The enigma of Barack Obama

HarpersWeb-June2015-Cover-302x410Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed — there must be millions of us — will feel that this president deserves a kind of criticism he has seldom received.  Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition.  His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.

One of the least controversial things you can say about Barack Obama is that he campaigned better than he has governed.  The same might be said about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but with Obama the contrast is very marked.

Governing has no relish for him.  Yet he works hard at his public statements, and he wishes his words to have a large effect.  Even before he ascended to the presidency, Obama enjoyed the admiration of diverse audiences, especially within black communities and the media.  The presidency afforded the ideal platform for creating a permanent class of listeners.

via Harper’s Magazine.

I am more disappointed in Barack Obama than in anyone else I ever voted for.  His speeches are often eloquent and wise, but his actions have no seeming connection with his words.  He is conciliatory toward his American political enemies, and tough with his core supporters.

I read The Audacity of Hope in 2008 and was under no illusion that Obama was a progressive reformer.  In that book, he presented himself as one who understood both liberals and conservatives and, by showing his reasonableness, could reconcile the two.  This was either hypocrisy or naivete.

What hoped for was that Obama as President could restore the country to normal after the excesses of the George W. Bush administration—a country in which the President respected the Constitution, didn’t start wars and kept his distance from Wall Street.  But none of these things happened.

There are three possible explanations of this.  One is that the entrenched power of Wall Street and of the covert military-intelligence complex—the so-called deep states—are too powerful to overcome, and that Obama is the best we can hope for.  I hate to believe that because it means there is no hope for my country.

Another is that Barack Obama has certain character flaws that make him ineffective.  The third, which is what I tend to believe, is that Obama’s intentions are not what his liberal supporters think they are.  Although he ran on a platform of hope and change, he is a very effective defender of the status quo.

David Bromwich, writing in the June issue of Harpers magazine, examined the Obama record in terms of his character.   The article worth reading, but it is behind a pay wall, so you have to buy the magazine or go to a public library to read it.  I subscribe to the magazine, so I can provide the highlights.

He came into office under the pressure of the financial collapse and the public disenchantment with the conduct of the Bush–Cheney “war on terror.”  It has been said that this was an impossible point of departure for our first black president.

Might the opposite be true? The possibilities were large because the breakthrough was unheard-of.  The country was exhausted by eight years on a crooked path.  The nature of the doubt, the nature of the uncertainty, it is possible to think, made the early months of 2009 one of those plastic hours of history when the door to a large transformation swings open.


Obama’s warmest defenders have insisted, against the weight of his own words, that such hopes were absurd and unreal — often giving as evidence some such conversation stopper as “this is a center-right country” or “the American people are racist.”

But the same American people elected an African American whose campaign had been center-left.  He inherited a majority in both houses of Congress.  It takes a refined sense of impossibility to argue that Obama in his first two years actually traveled the length of what was possible.


obama economic team_1In responding to the opportunities of his first years in office, Obama displayed the political equivalent of dead nerve endings.  When the news broke in March 2009 that executives in AIG’s financial-products division would be receiving huge bonuses while the federal government paid to keep the insurance firm afloat, Obama condemned the bonuses.

He also summoned to the White House the CEOs of fifteen big banks. “My administration,” Obama told them, as Ron Suskind reported in Confidence Men, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

But the president went on to say that “I’m not out there to go after you. I’m protecting you.” Obama was signaling that he had no intention of asking them for any dramatic sacrifice.

whats.wrongAfter an embarrassed reconsideration, he announced several months later that he had no use for “fat cats.”  But even that safe-sounding disclaimer was turned upside down by his pride in his acquaintance with Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs, and Jamie Dimon, of JPMorgan Chase: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.”

His attempt to correct the abuses of Wall Street by bringing Wall Street into the White House might have passed for prudence if the correctives had been more radical and been explained with a surer touch.  But it was Obama’s choice to put Lawrence Summers at the head of his economic team.

Obama promised in the 2008 election campaign to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and he did issue an order to close it.  But the order was never implemented.

“I thought we had enough consensus where we could do it in a more deliberate fashion,” he said. “But the politics of it got tough, and people got scared by the rhetoric around it.  Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it’s not who we are as a country and it’s used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists.”

991One may notice a characteristic evasion built in to the grammar of these sentences. “The politics” (abstract noun) “got tough” (nobody can say why) “and people” (all the people?) “got scared” (by whom and with what inevitability?). Adverse circumstances “set in” (impossible to avoid because impossible to define). In short, once the wrong ideas were planted, the president could scarcely have done otherwise.

The crucial phrase is “the path of least resistance.”  In March 2015, in the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. … … Obama was affirming that for him there could not possibly be a question of following the path of courageous resistance.

via Harper’s Magazine.

Obama campaigned as an opponent of the Iraq war and a supporter of the war in Afghanistan.  This was the position of most Democrats at the time.  But it was apparent when he took office that the Afghan war was lost.

Karl W. Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan and, before that, the senior commander of U.S. forces there, …… said that the war could not be won outside the parts of the country already held by U.S. forces.  No more troops ought to be added. Eikenberry recommended, instead, the appointment of a commission to investigate the state of the country.

direct-deaths-multi1Any reasonably adroit politician would have made use of these documents and this moment. With a more-in-sorrow explanation, such a leader could have announced that the findings, from our most reliable observer on the ground, compelled a reappraisal altogether different from the policy that had been anticipated in 2008. … … A lifeline was tossed to him and he treated it as an embarrassment.

A plainer opportunity came with the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. This operation was the president’s own decision, according to the available accounts, and it must be said that many things about the killing were dubious.  It gambled a further erosion of trust with Pakistan, and looked to give a merely symbolic lift to the American mood, since bin Laden was no longer of much importance in the running of Al Qaeda: the terrorist organization was atomized into a hundred splinter groups in a dozen countries. 

As Bromwich noted, Obama could have said that with the killing of Bin Laden and the decimation of Al Qaeda, the goal of the Afghan war had been achieved, and it was time to bring the troops home.  But he was content with a boost to patriotic morale that undoubtedly helped his re-election campaign in 2012.

He was said to have been impressed with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which told how President Lincoln appointed strong leaders to his cabinet, including many political opponents.  But unlike Lincoln, he did not have a cabinet with a diversity of views, nor did he impose his own will on them.

The largest issues on which Obama won the Democratic nomination were his opposition to the Iraq war and his stand against warrant-less domestic spying.

He had vowed to filibuster any legislation giving immunity to telecommunications companies, and withdrew that pledge (with a vow to keep his eye on the issue) only after he secured the nomination.

candorville.surveillanceAnd yet among all the names in the cabinet there was not one opponent of warrant-less surveillance on his domestic team, and, on his foreign-policy team, no one except Obama himself who had spoken out or voted against the Iraq war.  (Lincoln, by contrast, placed abolitionists in two critical posts: Seward at State and Salmon Chase at Treasury.)

Thus, on all the relevant issues, Obama stood alone; or rather, he would have stood alone if his views had remained steady. His choice not only of cabinet members but of two chief advisers — Summers and [Rahm] Emanuel — could be read as a confession that he was intimidated in advance.

via Harper’s Magazine.

Bromwich wrote that Obama’s domestic policy showed a pattern of  “intimidation, postponement and retreat.”  The President agreed to the Republican “sequester” which brought key government functions to a halt, evidently in anticipation of a public backlash that never came, and this has resulted in a semi-permanent governmental crisis.

He regarded the Affordable Care Act as his signature accomplishment.  But, as Bromwich noted, he delegated responsibility to five committees of Congress to draft it.  He made no major political speech on the subject while it was under consideration.   Responsibility for pushing the law through Congress was delegated to Vice President Biden.

After it was enacted, Obama met only once with Kathleen Sibelius, secretary of health and human services,  prior to the launch of the Obamacare exchanges.   Bromwich thought this administrative carelessness, and his failure to explain the legislation, probably cost the Democrats their Senate majority in the 2014 elections.

Bromwich did think that Obamacare is, taken as a whole, an important positive achievement.  He gives the President credit for negotiating an agreement to end the U.S. economic warfare against Iran.  I agree he deserves credit, but wonder if he will devote as much energy to completing the Iran agreement as he is to pushing through the toxic Trans Pacific Partnership.

The worst thing that Obama has done, in Bromwich’s opinion and mine also, has been to continue and expand the Bush war on terror.  Basic Constitutional rights have been set aside.  Like Bush, he has defined a category of enemy who are outside the protections given either to accused criminals or to prisoners of war.

Bromwich thinks Obama was simply intimidated by the secret intelligence and military agencies, both by the lurking dangers they allegedly avert and by their ability to undermine his administration.

My own assessment of Obama is different.  I don’t think he is a weak liberal.  I think he is an astute and successful conservative.  But I could be wrong and I’ll give Bromwich the last word.

Obama has governed in a manner that is moderate-minded and expedient. He has been mostly free of the vengeful and petty motives that can derail even a consummate political actor.  His administration, the most secretive since that of Richard Nixon, has been the reverse of transparent, but it has also been entirely free of political scandal.


Nobody bent on mere manipulation would so often and compulsively utter a wish for things he could not carry out. Yet Obama has done little to counteract the regression of constitutional democracy that began with the security policies and the wars of Bush and Cheney.

This degeneration has been assisted under his negligent watch, sometimes with his connivance, occasionally by exertions of executive power that he has innovated.

Much as one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance.

via Harper’s Magazine.


The Liberal Apologies for Obama’s Ugly Reign by Paul Street for Counterpunch.  Here is a harsher assessment of the Obama Presidency.

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3 Responses to “The enigma of Barack Obama”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    This very well expresses my own thoughts. Barack governs as a moderate Republican. I wrote him early in his presidency asking if he knew what the word “no” meant as used by his political opponents who were quite sincere in not wanting to work with him.
    naivete is the right word.


  2. Chris Says:

    Hey Phil, I agree, while posing as a center left liberal, he has actually governed as a moderate Republican. It’s an open question as to how much room to manoeuvre the structural socio-economic conditions have allowed him to operate. I think, although I haven’t got access to the full piece that Bromwich’s contention is that he didn’t fight hard enough for the space to shift the discourse. The structure is left unchanged. Would it be possible for you to send me the full text of David Bromwich’s Harper’s essay?


  3. Jay Says:

    I think part of what’s going on is that Obama has been extremely successful at a relatively young age. In his experience, America works extremely well. If it ain’t broke …

    Still, I think the main answer is in the entrenched powers. One of Obama’s first acts was an executive order to close Guantanamo, but it’s still open. The military-industrial complex employs millions, and Obama is just one man. It takes crazy managerial skills to make a tail that small wag a dog that large, and Obama has never cultivated them.


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