Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Progressives and Obama (Part 7)

Earlier today Barack Obama gave his last press conference as president.

In less than 40 hours he and his family will vacant the White House . . . and Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

This evening I've been looking back over the things I've written and shared about Obama at The Wild Reed.

There's this piece, for example, which contains my friend Mary Lynn's account of the June 2008 night when Obama clinched the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in downtown St. Paul, not that far from where I was living at the time.

And this piece, in which I share my "thoughts on tomorrow's presidential election." And then this, wherein I document the events of the next night when, in celebrating the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, millions celebrated the belief and hope that "change has come to America." (And of course included in these millions were many young people, including my friend Joey who penned this shortly after the November 2008 election of Obama.)

And then there's The Wild Reed's "Progressives and Obama" series, a series which highlighted critical perspectives on Obama from progressive thinkers such as Norman Solomon, Leslie Cagan and Antonia Juhasz, Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Howard Zinn, Manning Marable, Colleen Kochivar-Baker, and a number of others. (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

There was great hope, to be sure, in those days of late 2008 and early 2009. Yet in those first days of what, I guess, will now be referred to as "the Obama era" (2009-2016), there was also disappointment and concern. Patrick Martin, for instance, wrote the following in January 2009.

In advance of his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has assembled a cabinet drawn from the upper echelons of American society and the right-wing of the Democratic Party. Despite his invocations of “change,” his appeals to anti-war sentiment and to young people in the course of nearly two years of campaigning, there is not a single figure in the leading personnel of the Obama administration drawn from the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, let alone anyone representative of the broad masses of working people and youth. The right-wing character of Obama’s nominees is described by the media under the approving labels of “centrist,” “moderate,” and – most of all – “pragmatic.” This terminology signifies that the incoming Obama team consists entirely of individuals who pass muster with the corporate-financial elite. There is not a whiff of genuine oppositional sentiment, let alone political radicalism, among the lot of them.

Like many progressives, I had tremendous hope for an Obama presidency, and in one area in particular, he exceeded beyond everyone's expectations, including his own. Obama would, after all, turn out to be the most pro-LGBTQ president of all time, and as German Lopez documents, he leaves "an incredible legacy on LGBTQ rights."

And yet even as I celebrate this and acknowledge without hesitation that Obama is 100 times preferable to the incoming President Trump, I nevertheless find myself agreeing with the following comment made by a Facebook friend in response to the meme at left.

[Obama's drone warfare] is one of the reasons I can't engage with the "Obama was a great president" discourse. Without doubt he was treated abominably by Republicans in Congress, who so racistly and corruptly blocked many of his initiatives. But he also presided over the massive growth of the surveillance state. And bailed out Wall Street leaving underwater homeowners and people who had saved for retirement with nothing. He represented the 1% far more than the ordinary American. And he is responsible for thousands of innocent deaths.

My friend's mentioning of Republican obstructionism reminds me of the recent remarks of Cornell Belcher (right) in a segment of the January 16 broadcast of The Takeaway. Belcher is the author of A Black Man in the White House, and he had the following to say about Obama and the triggering of America's "racial-aversion crisis."

I'd argue that Barack Obama's presidency and the diverse coalition that put him in that office was a triggering effect that allowed a very racially polarizing figure like Donald Trump to rise to prominence.

Barack Obama didn't do anything from a policy standpoint or a governing standpoint to increase racial tensions. Most people of color would argue that he did everything he could to lessen that tension. What did he do, in fact, that would make white conservatives hate him, other than being black? Let's be real: the day before his election Republicans did something that, quite frankly, they had never done before. They gathered together in a steakhouse in Washington, D.C. and decided that they were going to block every thing he did so as to make him a failed president. The level of disrespect and the level of "outside the norm" stuff that we've seen over the past eight years is because a black man is in the White House. We've had a Congress that has worked through natural disasters, through wars, through whatever you can throw at it. But the moment we have a black man in the White House it becomes a completely dysfunctional body in a way it has never been before.

And so with the Obama era rapidly coming to a close, I thought I'd conclude my "Progressives and Obama" series by sharing not only the above thoughts and insights but also the following perspectives from three progressive thinkers and activists I greatly respect – Medea Benjamin, Gary Younge, and Cornel West. All three have had op-eds published recently in The Guardian, and it's from these three pieces that the following three passages are excerpted respectively.

Medea Benjamin

Most Americans would probably be astounded to realize that the president who has been painted by Washington pundits as a reluctant warrior has actually been a hawk. The Iran nuclear deal, a herculean achievement, and the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba unfortunately stand alone as President Obama’s successful uses of diplomacy over hostility.

While candidate Obama came to office pledging to end George W Bush’s wars, he leaves office having been at war longer than any president in US history. He is also the only president to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

President Obama did reduce the number of US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he dramatically expanded the air wars and the use of special operations forces around the globe. In 2016, US special operators could be found in 70% of the world’s nations, 138 countries – a staggering jump of 130% since the days of the Bush administration.

Looking back at President Obama’s legacy, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Micah Zenko added up the defense department’s data on airstrikes and made a startling revelation: in 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped at least 26,171 bombs. This means that every day last year, the US military blasted combatants or civilians overseas with 72 bombs; that’s three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day.

While most of these air attacks were in Syria and Iraq, US bombs also rained down on people in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. That’s seven majority-Muslim countries.

One bombing technique that President Obama championed is drone strikes. As drone-warrior-in-chief, he spread the use of drones outside the declared battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, mainly to Pakistan and Yemen. Obama authorized over 10 times more drone strikes than George W Bush, and automatically painted all males of military age in these regions as combatants, making them fair game for remote controlled killing.

President Obama has claimed that his overseas military adventures are legal under the 2001 and 2003 authorizations for the use of military force passed by Congress to go after al-Qaida. But today’s wars have little or nothing to do with those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

. . . Pushed to release information about civilian deaths in drone strikes, in July 2016 the US government made the absurd claim it had killed, at most, 116 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between 2009 and 2015. Journalists and human rights advocates said the numbers were ridiculously low and unverifiable, given that no names, dates, locations or others details were released. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tracked drone strikes for years, said the true figure was six times higher.

Given that drones account for only a small portion of the munitions dropped in the past eight years, the numbers of civilians killed by Obama’s bombs could be in the thousands. But we can’t know for sure as the administration, and the mainstream media, has been virtually silent about the civilian toll of the administration’s failed interventions.

Medea Benjamin
Excerpted from "America Dropped 26,171 Bombs in 2016.
What a Bloody End to Obama's Reign
The Guardian
January 9, 2016

Gary Younge

For the past eight years American liberals have gorged themselves on symbolism. A significant section of the population, including those most likely to support Barack Obama, have felt better about their country even as they have fared worse in it. The young, good-looking, intact, scandal-free black family in the White House embodied a hopeful future for America and beyond. Photogenic, with an understated chic, here were people of colour who looked even better in black and white. With personal stories of progress without privilege, they provided Camelot without the castle: evoking a sense of possibility in a period of economic stagnation, social immobility and political uncertainty.

As Obama passes the keys and the codes to Donald Trump at the end of this week, so many liberals mourn the passing of what has been, remain in a state of disbelief for what has happened, and express deep anxiety about what is to come. It is a steep cliff – politically, rhetorically and aesthetically – from the mocha-complexioned consensual intellectual to the permatanned, “pussy-grabbing” vulgarian.

But there is a connection between the “new normal” and the old that must be understood if resistance in the Trump era is going to amount to more than Twitter memes driven by impotent rage and fuelled by flawed nostalgia. This transition is not simply a matter of sequence – one bad president following a good one – but consequence: one horrendous agenda made possible by the failure of its predecessor.

It is easy for liberals to despise Trump. He is a thin-skinned charlatan, a self-proclaimed sexual harasser, a blusterer and a bigot. One need not exhaust any moral energy in making the case against his agenda. That is precisely what makes it so difficult to understand his appeal. Similarly, it is easy for liberals to love Obama. He’s measured, thoughtful, smart and eloquent – and did some good things despite strong opposition from Republicans. That is precisely what makes it so difficult for liberals to provide a principled and plausible critique of his presidency.

One cannot blame Obama for Trump. It was the Republicans – craven to the mob within their base, which they have always courted but ultimately could not control – that nominated and, for now, indulges him. And yet it would be disingenuous to claim Trump rose from a vacuum that bore no relationship to the previous eight years.

Some of that relationship is undeniably tied up in who Obama is: a black man, with a lapsed Muslim father from Kenya. That particular constellation of identities was like catnip to an increasingly strident wing of the Republican party in a time of war, migration and racial tumult. Trump did not invent racism. Indeed, race-baiting has been a staple of Republican party strategy for more than 50 years. But as he refused to observe the electoral etiquette of the Nixon strategy (“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Richard Nixon told his chief-of-staff, HR Haldeman. “The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to”), his campaign descended into a litany of brazen racist taunts.

Racism’s role should not be underplayed, but its impact can arguably be overstated. While Trump evidently emboldened existing racists, it’s not obvious that he created new ones. He received the same proportion of the white vote as Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W Bush in 2004. It does not follow that because Trump’s racism was central to his meaning for liberals, it was necessarily central to his appeal for Republicans.

There is a deeper connection, however, between Trump’s rise and what Obama did – or rather didn’t do – economically. He entered the White House at a moment of economic crisis, with Democratic majorities in both Houses and bankers on the back foot. Faced with the choice of preserving the financial industry as it was or embracing far-reaching reforms that would have served the interests of those who voted for him, he chose the former.

Just a couple of months into his first term he called a meeting of banking executives. “The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability,” one of them told Ron Suskind in his book Confidence Men. “At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” People lost their homes while bankers kept their bonuses and banks kept their profits.

Gary Younge
Excerpted from "How Barack Obama
Paved the Way for Donald Trump
The Guardian
January 16, 2016

Cornel West

The age of Barack Obama may have been our last chance to break from our neoliberal soulcraft. We are rooted in market-driven brands that shun integrity and profit-driven policies that trump public goods. Our “post-integrity” and “post-truth” world is suffocated by entertaining brands and money-making activities that have little or nothing to do with truth, integrity or the long-term survival of the planet. We are witnessing the postmodern version of the full-scale gangsterization of the world.

The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it. And those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.

A few of us begged and pleaded with Obama to break with the Wall Street priorities and bail out Main Street. But he followed the advice of his “smart” neoliberal advisers to bail out Wall Street. In March 2009, Obama met with Wall Street leaders. He proclaimed: I stand between you and the pitchforks. I am on your side and I will protect you, he promised them. And not one Wall Street criminal executive went to jail.

We called for the accountability of US torturers of innocent Muslims and the transparency of US drone strikes killing innocent civilians. Obama’s administration told us no civilians had been killed. And then we were told a few had been killed. And then told maybe 65 or so had been killed. Yet when an American civilian, Warren Weinstein, was killed in 2015 there was an immediate press conference with deep apologies and financial compensation. And today we still don’t know how many have had their lives taken away.

We hit the streets again with Black Lives Matter and other groups and went to jail for protesting against police killing black youth. We protested when the Israeli Defense Forces killed more than 2,000 Palestinians (including 550 children) in 50 days. Yet Obama replied with words about the difficult plight of police officers, department investigations (with no police going to jail) and the additional $225m in financial support of the Israeli army. Obama said not a mumbling word about the dead Palestinian children but he did call Baltimore black youth “criminals and thugs.”

In addition, Obama’s education policy unleashed more market forces that closed hundreds of public schools for charter ones. The top 1% got nearly two-thirds of the income growth in eight years even as child poverty, especially black child poverty, remained astronomical. Labor insurgencies in Wisconsin, Seattle and Chicago (vigorously opposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a close confidant of Obama) were passed over in silence.

In 2009, Obama called New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg an “outstanding mayor.” Yet he overlooked the fact that more than 4 million people were stopped-and-frisked under Bloomberg’s watch. Along with Carl Dix and others, I sat in a jail two years later for protesting these very same policies that Obama ignored when praising Bloomberg.

Yet the mainstream media and academia failed to highlight these painful truths linked to Obama. Instead, most well-paid pundits on TV and radio celebrated the Obama brand. And most black spokespeople shamelessly defended Obama’s silences and crimes in the name of racial symbolism and their own careerism. How hypocritical to see them now speak truth to white power when most went mute in the face of black power. Their moral authority is weak and their newfound militancy is shallow.

. . . The president’s greatest legislative achievement was to provide healthcare for over 25 million citizens, even as another 20 million are still uncovered. But it remained a market-based policy, created by the conservative Heritage Foundation and first pioneered by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

Obama’s lack of courage to confront Wall Street criminals and his lapse of character in ordering drone strikes unintentionally led to rightwing populist revolts at home and ugly Islamic fascist rebellions in the Middle East. And as deporter-in-chief – nearly 2.5 million immigrants were deported under his watch – Obama policies prefigure Trump’s barbaric plans.

Bernie Sanders gallantly tried to generate a leftwing populism but he was crushed by Clinton and Obama in the unfair Democratic party primaries. So now we find ourselves entering a neofascist era: a neoliberal economy on steroids, a reactionary repressive attitude toward domestic “aliens”, a militaristic cabinet eager for war and in denial of global warming. All the while, we are seeing a wholesale eclipse of truth and integrity in the name of the Trump brand, facilitated by the profit-hungry corporate media.

What a sad legacy for our hope and change candidate.

Cornel West
Excerpted from "Pity the Sad Legacy of Barack Obama"
The Guardian
January 9, 2016

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Progressives and Obama (Part 1)
Progressives and Obama (Part 2)
Progressives and Obama (Part 3)
Progressives and Obama (Part 4)
Progressives and Obama (Part 5)
Progressives and Obama (Part 6)
Historic (and Wild)!
Reality Check
One of Those Moments
Obama, Ayers, the “S” Word, and the “Most Politically Backward Layers in America”
Obama a Socialist? Hardly
Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Presidential Election (2008)
“Change Has Come to America”
A Night of Celebration
The Challenge for Progressives with an Obama Presidency
Vigiling Against Weaponized Drones

Related Off-site Links:
Why Obama Nostalgia Matters – Neal Gabler (, January 18, 2017).
Why We Shouldn’t Mourn the Obamas’ Departure from the White House – Zeba Blay (The Huffington Post, January 19, 2017).
How America's Thinking Changed Under Obama – Reuben Fischer-Baum and Dhrumil Mehta (FiveThirtyEight, January 18, 2017).
“We Were Heard for the First Time”: President Obama Leaves an Incredible Legacy on LGBTQ Rights – German Lopez (Vox, January 17, 2017).
Democrats Can’t Win Until They Recognize How Bad Obama’s Financial Policies Were – Matt Stoller (The Washington Post, January 12, 2017).
How President Obama Solidified the Transition to Perpetual WarThe Takeaway (January 18, 2016).
From Torture to Drone Strikes: The Disturbing Legal Legacy Obama is Leaving for Trump – Jennifer Williams (Vox, January 10, 2017).
The Issue is Not Trump, It's Us – John Pilger (teleSUR, January 16, 2017).

UPDATE: Obama's Drone Warfare Is Something We Need to Talk About – Azmia Magane (Teen Vogue, June 2, 2017).

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