Despite relentless, cynical and even paranoid opposition, President Obama comes to his final SOTU speech with a remarkable record of accomplishment
Sometimes, the emotions run so high that it’s hard to talk sense about Barack Obama. When the President was first elected back in November of 2008, many of his supporters (and even nonpartisans) viewed him as a potential national savior.
Here was a clearly brilliant man of remarkable skills and commitment who, at the relatively tender age of 47, had shattered a centuries-old race barrier, overcome the enormous political handicap of a “foreign” and “Muslim-sounding” name and become President at a time of enormous national crisis .
The parallels to the election of Franklin Roosevelt (who, at age 50, overcame the handicap of a grave physical disability to win election at another time of great national crisis) were obvious and plentiful. Indeed, there were many who yearned for and expected a similarly assertive and mold shattering presidency in which, like FDR, Obama would seize the initiative, never let it go and bring about an era of awe inspiring change. Others saw a version of Lincoln or even Reagan.
The disloyal opposition
Meanwhile and unfortunately, as much as progressives saw Obama as embodying all of their best and highest hopes for the country, there was another sizable segment of the populace that saw him as embodying all of its worst nightmares. Despite his record as a mostly moderate compromiser and a beer loving American sports fan with plenty of friends on Wall Street, this group saw him (and has regularly body-slammed him throughout the last seven-plus years) as a closet Muslim, a Kenyan, a “socialist,” a wannabe dictator and even the anti-Christ.
This is not something that’s been confined exclusively to back alleys and the lunatic fringe. In 2013, for instance, North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger appointed a man to the UNC-TV Board of Trustees who had repeatedly compared Obama to Hitler and claimed that he planned to install himself as national dictator. As we reported at the time, Berger’s man even alleged that Obama planned to engineer things so that his wife Michelle would succeed him!
Berger’s appointee holds his trustee position to this day and is emblematic of hundreds of similarly delusional individuals in places of responsibility throughout the country.
And speaking of Berger, paranoia and outrageous attacks, just last week the senator (a not unintelligent lawyer who surely knows better in his heart of hearts) claimed that Obama’s modest effort to close the gun show loophole was evidence of a diabolical plot to grab the guns and undermine the freedoms of law abiding Americans.
Now add to these kinds of regular, cynical and politically motivated attacks, the mountains of cash at the disposal of plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson and Art Pope, and you’ve quickly got a truly formidable opposition machine. In other words, while it’s certainly true that FDR faced his share of passionate, even paranoid, opponents, they were nothing like the forces that have, from Day One, relentlessly attacked Obama and aggressively slapped away his hand virtually every time he has extended it in an effort to find common ground.
And yet, despite all of this (and despite Obama’s own inexperience when he was first sworn into office and numerous missteps since), consider how far we’ve come. The comedian Bill Maher, of all people, came up with this pretty impressive list of how things have changed a few months ago:
- Unemployment went from 7.2 percent to 5.1 percent.
- Gas prices went from $3.24 to $2.31.
- Percentage of uninsured went from 15 percent to 9.2 percent.
- Oil imports went from 11 million barrels per day to 4.5 million.
- Teen pregnancy went from 40.2 births per thousand to 26.5.
- Iran went from 19,000 centrifuges to under 6,000.
- GDP growth went up from -.3 percent to 3.7 percent.
- The Dow Jones average went from 10,365 to 16,000.
And, of course, there’s lots more:
Seven years ago, the national economy was in a freefall and General Motors was bankrupt. A Second Great Depression seemed a distinct possibility.
In Iraq, more than 150,000 U.S. troops were mired in a seemingly endless war launched by their own government.
At home, more than one in seven Americans was without health insurance and many states – North Carolina included – were standing by helplessly as their state tax revenues evaporated before their eyes. Meanwhile, the national government was actively undermining efforts to contain the existential threat posed by climate change.
Today, the nation continues to crank out record numbers of jobs. There’s no doubt that the recovery has been uneven and far too concentrated at the top, but as in so many other areas, that shortcoming is emblematic of Obama’s unwillingness or inability to overcome conservative opposition and implement more aggressive economic interventions.
In foreign policy, the U.S. has brought the lion’s share of its troops home, saved hundreds of billions of dollars and avoided worsening the disastrous quagmire to which the original Iraq invasion gave rise.
And consider the numbers from the healthcare world. At last count, the uninsured rate is down to 9.2% from 15.7% before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. For 18-64 year olds, it’s down to 13% from 22.3%. These represent the lowest uninsured rates in over 50 years.
Add to these remarkable achievements the recent international accord on global warming, the appointment of the most diverse and talented set of nominees to the federal judiciary in American history, the almost complete (comparatively speaking anyway) lack of corruption and graft, the ratcheting back on the absurd national war on drugs, the end of the destructive Cuba embargo, the courageous efforts to speak out against gun violence and dozens of other major accomplishments and it’s impossible not to be impressed.
Add to this the fact that so many of these achievements came over the passionate opposition of a hostile congress and the corporate lobbying complex and one is actually tempted to marvel.
The battle for hearts and minds
Where the President has come up short, most notably and somewhat surprisingly given his oratorical gifts, is in winning the hearts and minds of the people and “unifying” the country. Despite having accomplished so much with only a year to go in his presidency, Obama is not widely loved by his divided and quarrelsome countrymen and women.
As it turned out, Obama is more of a technocrat than a salesman; more of a steady incrementalist than an author of dramatic change. And this approach/demeanor seems to leave his allies disappointed and his critics outraged.
But that doesn’t change the facts on the ground. Recently, commentator Paul Waldman put it this way:
“In October 2008, anticipating his victory, I wrote that he had four great tasks before him. ‘If he sees the country through the current economic crisis, brings the war in Iraq to an end, passes health-care reform that actually achieves something close to universal coverage, and sets the country on a course away from a reliance on fossil fuels, Obama would be considered the most important president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.’
To varying degrees he has done all four. He saw the country through the Great Recession, got us out of Iraq, passed health care reform, and is aggressively moving to address climate change.”
Waldman goes on to concede that each of these victories has been complex, uncertain and full of gray areas. But he adds the following in conclusion:
“Perhaps we and our allies can make enough progress against ISIS that America won’t have to worry about Iraq anymore, and perhaps one day Republicans will stop trying to repeal the ACA and agree to make the changes that would improve it. Or it could all get worse. But the contours of the next presidency, and maybe even the one after that, will be determined by what happened between 2009 and 2016. Whatever you think of him, it’s looking like Barack Obama did indeed change the country’s trajectory, by doing pretty much what he said he would.”