In Defense Of Obama?

Oct. 2014 Rolling Stone cover
(Photo by Wil C. Fry.)

As I pondered yet another article about President Barack Obama’s record on prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (more than any other President), and how his is the “the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered” (source), I was standing in line at the supermarket and saw the October 2014 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

On the front cover was a large portrait of Obama, and the boldest words on the cover were “In Defense Of Obama: By Paul Krugman”.

(Read the full article here)

It caught my eye because Krugman (see his Wikipedia entry), a renowned and Nobel Prize-winning economist, is known for being critical of Obama. Krugman is open about this in the first paragraphs of the Rolling Stone story:

“When it comes to Barack Obama, I’ve always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded…

And I wasn’t wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically.”

So I felt I had to read the article before criticizing Obama, just to be fair. I was doubtful immediately upon reading this in the second paragraph:

“Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”

(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Krugman’s theme, as interpreted by me, is that even the presidents we consider most successful — he cited FDR and Reagan — didn’t live up their full expectations, accomplishing some things while leaving others undone.

He asserts that polling, approval ratings, and even elections don’t determine whether a president is successful, that the true measure of a president should be whether he changed the country for the better and whether those achievements are likely to endure. About Obama, Krugman says both are true.

He lists numerous “achievements” of the administration, beginning with the Affordable Care Act. I’ll give him this: if the only goal of the ACA was to reduce the number of the uninsured in the U.S. then it was a success. There are less uninsured now than there were before. But I still assert that the ACA attacked only a symptom of the problem — the number of uninsured — rather than the problem itself, which is the needlessly and ridiculously high cost of healthcare in this nation. It just happened to be the only plan possible at the time.

(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

As for financial reforms, Krugman’s defense of Obama is: at least something was done. Despite the administration prosecuting zero bankers for willfully participating in the collapse that immediately preceded Obama’s first term, despite bailing out banks that the majority of Americans wanted to see fail for their misdeeds, and despite the toothlessness of the Dodd-Frank law, Krugman praises Obama with “it’s a lot better than nothing.” Krugman is likely right that Dodd-Frank must be a good thing, since Wall Street lobbyists are working so hard to emasculate it. And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a very good thing, admittedly, though it will be one of the first things to go if Republicans take control of the Senate.

On the economy, Krugman (a left-wing economist) says Obama should have done more, but grudgingly admits Obama’s policies helped pull the U.S. out of a recession faster than it could have. What he (surprisingly) didn’t mention is that the richest slice of Americans actually benefited from the recession — they’re doing better now than they were before it — while the average American is doing worse.

Krugman gives Obama points on the environment as well, ignoring that many Republicans have stated their intentions to undo any and all of these improvements as soon as they take control after the next election.

(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

He does mention, albeit briefly, national security and foreign policy, weakly claiming it might have been worse under McCain or Romney.

I guess we could cite some of the things Obama opponents claimed about him. He’s still not a Muslim. He hasn’t (yet) taken away anyone’s guns. Abortion actually became less available during Obama’s time in office. Gay marriage has made great strides, much to the consternation of many conservatives, but it had little to do with Obama and much more to do with successful lawsuits in various courts across the country.

I suppose I could buy Krugman’s “not that bad” argument, but to do so I’d have to ignore the issues that are of utmost importance to me: freedom of the press, protection for (rather than prosecution of) whistleblowers, and transparency in government — of which Obama promised more and delivered much less. Had he made even slight positive strides (instead of great negative strides) in these areas, I’d be more convince-able.

It doesn’t help that Obama named a a communications lobbyist to run the FCC after promising not to, that he kept promising “you can keep your doctor” despite knowing it wasn’t true, and that his administration bungled the public response to the Benghazi attacks.

One thing I can think of that he did which was unequivocally and unarguably good was ban texting while driving for federal employees.

So no, at this point, I’m not calling Obama’s presidency “successful”, though it’s clearly far short of abject failure. But I can think of one thing that will make his presidency look patently awesome: If Republicans manage to (1) maintain control of Congress in 2016, and (2) take over the Presidency in 2016 — I’ll wager that the actions they would take would make Obama’s eight years look very good indeed.

  1. In all the criticism of everything that the President has and hasn’t done, there is always a caveat that’s missing. Read every article and every opinion page, every leaflet and newspaper column; it’s never mentioned. At first glance this caveat seems preposterous and that’s why it’s left off. But it’s very real and very much at the heart of all the criticism. Every time you read “Obama should have” or “could have” or “we would be better off if” or “there was a missed opportunity” or “if we had passed” or even that something was a mistake, you should be adding the caveat right there. No one ever does. Why? Because it’s absolutely absurd? True. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Try rereading any article and adding the caveat where applicable. It changes the entire tone of the piece from possibly profound to stupid.

    Oh, the caveat: “Since I can’t time-travel; I can’t prove it”

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      It’s an excellent caveat to be sure, which is why I added the words “weakly claiming” at the point where Krugman says national security and foreign policy would have been worse under McCain or Romney. Certainly I’m convinced that some things about our nation would have been worse under them, but as you say, I can’t prove it.

      It also helps to define a goal before deciding whether a particular action “didn’t work”. (For example, if the goal of the death penalty is to prevent future crimes, then it doesn’t work. But if the goal of the death penalty is to kill the person who committed a past crime, then it often *does* work.)

      A conservative’s goal on, say, abortion, is to have less of it, while a liberal’s goal isn’t that. A right-winger’s goal on gay marriage is to have zero gay people in the country, while a left-winger’s goal is completely different. So a president that both advanced abortion rights and gay rights would be seen as a success (in those two areas, anyway) by a liberal while a conservative would see him as a failure.

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