolic significance of electing the first black president of the United States cannot be gainsaid. But none of that excuses the lost opportunity his presidency represents and the opening it gave to Trump. I have to agree with Marshall’s friend: to move forward we have to see the Obama record for what it was.


  • 13 August 2019 at 3:40pm
    Joyce Kweyama says:
    Your blog is interesting. Im not a politician nor American. Im interested in world politics.
    It's possible that Obama has shortcomings. He took after former president George Bush who unfortunately made mistakes like the Iraq war. USA may not have been in the best shape when Obama took over. But nonetheless his era has mistakes.
    I think any first president like Mandela in South Africa will always have shortcomings. Sometimes it may look like he did absolutely nothing for his country.
    Is it possible that there was something good that Obama for USA or Mandela for South Africa?

    • 13 August 2019 at 3:50pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Joyce Kweyama
      of course there was good, Nothing is all good or all bad. I was looking at the Presidency in an overall way.

    • 14 August 2019 at 3:09pm says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Yes I think the Democrats dropped the ball. They certainly misread the mood of the people. God help us all. Can we stand five more years?

  • 13 August 2019 at 3:43pm
    marilyn katz says:
    It must be Zaretsky day - just read a Richard Zaretsky piece and thought of you although it's been a long long time since i've seen or read anything you've written..

    Obama was both a victory and a loss (about which I have written a lot)
    It was always clear - from the day he gave his very nuanced but immensely important anti-war speech in Chicago to the end of his reign that he was a progressive moderate - both politically and personally -

    WHile he had faults (more of an organizational nature than a political one as one never expected him to be a leftist if one knew him) we on the left also failed - when he did do what we had asked rather than claiming victory and building on it we were silent - as is so often the case when we elect our friends, we did not buid a movement from the left to hold him accountable and all the pressure was from the right - always a mistake. Maybe one day we'll learn from them. Anyway nice to see Eli's name and thoughts in print

    • 13 August 2019 at 3:52pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ marilyn katz
      thanks Marilyn. The reason the left did not build a movement in those years is that people were concerned to protect obama. They were afraid to criticize him, lest they see like racists.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:02pm
    Peter Connolly says:
    Left wing critics of President Obama such as Eli Zaretsky always note that the Democrats lost many Senate, House, and state legislative seats during his time in office, most of them in the brutal off year election of 2010. They take this as self evident proof that that the public demanded bolder leftist policies than Obama was willing or able to supply. But those seats were won by Republicans, who campaigned against Obama and the Democrats from the right. In 2010, the GOP campaigned hard against the stimulus program, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the Affordable Care Act, liberal accomplishments of Obama and a Democratic House and Senate in 2009 and 2010. The 2010 election put an end to the Democratic House and Senate, and ended Obama's chances at other liberal departures. The "Obama had a chance at radical change which he failed to achieve through his character defects" narrative pays no attention whatever to these basic facts of actually existing American politics.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter Connolly
      Obama ceded the moral high ground to the Republicans. He defended the ACA on economic grounds, and complained that we were spending too much on the last six months of life. As a result the Republicans became the defenders of the old. There was nothing inevitable about the rise of the right. You talk as if US politics is fixed in a right wing direction. This is not true. Also important is what we mean by "left." I am not advocating a state run economy.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:04pm
    Henry Cohen says:
    The post omits Obama's two greatest failings. First, he did not prosecute George W. Bush for torture and homicide (because dozens of his victims were tortured to death). Obama said that he wanted to look forward, not backward, which was a lie, because Obama knew that prosecutions deter future crimes. Obama's failure in this regard effectively legalized torture. Perhaps, if Bush were in prison, President Rapist would not be torturing migrant children with sleep deprivation and other abuses.

    Second, Obama bombed civilians in (by my count) seven Middle Eastern nations. If he was lucky enough to kill a terrorist among his victims, then he bombed the funeral in the hope that another terrorist was present. This means that Obama himself was a terrorist.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:42pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Henry Cohen
      I definitely agree. Excellent points

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:05pm
    Theo says:
    Thank you, Mr. Zaretsky for this truthful assessment. I would add that Obama was the selected candidate of the ruling class, groomed for the purpose of running and as such he knew before he declared for the presidency how he was going to comport himself in office. He was the president of the 1% with rhetorical flourishes in behalf of the working class and condescending criticisms of black Americans. And I doubt his wife is any different.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:43pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Theo
      thank you. No doubt there is some complexity to his personhood, but what comes through is the centrality of personal ambition.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:07pm
    Hogarth says:
    "In the current primary season, Obama serves as Biden’s de facto ally, even though Biden has no chance of defeating Trump."

    That is quite an assertion to make without even a cursory attempt to explain it.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:44pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Hogarth
      I don't believe anyone watching Biden thinks he can win against Trump. That is not true of the other candidates.

    • 13 August 2019 at 6:40pm
      Hogarth says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      The majority of the Democratic base will have to remain content with not being considered to be "anyone". Or perhaps only those with Jacobin subscriptions are worthy of having an opinion on Biden's electability?

      That truly is meant in jest - I myself subscribe to Jacobin, in addition to the very fine LRB. But I think my point stands.

    • 13 August 2019 at 6:58pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Hogarth
      Buden will not be the nominee. I'm not big on predictions, but that seems clear, eli

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:08pm
    Mike Meeropol says:
    Eli is totally correct. Obama's major failing was in not even attempting to change the neoliberal model of American capitalism --- He could have opted for stringent control over the banking system as Roosevelt (and Eccels) did --- he could have insisted on twice as large a "stimulus" package to goose a really strong recovery --- he could have pushed through much bigger tax increases on the wealthy --- he could have had his justice department make sure that many of what Bill Black calls the "banksters" actually went to jail --- Instead, he and his team hit the "reset" button on the financial system and then let the recovery occur MUCH TOO SLOWLY (Howard Sherman and I document this in the second edition of our Macro text in Chapter 18).

    (There are so many other things he could have done --- but it turns out despite whatever he may feel as an individual, he governed like a "moderate" Clinton-type Democrat. Most tellingly, I thought, was his failure to send top Administrative people [like VP Biden] to protect the Wisconsin workers from the ALEC inspired union-stripping legislation in Wisconsin.)

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:46pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Mike Meeropol
      excellent points Mike. Few people realize how full of potential history is. When Roosevelt was elected in 1942 the KKK had 4,000,000 members I believe. The CPUSA had 10,000. But FDR opened the path for a left.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:11pm
    Alan Barta says:
    Yeah, predictably conservative. Obama had no chance of doing anything with the stranglehold GOP has had in both houses of congress since Nixon administration. They were too busy sucking $50 trillion from US Treasury to care who sat in Oval Office, because Presidents don't matter, just like the unrepresented majority who gets taxed doesn't matter. People are just suckers for powerless figureheads who they bestow with historical laurels, or who merely fill in as punching bags so real criminals go unnoticed. What a waste of potential.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:47pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Alan Barta
      Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses from 2008 to 2010. He did not know how to use his power.

  • 13 August 2019 at 4:13pm
    Rose Levinson. Ph. D. says:
    I am in complete agreement with Eli Zaretsky's statments re Obama. Like him, I agree with Josh Marshall's friend. I take the liberty of quoting from an email I sent Talking Points Memo shortly after the ringing defense of Obama:

    "Obama did not grasp the opportunity to overhaul the financial system. Americans were ready for corporate money to be held to account. He didn't seize the moment. Relying on an East Coast intelligentsia circle of advisers, like Larry Summers, the big players escaped unscathed. 'Too big to fail' protects them still.

    The people with whom Obama surrounded himself reflect one of his weaknesses, For him, the worlds of Harvard, Yale, Brown, Martha's Vineyard are his lodestars. He looked to representatives of this segment of the population to define his policies. Their blinkered lenses led to caution where boldness was required. (I am indebted to a long-ago NYT Frank Rich column for this insight.) Obama himself is not bold; he is fundamentally conflict averse and conservative (small c). In avoiding at all costs the label of Angry Black Man, he stepped to the side and let too many things go unchallenged.

    In addition, Obama seldom used his bully pulpit to argue for a stronger vision. Even had he lost the argument, at least he would have made it. But he didn't: not on health care, not on prosecuting the Bush administration's war crimes, not on the parlous state of many African-Americans, not on closing Guantanamo Bay. These are the absences for which he is culpable. Then there are the destructive actions he took like signing off on drone killings, punishing whistleblowers, enforcing immigrant explusions. For these, too, he is responsible and will be remembered by history.

    I do not wish to speak disrespectfully of Obama. I do not wish to add anything to the debased discourse which is now a national norm. From the beginning, Obama's blackness made him a target for all the Mitch McConnells in the US. He kept his dignity. But I hope the progressive wing of the Democratic party has its day in the sun. We are doomed if we don't make a serious course change, one that Obama never really attempted.

    Rose Levinson, Ph.D.

    • 13 August 2019 at 4:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Rose Levinson. Ph. D.
      excellent points Rose. I did not get into the question of race because it would have required a whole new blog. Of course race played a part in what happened-- Trump gained national visibility through the birther movement. However, race also benefitted Obama.

  • 13 August 2019 at 5:04pm
    RJT says:
    There will be a president in the near future who, due to economic catastrophe, will be seen as the second FDR. When that occurs, Obama will be seen as the second Herbert Hoover.

    • 13 August 2019 at 6:06pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ RJT
      cute point, but correct.

  • 13 August 2019 at 5:36pm
    Al Venter says:
    Like a few other contributors I am neither a politician nor an American. Also, I regard Eli's blog as spot on, though I fear the majority of Democrats, as usual, will hide from the truth.
    That said, he has missed one of the most significant security lapses in recent American history and that was opting out the wars east of Suez before Islamic State was properly destroyed.
    Look at the consequences: ISIS is today firmly entrenched in a number of African conflicts which has since become its major focus. IS (and al-Qaeda) have aliances with Nigeria's Boko Haram as well as Somalia's al-Shabaab, both terror movements that have been successfully active for years. Then there is AQIM, (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb) where France and more than a dozen other nations, many of them European or North American have been battling another IS affiliate.
    Though their governments portray these insurrections - in concert, it almost seems -as low key, these insurrections are anything but. If they were Britain would not have recently detatched dozens of its Special Forces to Mali (based in the city of Gao) or have significant air assets (at least three Chinook 'heavies') plus all the support elements to keep them airborne.
    Worse, IS influence is expanding. The Jihadi movement claimed its first victories in northern Mozambique late last year and last month in the Eastern Congo as well, where it has opened up a new front. Also, it is no secret that Islamic movements operating out of Chad and Sudan into the Central African Republic has links to an 'unknown Muslim influence'. Yet none of this made public and why? The average British Joe on the streets of London is not even aware that the SAS is active to the extent that it is in West Africa nor Americans that Washington's involvement in all these conflicts, while short of being decribed as massive, is indeed significant. Even France is being drawn further into the fray with French Mirage 2000 jet fighters now flying out of Chad in bids to compromise the Muslim rebels in the CAR to desist.
    I haven't yet touched on Kenya: with a million or so Somali refugees resident in townships on the outskirts of Nairobi, that too is waiting for the appropriate spark. And South Africa, where the first al-Qaeda attacks took place in the province of Kwa-Zulu/Natal not long ago (the perps were arrested and await trial)
    In the light of all these issues - compounded month by month - I place much of the blame on a complacent Obama administration and with events in Libya behind us, some of that crap needs to fall on the head of his Secretary of State; we all know who she is.
    I do not like Trump nor the way he operates, though I met members of the family years ago in upstate New York where they have a place in the hills). B
    But I have to acknowledge that he has not let grass grow under his feet to counter this disaster, at least in part and for all his faults The Donald has a lot better appreciation of what is going on in our great big bad world than the last president ever did. You just have to look at his national security leadership to appreciate that much.
    As we say in the UK, 'a bunch of wankers'...

    • 13 August 2019 at 6:08pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Al Venter
      an interesting line of thought. I need to think about it, eli

  • 13 August 2019 at 6:23pm
    Henry Cohen says:
    If I may add a third serious failing of Obama's, it was keeping men imprisoned at Guantanamo without due process of law. I know that he released quite a few of them, and that Congress opposed the release of others, but Obama should have obeyed the Constitution and released all of them who were held without being put on trial (and I don't mean move them to a prison in the United States). Eight hundred years ago, the Magna Carta prohibited holding people without due process, yet now, in the United States, the fact that President Rapist continues to do so is not even deemed newsworthy.

    • 13 August 2019 at 6:58pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Henry Cohen
      Yes, I agree--

  • 13 August 2019 at 6:23pm
    Rod Miller says:
    A fine summary of Obama’s golden-tongued but gutless time in office.

    “Biden has no chance of defeating Trump.” (If only people could grasp this.) One good thing about Biden – he reminds us what a wimp Obama was and how he betrayed his promise.

    An event Eli Zaretsky misses (Henry Cohen comes close in his comment) is Libya. Yes, it was primarily a Sarkozy/Cameron adventure, but simply would not have been militarily possible without Obama/Clinton (both of whom gave themselves a public pat on the back when Gaddafi was finally sodomized with a bayonet). Which North African country would you rather have been an average citizen of prior to 2011? Libya had a Lot going for it (given the region). But it was destroyed, not least by Obama.

    Today Libya is a place of non-stop tribal warfare. ISIS is there bigtime. Women in many place are back to the veil, male minder for any public outings, etc. etc.
    And slavery. Yep, y’all kin buy yore very own n**ger at nightly slave auctions. Obama must be Especially proud of that achievement.

    Donald now has 900+ days in the oval office. Question: At that point in their respective presidencies, which of the last three presidents had the Least Innocent Blood on his hands? Answer: Donald.
    Let that sink in.

    • 13 August 2019 at 7:00pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Rod Miller
      I agree about LIbya. There are many ways in which Trump's foreign policy is superior to obama's but others are not-- eg Iran!

  • 13 August 2019 at 6:57pm
    PeterT says:
    An enthusiastic commentator on Radio 3, when Obama was first elected, interviewed the musician Manu Chao and was rather surprised with the reply:

    "Obama? He's just like a black Tony Blair"

    • 13 August 2019 at 8:19pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ PeterT
      good to hear about.

  • 13 August 2019 at 9:25pm
    Mickey Edwards says:
    Obama was what a President should be -- thoughtful, temperate, judicious. The jobs of President and Revolutionary are not the same. FDR faced much different and much greater challenges, with a friendly Congress, and especially in international affairs moved cautiously.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:50pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Mickey Edwards
      The American Presidency is unique in giving real democratic power to an individual. Obama had no idea how to use the power he was handed. Of course we dont want a President to be injudicious but the virtues you list Mickey are not primary for a President. Internationally, FDR moved a deeply isolationist nation into anti-fascist war. THe COld War would never have been so virulent and destructive had FDR lived.

  • 13 August 2019 at 11:25pm
    David Mebane says:
    Obama was handicapped by the left throughout his presidency, most critically on the issue of healthcare: when the left failed to get the politically impossible plan it wanted, it began the endless pouting that put his approval rating underwater and ensured that he could accomplish little else. When his presidency was over, the left threw the ensuing election to Trump by relentlessly attacking Clinton with incendiary and conspiracy theory-laden rhetoric, long after the primary was decided. In this they were abetted by the Russians, as the Mueller investigations have made incontrovertible.

    The left has played useful fools for right-wing demagogues before, and in one sense it's not surprising. What the unending harangue of rhetorically hopeful moderates says is that leaders of the left are fond of exactly the same style of divisive politics featured by Trump and the right: 'who are the bad guys and how do we dispense with them?' Self-described socialists in the West currently find themselves in the ridiculous position of claiming to lead a working class movement that does not have the support of the working class -- turns out there's little more on offer for them than the same old harangue.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:56pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ David Mebane
      Blaming the left is the usual reflex of rightist liberals. What happened in the neo-liberal era could never have happened without the discrediting of the left in the 1970s. All wealth going to the top 1%? Youth starting life with hundreds of thousand dollar student debts? An almost psychotic series of wars in the middle east ultimately leading to tens of millions killed? A trillion dollar expansion of nuclear weapons? Exclusion of Russia from the West and turning it into an enemy? Opioid epidemics. Health care only for the rich. Destruction of the public school system. Of public libraries. Of public support for the arts. Were these left wing projects? No. THey are the work of pragmatic liberals like obama

  • 13 August 2019 at 11:53pm
    David Ascher says:
    Obama's election was treated by the Left (by which I almost the entire range of progressive organizations - anti-war, social justice, etc.) as a victory for a progressive leader. Obama himself, however, was neither progressive nor a leader. While waiting for him to lead,

    * he dithered and let Congress come up with the ACA which was presented as a 'first step' in redefining the US Health Care System - with no hint at either the 'next step' nor the 'goal' other than "slow the rate of increase of health care costs". All while leaving the pharmaceutical and for-profit hospital industries very happy.

    * he continued the ridiculous fake "anti-terrorist" foreign policy of his predecessors in the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq - while promising to withdraw forces and end "dumb wars". The anti-war movement largely watched and waited for Obama to reveal his brilliant strategy for making the world more peaceful (and justify that ridiculous Nobel Peace Prize) - and lost millions of the people it had energized during the Bush years. Meanwhile, he increased tensions in the South China Sea with provocative sea and air activity on China's border and made speeches about China's "aggression".

    It should have been clear to everybody that Obama was not going to lead a progressive social justice movement when he invited Henry Louis Gates to the White House to have a beer and a friendly chat with the police officer who arrested him for entering his own house. He practically said (long before Trump) "there are good people on both sides and blame on both sides".

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:58pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ David Ascher
      I basically agree-- except I would not assume that the police officer was in the wrong. Ver y interesting is Obama's promise to end "dumb wars". One thing that he did throughout was project himself as "smart." He played with the intelligence card masterfully. This had a lot to do with the racial psychodynamics.

  • 14 August 2019 at 1:06am
    Claudia Ryan says:
    Thank you so very much for this article. I campaigned for and supported Obama, as did many of my friends. Within the first 4 months of his first term, we were asking, "what the hell just happened"! I, too, am tired of the adoration lavished upon him. Obama opened Pandora's Box and the U.S. got Trump! An immoral, corrupt bully with the backing of an equally immoral, corrupt GOP; whose imperialism can now be felt world-wide! Americans have become so frightened with WHAT occupies the WH that their yearning for Obama is blinding them to the necessity for a BOLD and progressive movement. My sincere appreciation for the bluntness and truth of this article.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:59pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Claudia Ryan
      thank you.I also supported obama in 2008.

  • 14 August 2019 at 2:52am
    brotherrandor says:
    Obama let those of us who believed in him down when he failed to pardon Edward Snowdon and let the bank CEOs walk away with their bonuses intact.

    • 14 August 2019 at 1:59pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ brotherrandor
      and so much more

  • 14 August 2019 at 5:22am
    wse9999 says:
    "America’s global role, which remains aggressive, unilateralist and militarist."
    Unlike China.. Russia.. Iran...?

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:03pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ wse9999
      absolutely. Iran is struggling for survival-- the sanctions destroy countries-- they are not slaps on the wrist. US policy (and European acquiescence) is responsible for driving Russia into opposition. The US destroyed the possibility for a genuine international order after 1989 by the expansion of NATO, the introduction of missiles into eastern europe and the general humiliation of russia. As to China, they are not aggressive; definitely to be blamed for internal repression (all three states are) but China is not expansionist in the way the US is.

  • 14 August 2019 at 5:25am
    wse9999 says:
    And don't forget Obama helping to throw out Gaddafi.
    What a brainwave that was.
    And AFTER they'd seen how clever it was to shoehorn Saddam.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:03pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ wse9999

  • 14 August 2019 at 7:39am
    I was having some discussions recently with friends and how we would grade recent presidents. I consider myself a liberal minded moderate. I have Trump currently at a C+/incomplete, W Bush at F- and Obama at D-. The major marks against Obama for me are his healthcare plan, foreign policy, and his inability to get things positive done in a lasting fashion.

    His hallmark achievement was supposed to be healthcare reform. Sure it "did a lot", but nothing he really did changed healthcare costs and currently health insurance is skyrocketing. The ACA was kind of a disaster on the whole and there was no need for it to be as sloppily put together as it was. I can't think of anyone that I have talked to in healthcare that thinks it made anything better, but that's my anecdotal experience. This was supposed to be the crown jewel of his presidency and it's very hard to see it that way as time has passed.

    Beyond that his foreign policy was like a mini version of W Bush. Very sloppy and killed many people with some crazy interventions, he didn't handle the Iraq exit well, and he also made the decision to stay in Afghanistan (which Trump has fully committed to as well). He really lived up to that Nobel Peace Prize didn't he? Further, his administration was responsible for spy scandals that seem to have been quietly forgotten like

    I think his actions with Cuba while somewhat well meaning were naive and screwed up the immigration status of many Cubans here in the US when he ended the wet foot dry foot policy (an odd policy to start with). For some reason he was given a free pass on this which baffled me. With Iran his actions were also sloppy and he didn't create any sort of lasting treaty. I am certainly in favor of a detente with Iran and less friendly relations with the Saudis but Obama's actions were hasty and done in a fashion that didn't win him any favor with the Republicans. Massive backlash to that deal was guaranteed.

    The border and immigration are all the rage to talk about under Trump (mainly due to Trump), but Obama was more heavy handed and more people died under Obama at the border. I've only seen critics on the far left point this out. Let's also not forget The Fast and Furious scandal. Again Obama gets a free pass on this.

    With gun control Obama did absolutely nothing other than talk a big game in my eyes. I felt like he had the opportunity to push some wide sweeping reforms, but it never happened.

    The economy was stable under Obama and he did a good job managing the deficit (something that Trump has completely blown up), but I wish he would have made some lasting changes to the entitlement programs to help their sustainability. Also, I don't fault Obama for this but I wish his administration would have taken bigger steps against the major banks involved in the bailout. I wish he would have helped to limit their size and dismantle them somewhat. Dodd Frank was not really that great of a bill either. If he actually broke up big banks then that would have been much more helpful than cementing them as American (effectively federally backed) institutions.

    Gay rights took a big step forward under Obama which was positive.

    He helped to end some abusive practices with for profit trade type schools.

    He caught Osama.

    I guess I'm having trouble actually finding really good policies Obama enacted that are still going strong today. Can anyone point to a few other things for me? Maybe I'm just too critical of Obama because there are almost zero critics of Obama on the left (which is where most of my friends are at politically). He's like the Reagan of the left.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:07pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ ROBBIE MACGREGOR
      a very intelligent commentary

  • 14 August 2019 at 7:54am
    Camus says:
    This reminds me of the great debate on whether you or I can criticize Israeli policies without being called anti-Semitic. Of course Obama made mistakes and took some bad decisions, and these must be examined and the consequences discussed. He was the victim of his own good intentions, along which the road to hell is paved. He would close Guantanamo but failed to do so. He authorized the use of killer drones in Pakistan soon after being awarded the Nobel Peace prize. But his election was a huge step forward, and can give us some hope for the future.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:06pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Camus
      how was it a huge step forward? He retarded the growth of a left, so obvious in 2008, and he opened the path for Trump. What was the advance? Yes, the symbolism of a Black President. But does that compensate for disastrous policies and loss of momentum?

  • 14 August 2019 at 11:11am
    BBeckett says:
    Can I add another massive missed opportunity? The Global Financial Crisis hit and the US government bailed out and effectively OWNED the car industry. So at the 2009 Climate Change Conference the US could have announced the switch to electric cars as a done deal. John Lanchester writes about Milton Friedman's philosophy of having some good ideas on standby, so that a crisis can be put to good use. Obama had his crisis - it was not put to any good use.

    • 14 August 2019 at 2:06pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ BBeckett
      interesting, good point.

  • 14 August 2019 at 11:33pm
    Jeff W says:
    “In the end, it was not Obama but Trump who answered the call for a wholly new direction, but in a disastrous way.

    But none of that excuses the lost opportunity his presidency represents and the opening it gave to Trump.”

    I think those sentences express the most damning thing about the Obama presidency: it made the Trump presidency possible, if not more likely. The public was sick of neoliberalism in 2008 when it voted for the candidate who promised “hope and change,” it was sick of it in 2011 when Occupy encampments sprang up all over the country, and, even more sick of it by 2016.

    Two candidates running anti-neoliberal campaigns emerged, representing a revolt of sorts against the established order that Obama had preserved and expanded—one on the left, Sanders, was derailed by the Democratic party establishment, one on the right, Trump, prevailing, against the odds, as Republican party nominee and eventual winner of the presidency. The candidate nominated by the Democrats embraced the neoliberal legacy—“America's already great,” she declared triumphantly—and, while winning the popular vote, lost by a fraction of votes in those rust-belt states where 30 years of neoliberalism had left communities with shuttered factories, stagnant wages, and very little reason to believe that America was "already great."

    The Democrats couldn't—and still can't—distance themselves from Obama's legacy and neoliberalism, generally; it was either "deplorables" who voted for Trump or Russians who, via social media, turned the election, or anything other than disastrous neoliberal policy at home and imperial policy abroad. And it wasn't like the country was in some sort of holding pattern during the Obama years—things became worse, as this post rightly points out, when a president in Obama's position had every opportunity to make it better. Josh Marshall's friend is absolutely right: "Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact."

    • 15 August 2019 at 12:52am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Jeff W
      I could not agree more.

  • 15 August 2019 at 1:35am
    Simon says:
    Thank you for this piece. Increasingly I view Obama’s years as wasted. Unlike Roosevelt who presiding over a new Banking Act, Glass Steagall, the creation of the SEC, etc. — all true réformes of finance. Roosevelt dealt decisively with the financial crisis he inherited. By comparison Obama ducked all the hard issues presented by oligopolistic finance — he fined the companies and left their managements in tact. He contributed nothing to any trust policy more broadly, either.
    In foreign policy too he was woeful. As someone writing to you from Asia Pacific, Obamas’s failure to see through his so-called “pivot” to Asia is a damning failure as is his insouciance in the face of China’s occupation of the South Chine Sea. (To be fair this started with Bush.)
    Yes he was dignified and he spoke well. He promised change and shirked it at every turn. You are sadly correct that this, his failure to deliver change, prepared the ground for Trump.

    • 15 August 2019 at 1:38pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Simon
      thanks for your comment. I agree in general.

  • 15 August 2019 at 5:12am
    Keith Johnson Wellington NZ says:
    As an outsider, I always saw Obama as heralding what was supposed to come - a liberal, increasingly tolerant, increasingly mixed race, increasingly non-white USA, within which social democracy would flourish - such that 'guns and religion' and the 'deplorables' would fade into history. To that extent, I think that Obama saw his primary task as easing the path to modernity - softly, softly. Obviously, it didn't work - and we liberals were massively wrong in thinking that Camelot and the New Jerusalem were just over the next hill. I don't think you can blame Obama for playing his very limited cards [Senate opposition etc.] gingerly , given the expectation that Democrats would inevitably be given several future terms to institute 'progress'. Of course this outcome may simply have been delayed but it is starting to look as though a populist voting majority of the USA's population will never be persuaded to relinquish their privileges and power - and that 'progress' has permanently stalled.

    • 16 August 2019 at 3:48am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Keith Johnson Wellington NZ
      I don't agree- the US has a left-liberal majority on almost every question. There was no excuse for Obama taking such a conservative path.

  • 15 August 2019 at 9:22am
    Blake Elder says:
    A good post and enjoyed the comments, also.

    Written a while back over at the NYRB, somewhat related:

    • 15 August 2019 at 1:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Blake Elder
      thanks blake. I am about to read the Mishra piece.

  • 16 August 2019 at 7:17am
    RobotBoy says:
    Excellent and much needed take on the failure of Obama to exploit the opening his election brought. To expand on your analysis, I'd like to suggest that Obama represented the high-water mark of identity politics while his and Hilary's electoral failures exposed the myopia and weakness of those same politics. Following John Gray, I'll refer to the ideology that grew out of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s as 'hyper-liberalism'. The various components of hyper liberalism (Women's Rights, etc), while originally quite cognizant of income equality and the need for a class analysis, morphed into forms that were primarily concerned with benefiting their economically-privileged strata. While the rhetoric has remained inclusive within each group, in practice the overwhelmingly (upper) middle-class leadership used its influence to expand its presence in the professions, especially academia. The billionaire financiers of the hyper-liberal wing of the Democratic Party are more than willing to adjust their law offices and boardrooms to include meritocrats like Obama and Hilary, in large part because it helps shield their obscene plunder from real threat. The hyper-liberal focus on identity inevitably provided fuel for a backlash that encouraged white working- and middle-class voters to see themselves in ethnic terms, while the failure to come up with a message of economic equality eroded any potential common ground. In the close states where Hilary lost the election, she would have won if she'd retained those white working-class voters who voted for Obama. Those voters didn't go out and vote for Trump though - they just stayed home.

    • 16 August 2019 at 12:23pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ RobotBoy
      excellent.May I ask where the John Grey analysis can be found.?

  • 16 August 2019 at 9:27pm
    Mr Arkadin says:
    Zaretsky omits Obama's most catastrophic failure of all -- to prevent, when he still had command of all the country's law enforcement and intelligence services, the Russian delivery of the Presidency to Trump. The outcry would have been deafening, and perhaps might have triggered spot rebellions among the racists, but that could not have been worse than where we now find ourselves, with an illegal President and a totally indentured Senate marching us off a cliff in the name of tax cuts and de-regulation.

    • 17 August 2019 at 4:35am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Mr Arkadin
      I'm not sure the Russians had that much effect, but probably obama should have done more.

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