ChrisWeigant.com

Obama's Farewell

[ Posted Wednesday, January 11th, 2017 – 18:27 UTC ]

Last night, President Barack Obama bid the American public farewell. He gave a speech that was inspiring, and called upon Americans to get involved in the political process in a multitude of ways. Like many historic farewell addresses (even quoting from George Washington's), it also delivered a warning about what Obama perceives as current and future dangers which threaten America. Washington's farewell address, when read in full, contains a scathing denunciation of the mere concept of political parties (called "factions" at the time), and Obama's followed suit in denouncing the rabidly partisan era we now find ourselves in.

But I couldn't help but think, while listening to Obama's speech, about what might have been. Now, don't get me wrong -- I think Obama has indeed managed to achieve one of his biggest stated goals: to be a "transformational" president. When he first articulated this wish, he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and it was a backhanded slap at Bill Clinton's presidency -- because the example Obama used was Ronald Reagan (and, notably, not Clinton). Obama got some grief for citing Reagan as transformational, because certain people interpreted it as praise of Reagan. I didn't see it that way myself -- "transformational" is not a good thing or a bad thing in and of itself, so calling Reagan transformational wasn't praising his record or his agenda, but rather his effectiveness in changing the national debate. Love him or hate him, most people would admit that Reagan did in fact change the political landscape in Washington. So did Obama, in my opinion, fulfilling his goal of being a transformational president.

How much credit (or blame) Obama deserves for the country's transformation during his time in office will be a subject for much debate among historians for decades to come. And we're all waiting to see how much Donald Trump reverses course on some of the Obama era's transformational nature. But without a doubt, the country is in a different political and social space than it was when he took office.

Obama has several landmark pieces of legislation, of course, to point to. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the most notable of these, but there was also the Dodd-Frank reform of Wall Street and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to name just two of Obama's other legislative achievements.

But what is more notable are issues where the public has radically shifted in the past eight years -- all of which happened with varying degrees of support from Obama's White House. Gay rights, for instance, advanced by leaps and bounds under Obama's watch. When he ran in 2008, Obama couldn't even bring himself to support gay marriage, partly because he considered it too politically risky to do so. He had to "evolve" on the issue, with prodding from Joe Biden (and plenty of others). Now it is so mainstream a concept that Trump and a Republican Congress likely won't even try to move the country backwards on the issue -- because they know it would be a big loser, politically.

The country has also seen revolutionary change in how it views marijuana over the past eight years. Medical marijuana became almost politically neutral during this period. If you had told me back in 2008 that every 2016 Republican presidential candidate would support (to varying degrees) medical marijuana -- in a public debate, no less -- I would have considered it farfetched, at the very least. And yet it happened. Eight states and the District of Columbia have ended the War On Weed altogether and legalized recreational adult use of marijuana. Again, that seemed a downright unobtainable goal eight years ago, and yet it came to pass.

One of Obama's major goals was to transform our military involvement in other countries. Perhaps Obama swung the pendulum too far back on this one, but he stuck to his ideal of not putting hundreds of thousands of American troops into conflicts and instead supporting local efforts where we shared a common goal. U.S. troops haven't liberated Fallujah and Tikrit and Ramadi and (soon) Mosul from the Islamic State -- instead, the Iraq army took the lead. That's a transformational difference, for better or for worse. Also, America doesn't have a policy of torturing prisoners anymore -- that was a transformational change as well. The prison at Guantanamo Bay isn't empty, but there are far fewer inmates, so this Obama goal was only partially met.

The economy has transformed in a breathtaking way during Obama's years in office. Obama took over during an economic collapse, where America was losing over 750,000 jobs per month, and unemployment was on the way up to 10 percent. Now, we've had over six straight years of continuous job growth, and wages are starting to climb again. The auto industry was saved as well. The difference in the economy now and the economy in January of 2009 is the difference between night and day.

Obama transformed politics on the issue of criminal justice reform during his tenure. As president, Obama has pardoned or commuted sentences for hundreds of people sentenced harshly during the worst years of the War On Drugs, and worked to transform the way the justice system handles such crimes. At the same time, however, America took a large step backwards on insuring everyone has the right to vote, so Obama's record on reforming the system also has to be seen as somewhat mixed.

Obama had a very mixed record on immigration reform, failing to get a comprehensive bill through the House (after scoring a big victory in the Senate). Obama deported more people than any other president I am aware of, but he also gave relief to those who would have been covered by the DREAM Act (which also failed to make it through Congress). Obama was only partially transformative in the debate over immigration, in other words.

On one issue, Obama didn't exactly lead (but wound up eventually speaking in favor of changing) -- the growing inequality in Americans' income and wealth. The Occupy Wall Street movement really was the transformational push behind this (eight years ago, if you mentioned "the one percent," nobody -- except maybe Bernie Sanders -- would have understood what you were talking about). Bernie Sanders made sure, in his run for the Democratic nomination, that Democrats will be focusing a lot more on this issue in the future. But, in the end, Obama began echoing the calls for change from both Occupy and Sanders.

In one area, the Obama administration was transformative, but in what I consider a negative way. The concept of privacy and governmental surveillance transformed during Obama's time in office, but for much of this time Obama was on the wrong side of the issue. In particular, his muscular persecution of leakers was unlike anything seen in modern times.

So, yes, on the whole, I would have to say Obama was a transformational president. America sees certain political things differently now than previously. Again, this is just a snapshot in time -- Trump could certainly transform some of these issues right back to where we started from. But my guess is that he won't be able to overturn all (or even most) of the changes in viewpoint America has experienced under Obama, no matter what he tries.

But getting back to my initial thought, I still couldn't help but ponder what might have been during the Obama years. Obama's farewell address was a great speech -- just like many other great Obama speeches we've seen. But for all this oratory prowess, Barack Obama was rather ineffectual at something nobody expected after his historic first election. Plain and simple, Obama just didn't use the "bully pulpit" all that well. He had a communication problem with the American people, to put it another way. Again, this was a shock after seeing how well he could communicate on the campaign trail.

Obama never really got out and fought to win the battle of ideas -- at least, nowhere near as well as he could have. The most obvious example is Obamacare. Obama passed a landmark piece of legislation that both Republican and Democratic presidents have been attempting for over a century -- and then he let his political opponents demonize it. Even today, the public overwhelmingly likes almost all the benefits of Obamacare, but most people are still unaware that these benefits are actually because of Obamacare. That is a failure to communicate, folks.

Once a year, Obama would give a rousing State Of The Union speech, but during the rest of the year he never truly utilized the power of the presidency to change people's minds. He also had a historically bad record at schmoozing Congress (even members of his own party), and for the most part had a rather hands-off approach to legislation even when Democrats were in charge of both houses. One State Of The Union speech per year simply wasn't enough. Obama's distancing himself from Congress might have been a factor in how short his own political coattails were. During Obama's term, Democrats have lost more seats in Congress and in statehouses than in the past 100 years. If he had done a better job of explaining his agenda and cheerleading for laws he had gotten passed, this might have been different (although, again, this is something for the historians to argue about later on, really).

When Obama took office, he announced a rather ambitious plan to go speak to normal Americans at least once a month. He was going to hold town halls (this was before town halls themselves transformed during the Tea Party's rise) and talk to regular Americans -- sharing his perspective, and listening to theirs. This lasted for about half of his first year in office, before largely falling by the wayside.

I have a feeling Donald Trump is not going to let himself slip out of touch with his followers in such a fashion. In fact, Trump has transformed -- before even entering office -- the political use of Twitter as the 21st century's bully pulpit. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, it's hard to deny this transformation has taken place. Obama was largely content to issue a weekly address (what used to be called the "weekly radio address," which shows how dated it has become) that was largely ignored by both the media and the public. Trump's not going to allow this to happen, it's pretty clear.

Obama built a political machine that was unprecedented, in order to get elected. But once in office, he allowed it to wither on the vine -- at least until he needed to get re-elected. If he had been more transformative about using this wind at his back to pressure Congress on any number of issues, Democrats might be in a stronger position today. Instead, it turned into nothing more than a fundraising exercise.

So while I do indeed think Obama will be seen by history as a transformative president, I also am a bit wistful as to what else he could have achieved, and how else he might have transformed America's political landscape. Perhaps that's setting standards impossibly high, I leave it for you to decide. But that was my initial reaction to Obama's farewell address -- that it was a wonderful speech, and how a few dozen more such speeches delivered at the crucial moments might have changed where we are today as a country. Because, sadly, that is a part of Obama's legacy as well.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

22 Comments on “Obama's Farewell”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    "In fact, Trump has transformed -- before even entering office -- the political use of Twitter as the 21st century's bully pulpit."

    Orange Twitter Troll-elect validates Godwin's Law - transformation indeed.

  2. [2] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hey CW

    Dodd-Frank was weak tea that allowed too big to fail to get bigger and maintained the status quo. Huge portions were never even implemented by HIS agencies. So not even close to transformative.

    Marijuana- hmmm, I guess Obama deserves credit for remaining silent while the transformation took place at the state level. Federal law wasn't transformed. The feds still persecuted medical marijuana dispensaries at will. I believe arrests for pot were still the top category.

    Military involvement continued globally for the worse. Fewer boots on the ground is hardly a transformation when unnecessary conflicts were pursued and military spending remained outrageous. At best the transformation was to Republican lite. Though arms exports did hit record highs, military bases and our use of forces in Africa proliferated to historical levels, and the droning program was massively expanded for three "more militaristic than Republicans" achievements. We are back in Iraq and still in Afghanistan too.

    On the economy, inequality increased ("didn't exactly lead" is far too generous), the majority of the new jobs to replace the ones lost pay less and have fewer benefits, and the status quo of crony capitalism was embraced and defended and rewarded despite rampant criminality.

    Criminal justice reform didn't happen.
    Pardoning and commuting isn't reform, it's exercising existing powers. Saying he worked for it (which is too generous) doesn't mean transformation was achieved.

    Privacy violations through governmental surveillance was entrenched, expanded and legalized. Obama's persecution of leakers was extreme, but still hardly the worst aspect.

    "Obama never really got out and fought to win the battle of ideas"
    I think historians will conclude that was because Obama is a creature of the status quo and didn't support new ideas.
    Change and Yes We Can were just useful slogans to deceive voters.

    "During Obama's term, Democrats have lost more seats in Congress and in statehouses than in the past 100 years. If he had done a better job of explaining his agenda and cheerleading for laws he had gotten passed"
    Um, sticking to the agenda and cheerleading for the laws he had campaigned on would have been far more popular and effective than trying to put lipstick on the pigs he actually pursued once elected. Not supporting failed leaders at the DNC would have helped. Not siphoning off resources for his own reelection would have helped. Not continuing Bush policies would have helped. Not disparaging his own base of voters would have helped. Prosecuting the guilty would have helped.

    "Obama's distancing himself from Congress might have been a factor in how short his own political coattails were."
    Um, how short?
    Losing seats isn't short, he was missing fabric on his coat half way up his back.

    Being wistful for what could have been is most certainly NOT "setting standards impossibly high".
    You had to whitewash his accomplishments and failures just to attempt to make a case here.
    Better was possible.

    A

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    In particular, his muscular persecution of leakers was unlike anything seen in modern times.

    So was the extraordinary and unprecedented leaking they did on his watch (Obama must be the unluckiest president ever!), the impacts of which upon the statecraft and national security of the United States are still not, apparently, fully understood.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Plain and simple, Obama just didn't use the "bully pulpit" all that well. He had a communication problem with the American people, to put it another way. Again, this was a shock after seeing how well he could communicate on the campaign trail.

    For me, this was the most disappointing aspect of the Obama/Biden administration, mostly because President Obama was on the right side and track, for all intents and purposes. Was everything done right? Of course, not. Was everything paved with good intentions. I believe so but, I know, so was the road to Hell. Moving on...

    ... to Obama's (ineffectual) relationship with Congress.

    I feel completely disinclined to accept the arguments made against President Obama on this score since there was absolutely no mention, whatsoever, of the strategy of the congressional Republican leadership to use every conceivable opportunity to block Obama and his legislative agenda.

    I'm not sure how anyone could write about the legacy of Obama's transformational presidency without laying out in crystal clear fashion how the Republicans in Congress worked endlessly, from the very day that Obama took his first oath of office, to obstruct EVERYTHING he tried to do, beginning with his efforts to prevent the US economy from falling off a cliff and into an abyss.

    I also wonder what might have been achieved ... if only the Republicans in congress cared more about the well-being of their country and fellow citizens than they hated Obama.

  5. [5] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Liz [4],

    I feel completely disinclined to accept the arguments made against President Obama on this score since there was absolutely no mention, whatsoever, of the strategy of the congressional Republican leadership to use every conceivable opportunity to block Obama and his legislative agenda.

    I'm with you on this! Obama tried to work the Republicans his first year in office, but he got burned by them after he bent over backwards giving in to their demands and they still refused to pass the budget. Obama recognized that the GOP was not going to support anything that he endorsed, as they were willing to act against their constituents' best interest just so they could block him from passing any legislation that would be viewed favorably.

    As for his selling the ACA effectively, Obama got burned right from the start when the insurance providers (who had been the ones who had made the issue that the law needed to be written in such a way that existing policy holders wouldn't have their policies changed) saw an opportunity to make more money and dropped existing plans -- resulting in people not being able to keep their existing doctors as promised! Obama was royally screwed by this!

    Obama learned very quickly how effective the GOP was at spinning stories. They had a huge advantage over the President as they had no issue with telling boldfaced lies, and did so so often that it was impossible to really pin them down and force them to be accountable for their dishonesty. I think this was a big reason why he didn't try to sell his programs more -- the Republicans were just too good at trashing everything he would put out there.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    I too think that Liz makes a valid point [4]. Both sides of the story need to be told. Whatever flaws existed in the Obama administration's record were exacerbated by an unprecedented amount of unwillingness on the part of Republicans to set common goals for the country. Instead we had the spectacle of Mitch McConnell voting against his own bill, solely because the President had also endorsed it. As a result, infrastructure repair, for instance, was left unattended for the duration. That is a shameful thing. A President should not have to 'sell' programs that affect the well-being of the economy to its elected representatives. That they were willing to risk the future and prosperity of the country in order to score their cheap political points was the very reason that our credit rating was downgraded. That shouldn't be forgotten by anyone assessing the legacy of this era.

  7. [7] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    altohone (2)-
    "Obama is creature of the status quo" and "Change and Yes We Can were just useful slogans to deceive voters."
    You hit the nail on the head. Obama was elected for the same reason Trump was elected- their ability to appear as an alternative to the status quo.
    The Democrats did not learn this and offered status quo in 2016.
    Citizens did not learn this and were suckered again.
    Until citizens stop buying the bullshit from both current major parties, their Big Money contributors and their media cheerleaders/propogandists and stop voting for or against the characters portrayed instead of the actual people that are running it will continue to get worse.
    It is one thing to be right and complain about it. It is another to actually do something about it by working to get more citizens to participate in alternatives to the Big Money two party system like Voucher Vendetta, working to build third party competition or working to change one of the current major parties.
    This is NOT accusing you of doing nothing in any of those efforts, it is just offering some options on what could be done if you or anyone else is not already doing so.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That [congressional Republicans] were willing to risk the future and prosperity of the country in order to score their cheap political points was the very reason that our credit rating was downgraded. That shouldn't be forgotten by anyone assessing the legacy of this era.

    Precisely.

  9. [9] 
    michale wrote:

    And Democrats were willing to risk further terrorist attacks to oppose Bush and the GOP.

    Absolutely NO difference than what ya all accuse Republicans of....

  10. [10] 
    neilm wrote:

    TrumpPollWatch.com

    Approve: 37%
    Disapprove: 51%

    What a loser ;)

  11. [11] 
    michale wrote:

    Greetings from Cozumel.... :)

    Neil, your stats would actually (maybe) mean something if it were properly sourced...

    Ex. If it came from CNN, it doesn't mean jack, as CNN is famous for it's anti-Trump fake news.

    Basically the situation here is Trump is Obama and ya'all are the GOP... it's uncanny. :)

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    http://www.cfr.org/united-states/future-us-foreign-policy-conversation-vice-president-joe-biden/p38292

    If you have an hour or so to spare, you won't be disappointed by what you hear during this fascinating conversation with Vice President Joe Biden.

    And, after you've listened, then try to tell me with a straight face that you are not profoundly disappointed that he will not be the next POTUS.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I tried hard to make that as clear as mud, by the way. :)

  14. [14] 
    neilm wrote:

    Interesting factoid, somebody has bought TrumpPollWatch.com and wants to hide their identity (they are using an anonymity service in Jacksonville, FL called Perfect Privacy).

  15. [15] 
    neilm wrote:
  16. [16] 
    neilm wrote:

    The more Trump attacks CNN, the more people will rely on them as the one TV organization standing up to tyranny.

  17. [17] 
    neilm wrote:

    Maddis is trashing Russia - doesn't he know he is part of the Trump-Putin regime?

  18. [18] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    John From Censornati [1] -

    Yeah, how'd you like that Godwin's press conference? Heh...

    altohone [2] -

    I disagree on Dodd-Frank, because it changed the thinking in DC from "let's deregulate Wall St as much as possible!" to "perhaps we should re-regulate banking." Just look at how bipartisan the repeal of Glass-Steagall was under Clinton, to see what I mean. Both parties were for that, in a big way. Now, the thinking has changed. You could argue that this was well underway before Obama took office, but Dodd-Frank was a step in a totally different direction. Maybe a baby step, but a new direction nonetheless.

    Marijuana, I do agree with you on federal law. But, after a few years of foot-dragging, Obama did finally let the states do their own thing. And this one wasn't so much "Obama led" as "public opinion changed" (like with gay marriage).

    On criminal justice reform, the sentencing disparity for cocaine (crack vs. powder) went from like 500-to-1 to 30-1. Not perfect, but a step in the right direction -- once again, a step in a new direction. People are now talking about cr. jus. reform in a bipartisan way, which is a transformation from the worst of the Drug War years.

    Better is always possible. But Obama transformed the political landscape. Think of where America was at the end of the Bush years, and think of where we are now. You don't see a big difference? I do. Sure, it's not perfect and we've got a long way to go. What held Obama back more than anything was two factors: Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, and not being more ambitious in his first 18 months in office. He might have passed immigration reform if PPACA hadn't gotten so bogged down by the Blue Dogs, in other words.

    Nobody's perfect, but Obama was better than most, including Bill Clinton, IMHO.

    LizM [4] -

    Check out "60 Minutes" this week. I just saw an excerpt where Obama admits to these weaknesses -- he realizes where he fell short in this regarad, at least. As for Congress, I was mostly talking about his lack of schmoozing Dems during that first 18 months in office, when the GOP had a limited ability to block stuff. If Dems had been more unified behind him, things could have happened faster.

    Don Harris [7] -

    While I certainly agree with the sentiment, the purpose of this article was to examine Obama's legacy, not the GOP in Congress. I just kind of took it as a given that everyone knew the GOP obstructed him at every turn. But maybe you're right, maybe I should have pointed it out.

    neilm [10] -

    Heh. I'm not counting it until 1/20, though. I wonder if Trump's high for his whole term will roughly equal Obama's all-time low, personally.

    Heh.

    michale [11] -

    I'll be looking at exactly the same source I used for Obama -- RealClearPolitics.com. They aggregate all the polls, which smooths off the rough edges.

    On a personal note: Enjoying the sun? Or is it raining down there, too?

    LizM [12] -

    Didja see the medal Joe got today?

    :-)

    neilm [14] -

    They're welcome to TPW.com.... let's see what they do with it...

    -CW

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Didja see the medal Joe got today?

    I did, indeed.

    And, I don't often disagree with Biden and it's more rare still that I vehemently disagree with him but, he most assuredly does deserve it!

    After being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - with distinction, no less! - does one have the audacity to think about running for president again? I sure hope so! :)

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I see another award for Biden in the very near future ...

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    As for Congress, I was mostly talking about his lack of schmoozing Dems during that first 18 months in office, when the GOP had a limited ability to block stuff. If Dems had been more unified behind him, things could have happened faster.

    Um ... seriously!? Yeah, that was your error in a nutshell.

    Obama was a bit busy during the first 18 months - though not nearly as busy as Geithner - for schmoozing needy Dems ...

  22. [22] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    They're welcome to TPW.com.... let's see what they do with it...

    Indeed.

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