George W. the Second: Barack Obama (2009-2017)

Here’s a good summation of Barack Obama’s presidency:

“Despite their divergent party and ideological labels, the presidencies of Barack Obama (labelled a liberal Democrat) and his predecessor, George W. Bush (labelled a conservative Republican) were similarly bad. Under both administrations, peace was elusive. Both men attacked countries for no legitimate reason, escalated needless wars that should have been de-escalated, got many U.S. soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain, and ended up leaving the affected countries in shambles. Prosperity was also elusive during both administrations. Bush’s fraudulent tax cuts, massive war spending, vast new domestic expenditures, and increases in the money supply overheated the economy into a bubble, which burst and led to the greatest recession since the Great Depression. In response Bush provided a $168 billion Keynesian stimulus, bailed out the nation’s biggest banks and Wall Street with $700 billion. Obama — continuing Bush’s Keynesian intervention in the economy in a vain attempt to jumpstart it out of the doldrums — produced only an elongated anemic ‘recovery’ by effectively nationalizing two of thee three U.S. carmakers, imposing new regulations on the financial industry in a misguided attempt to prevent future financial declines, and continuing Bush’s federal domestic largesse by launching a massive ineffective stimulus spending effort costing well over $1 trillion. Although during his campaign, Obama decried Bush’s attack on civil liberties, he continued most of Bush’s infringements on liberty — killing people overseas without congressional approval of hostilities, detention without trial, kangaroo military tribunals for terrorism suspects, and unconstitutional domestic spying. Even Bush’s and Obama’s use of dubious methods were similar. Bush took advantage of the 9/11 tragedy to conduct an unrelated invasion of Iraq. Obama took advantage of the economic collapse to enact health care reform. In switching priority to passing Obamacare, the president ignored advice that he focus like a laser on the collapsing economy, thus contributing to his eroding popularity.” (Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore, pp 427-28)

I agree almost entirely with this summary, except for the parting blow at Obamacare. I half-heartedly support the Affordable Health Care Act (acknowledging its problems), and so my overall assessment of Obama isn’t quite as bad as Eland’s — though that’s damning with faint praise. The fact is that Obama was a very dismal and disappointing president. He was, essentially, George W. the Second.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Obama’s visit to Cairo five months after his inauguration (in June 2009) gave a pretty good indicator as to how he would follow in Bush’s footsteps. He parroted his predecessor’s platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace, and made this curious statement:

“I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'”

John Adams, however, was as bad as Obama when it came to dealing with jihadists, so it’s no surprise that Obama cited him approvingly. The Barbary pirates of Tripoli had made unprovoked attacks on peaceful U.S. trade ships — for no reason at all — and Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, were told by the Muslim ambassador that Tripoli was founded on the Laws of Muhammad and the Qur’an, that all nations who didn’t acknowledge Muslim superiority were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of Muslims to wage war on such sinners wherever they could be found. That’s why the Barbary jihadists were attacking American trade ships “for no reason”: because Islam demanded it. When Adams became president, he (unlike Jefferson after him) placated the Barbary terrorists with tribute payment.

At any rate, Obama continued:

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

It’s not the president’s job to defend Islam or any religion. And if it were — if Obama truly wanted to base a partnership with America on the basis of “what Islam is” — he’d have to endorse a sharia-based state.

Obama was worse than Bush on the subject of Islam, because he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. It’s bad enough when political-correctness kills honest inquiry in the civilian sphere, but in the professional sphere of national security, this was inexcusable. Having intentionally purged the Defense Department’s training of any ability to define the enemy, it was left with little capacity to defeat the enemy; you can’t defeat something you don’t understand.

Afghanistan

Against voter expectations, Obama didn’t pull out of the Middle-East. He not only continued Bush’s troop surge in Afghanistan, he revved things up, more than doubling the number of U.S. soldiers to about 100,000. Throughout Bush’s two terms, 630 soldiers had died in Afghanistan. Throughout Obama’s two terms, 1758 were killed. Obama was later blasted by his own Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates) for escalating things in Afghanistan. The soldiers who died for a hopeless cause would be alive today, and a lot of taxpayer dollars saved.

Drone Wars

There were ten — yes, ten — times more air strikes under Obama’s two terms (563) than under Bush’s two terms (57). Obama wildly ratcheted up the drone attacks on Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in those countries, many of them women and children.

The drone program was always absurd. The strikes were against franchise groups only loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, and they had no part in the 9/11 attacks. Obama was doing quite a good job following Bush’s playbook — diverting national security resources from those who had actually committed the 9/11 attacks.

Egypt & Libya

Also like Bush before him, Obama labored under the illusion that the United States could bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this when he removed Saddam; Obama thought this when he aided in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. The result was the opposite of democracy: unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over.

In the case of Egypt, Obama fell under the “Arab Spring” delusion. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism. They were about imposing Islamic law. After Mubarak’s fall (in February ’11), the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi assumed power (in June ’12) and put through a new constitution that removed the last traces of Egyptian democracy. Morsi declared that he was immune from any challenge. If not for the military coup that overthrew him the following year, Egypt would now be sharia state.

One month after Obama aided in Mubarak’s fall, he went after Gaddafi, attacking Libya on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011. The CIA was worried that removing Gaddafi would strengthen jihadists in Libya, and of course that’s what happened. Gaddafi was overthrown in October, and jihadists began wreaking havoc in Libya, using the country as a base for attacking other countries in northern Africa (like Mali). Since then the entire region has been much worse off than before.

Killing Bin Laden

Obama succeeded in killing Bin Laden on May 2, 2011, using a Special Forces raid in Pakistan. That it took almost ten years for a superpower like America to locate and neutralize one man is a national disgrace. At least Obama was able to do in two years what Bush couldn’t do in eight. That’s faint praise however, for what Obama should have done after killing Bin Laden was declare the war on terror over, end his absurd drone wars, and foster a long-overdue return to military restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things.

Syria

Obama takes a lot of flak for Syria, but he deserves only some of it. On the plus side, he never made good on his vow (in 2011) to bring down Assad. Assad was, and still is, a tyrant, but Syria was at least relatively stable with Assad in power. If Assad went, then Syria would be overrun by worse.

In 2014, however, he asked Congress for money to fund a program allowing U.S. personnel to train the Syrian rebels to fight against Assad. At least 60% of these rebels were Islamists/jiahdists, and by 2015, some of these Obama-backed rebels were committing atrocities, such as persecuting Christians in Aleppo and making them flee their homes. The idea that the rebels were “moderates” was a media fiction spread by the Obama Administration in order to justify arming and financing them.

Iran

Obama deserves credit, albeit very minimal, for resisting strong pressures — from both America and Saudi Arabia — to pursue aggressive policies with Iran. No one likes negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation, but the Iran-Nuclear Deal was, at least arguably, the lesser of two evils. The deal however was too easy on Iran. There were no consequences spelled out in the deal for breaking the agreement (other than vague talk about sanctions), and the real whopper was that Iran got to inspect it own nuclear sites. Seriously.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

The Great Recession was Bush’s fault, but Obama’s “remedy” was as bad as Bush’s. Instead of letting the economy right itself by restoring the natural balance between supply and demand, Bush (following the now discredited Keynesian methods first used by Herbert Hoover in the ’30s) tried to heal the economy by using government intervention in the marketplace — at the cost of a whopping $700 billion, bailing out banks that were deemed “too big to fail”, thereby ensuring that businesses will continue reckless risk-taking, believing that Uncle Sam will be there to bail them out.

Unlike Bush, Obama had a brain, and he knew that Keynesian methods were crank and obsolete. But Americans wanted short-term fixes to put off the day of reckoning, and Obama was willing to oblige them. As he candidly admitted in a White House speech, “Look, I get the Keynesian thing. But it’s not where the electorate is.” Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had taken that attitude instead of signing the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, by saying: “Look, folks, I get the problems of racial injustice. But it’s not where the electorate is”. Democracy doesn’t trump scientific results or doing the responsible thing. That’s why we elect leaders in the first place — as much to go against the electorate when necessary.

But Obama catered to the electorate knowing it was wrong, outdoing even Bush with a “rescue” stimulus package of over $1 trillion. Bailouts, fiscal stimuli, the buildup of public debt, and massive printing of money simply delay the day of reckoning by creating another bubble. The economy goes from one bubble to the next, on an artificial high. Recovery from the Great Recession came not because of Obama’s stimulus package, but despite it: the economy had been showing early signs of recovery without the stimulus having yet taken effect.

The Affordable Health Care Act

My enthusiasm for Obamacare has cooled somewhat since the year it was signed into law (2010). It has provided coverage for millions of needy Americans, but the drawbacks have become rather pronounced. Premiums rose dramatically, and many people couldn’t afford health insurance, but were penalized if they didn’t take it. (As of 2019 that penalty was rightly dropped, no thanks to Obama.) The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on Obamacare has massively increased the federal budget. That’s just to name a few problems. It’s difficult to be objective about the AHCA. I’m still a yeasayer, but a very reserved one, and I don’t consider it the wonderfully great achievement I did back in 2010.

Environment

With the environment, at least, Obama was not George II. He wasted no time reversing what Bush did against the Endangered Species Act of 1973. On his way out the door, Bush had made it easier for federal agencies to skip consultations with scientists before making decisions that could endanger wildlife. Right after taking office, Obama restored this requirement. He did other good things, notably in 2015 rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada; a laudable rebuke of fossil fuel. He also advocated for the Paris Climate Agreement (which began in November 2016), the first global effort against carbon emissions.

3. Liberty

Obama’s liberty record is poor. As a senator, he had condemned the Patriot Act for violating the rights of American citizens, as it allowed warrantless searches on American citizens. Yet as president he signed a four-year renewal of the Patriot Act in 2011.

He flipped on mass surveillance too. In June 2013, it was revealed (thanks to Edward Snowden) that under the Obama administration, telephone communications records for millions of Americans were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether people were suspected of any wrongdoing. Obama responded to the Snowden leaks by saying that while he originally had “a healthy skepticism” about the surveillance programs he inherited from Bush, he soon concluded that spying on people was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

Toward the end of his second term he signed the USA Freedom Act of 2015, which was a mixed bag. It ended the bulk collection of American’s telephone records and internet metadata, but also renewed parts of the Patriot Act.

Guantanamo and rendition centers

Obama cannot be faulted for failing on his promise to close Guantanamo. He tried, but Congress wouldn’t budge. He is certainly to be faulted for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA, and deserves credit for that.

The drug war

Throughout my series, there are four presidents I penalize for the drug-war: Richard Nixon, for launching it; Ronald Reagan, for escalating it, and his zealous use of anti-drug propaganda; George H.W. Bush, for doubling federal spending to fight it, and building more prisons to accommodate it; and Barack Obama, for hardly lifting a finger to help his own tribe, as was expected from an African American president of the 21st century.

Aside from free speech, there is no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully shepherd the contents of our consciousnesses. Ruining the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them (and at great expense) is a serious Constitutional and moral failure. That we make room for these nonviolent drug users in prison by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters, heaps insult on the moral injury. And of course, those who suffer most from this injustice are African Americans.

Obama did little for blacks against the drug war, aside from increasing health spending for anti-drug efforts. In August 2016 he rejected the application of two governors (from Rhode Island and Washington) who asked the government to lower the federal restrictions on marijuana. This gave lie to Obama’s earlier promises that he would allow science, rather than drug-war ideology, to determine the legal status of marijuana. Over two whole terms he didn’t scale back the law enforcement side of the drug war one iota. There are still hundreds of thousands of arrests for marijuana alone each year, let alone for other drugs.

Gays

To his credit, Obama halted two policies that treated gays as second-class citizens. First, he got Congress to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, and then ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts.

Supreme Court Picks

Obama appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both liberal progressives. Progressives tend to be a mixed bag on the Supreme Court. The judiciary, by its nature, is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. Progressive justices have a track record of ruling as ideologues on particular issues, toward favorable change, but the place for that is the legislature. Kagan, however, has proven to be an excellent justice (currently the second best of the nine), while Sotomayor is easily the worst of the liberal justices (currently the second worst of the nine). The net result of the Kagan and Sotomayor appointments neither add to Obama’s liberty score, nor subtract from it, since they cancel each other out.

Conclusion

Barack Obama was a bad president, but unlike George W. Bush he wasn’t a complete failure. Here’s how I score him.

Peace. He repeated Bush’s foreign policy disasters as if he were trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. If Obama was this bad, he should by rights get a zero-peace score like Bush, but I throw him 3 points: 1 for killing Bin Laden and 2 for making the Iran-Nuclear agreement. They are hardly significant marks of merit. Killing Bin Laden was good, but Obama did nothing whatsoever to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. And the Iran-Nuclear agreement, while a peaceful solution, wasn’t ideal; it’s never ideal to negotiate with a terror-sponsored nation.

Prosperity. I scored Bush a 4 in this category; I give Obama 7. Both presidents used terrible bailout/stimulus relief strategies, and I hope we will never see their like again. They printed money to kingdom-almighty-come. Obama also needs serious downgrading for his complete failure to address the plight of the middle class, which is the main reason Donald Trump was elected. Weighed against these mega-failures, I upgrade Obama for the Affordable Health Care Act (despite increased reservations I have about it) and for his positive environmental achievements.

Liberty. Bush got zero, Obama gets 9. Bush had claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer; like Lincoln, Bush suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Obama at least didn’t sink to these depths. He stopped torture overseas, and he made a couple of moves for gay rights. Against those positives stand his serious Bush-sins of detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. Another very serious failing is the drug war. That an African American president in the 21st century did virtually nothing for this cause weighs heavily against him.

Peace — 3/20
Prosperity — 7/20
Liberty — 9/20

TOTAL SCORE = 19/60 = Bad

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