In a recent column Joel Kotkin offered an assessment of the Obama presidency. Being a Democrat he cannot be taxed with bias. Surely, he is disappointed, but he has always tried to see things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be.
Curiously, many of his arguments about Obama’s failed presidency have been used by Obama’s supporters to attack the incoming Trump administration.
For example, Trump’s detractors have criticized him for being a larger-than-life personality, a man who has run on nothing but his own persona. Most people liked Obama the man and liked his persona. But once you start asking what was behind the persona, that is, what Obama accomplished, the list is painfully short.
As for the Obama persona, Kotkin writes:
The greatest accomplishment of the Obama presidency turned out to be his election as the first African American president. This should always be seen as a great step forward. Yet, the Obama presidency failed to accomplish the great things promised by his election: racial healing, a stronger economy, greater global influence and, perhaps most critically, the fundamental progressive “transformation” of American politics.
When it came to racial healing, Obama turned out to be racially divisive. As I write this Obama supporters are excoriating Donald Trump for being racially divisive.
In Kotkin’s words:
Whenever race-related issues came up — notably in the area of law enforcement — Obama and his Justice Department have tended to embrace the narrative that America remains hopelessly racist. As a result, he seemed to embrace groups like Black Lives Matter and, wherever possible, blame law enforcement, even as crime was soaring in many cities, particularly those with beleaguered African American communities.
Eight years after his election, more Americans now consider race relations to be getting worse, and we are more ethnically divided than in any time in recent history. As has been the case for several decades, African Americans’ economic equality has continued to slip, and is lower now than it was when Obama came into office in 2009, according to a 2016 Urban League study.
So, when it came to racial healing, Obama failed.
Kotkin gives Obama credit for the economic recovery, such as it was, but he points out that the recovery was anemic, at best and that it favored elites while disfavoring minorities and the middle class:
Yet, if there was indeed a recovery, it was a modest one, marked by falling productivity and low levels of labor participation. We continue to see the decline of the middle class, and declining life expectancy, while the vast majority of gains have gone to the most affluent, largely due to the rising stock market and the recovery of property prices, particularly in elite markets.
As you know, the Obama recovery was based on doubling the national debt. At some point the bill will come due and Obama will be nowhere to be found. His supporters will attack Trump for running up the debt and will hold him responsible for the bursting bubble:
At the same time, Obama leaves his successor a massive debt run-up, doubling during his watch, and the prospect of steadily rising interest rates. Faith in the current economic system has plummeted in recent years, particularly among the young, a majority of whom, according to a May 2016 Gallup Poll, now have a favorable view of socialism. Economic anxiety helped spark not only the emergence of Bernie Sanders, but later the election of Donald Trump.
When he arrives at foreign policy, Kotkin begins with a strange assertion. Perhaps to assert his bona fides as a Democrat, he denounces the Bush record in Iraq. He might have made an argument against the invasion, even though it was approved by Congress and by a significant number of Congressional Democrats. Instead, he emphasizes the state of Iraq in 2009:
To be sure, Obama did not leave us with the kind of catastrophic legacy that the incompetent Bush administration left behind, notably in Iraq. And he did help bring foreign perceptions of America back to levels that existed before Bush.
Of course, the state of Iraq in 2009 and in 2011 was fairly good. Barack Obama declared in December 2011 that things were so good in Iraq that we could pull all of our troops out of the country. How did that one work out?
As for foreign perceptions of America, Kotkin is referring to polls, thus to popularity contests. While the people of the world like America more than they had during the Bush years, their leaders systematically disrespect Barack Obama.
Kotkin seems to contradict himself when he lists some of the Obama foreign policy failures:
Yet, as his term ends, if one looks around the world, the ascendant powers — China, Russia and Iran — are all effectively enemies of America, despite Obama’s attempt to placate them all. Our perceived lack of backbone is certainly one reason why China is pursuing its policy to turn the South China Sea into its own private lake, and some of our historical allies in the area are gravitating toward the Middle Kingdom.
Projecting weakness might make you popular. It also causes other nations to take advantage of you.
However bad the situation in Iraq at the end of the Bush administration, the Obama administration leaves his successor an unimaginable catastrophe in Syria:
The most tragic of Obama’s failures has been Syria, where he refused to enforce his own “red line” against the Bashar al-Assad regime and gradually conceded control of that devastated country to Iran, Russia and assorted, often conflicting, Muslim militias. Recent talks to settle the conflict include Russia and an increasingly hostile Turkey, but not the world’s putative top superpower.
Politically, Obama has been a catastrophe for the Democratic Party. People voted for him and gave him his chance. In return he made his political party into an also-ran on the national state. One might say that after Obama the Democratic Party has nowhere to go but up:
Following the Obama script, but without the man himself, the Democratic Party lost most of the country. Hillary Clinton may have achieved a plurality among all voters, but Republicans ran the table in most states, and received upwards of 3.5 million more votes than Democrats in congressional races. Obama’s presidency saw the virtual destruction of his own party in much of the country, notably in the South, Appalachia and the Great Plains.
As for his achievements, they have been produced by executive orders, thus undemocratically. Those who tell us that the incoming Trump administration will circumvent the constitution and will rule by executive order must be looking in the rear view mirror.
His post-2010 achievements relied almost entirely on executive orders and regulatory rulings, most of which can be canceled out with the signature of President Trump. Obama may have soared into office based on his persona, but his denouement seems likely to be something less than glorious.