Obama’s Legacy – The Reality Check; Trump’s Inauguration
22 January 2017
Democracy. Don’t you just love it? Donald Trump is officially the 45th President of the United States and it’s still quite difficult to believe – and that’s as a neutral observer. Imagine the situation for supporters and opponents. Supporters have certainly revelled in the victory and enjoyed seeing elites and the media squirm, while opponents have been a full denial mode, still obsessed with the irrelevant popular vote, Russian interference and generally throwing massive tantrums. The anti-Democratic party even saw fit for about one third of their house representatives to boycott the ceremony. Not that anyone noticed, or cared. These democracy deniers have set a nasty precedent for behaviour, showing themselves as total hypocrites and burying their phony ideals of “when they go low, we go high”. In true Trump style, he gave no concessions during his address, ripping into past administrations and the Washington establishment for their greed and self-aggrandisement, and directly belting the Obama administration when speaking about the “American carnage” that must stop right here, right now. It was a populist speech in that sense, promising to put America first on all key issues and hand power back to the people.
Personally, I found the tone of Trump’s voice a bit harsh, with the substance of the speech quite good. The best lines came towards the end – one about black, brown or white all bleeding the same red blood of patriots, and when opening your heart to patriotism, there’s no room for prejudice. That’s Trump. He does it all his own way. Again he defied predictions of delivering a mellower, more unifying speech, by repeating key campaign points heard over the last 18 months. The now former president Barack Obama looked disgusted, with Michelle Obama ashen at times. The next four years will be fascinating to say the least. Trump has affirmed his commitment to Twitter and one can only imagine his first address in front of the United Nations general assembly.
Most remarkable about the Inauguration Day is the inauguration itself. It’s set for noon on 20 January every four years, and Americans really know how to put on a show. It’s the third one I watched live after Obama’s two, and it’s hard not to feel that American pride during that monumental and peaceful transfer of power. It’s all staged so perfectly, with so such precision, and it was eerie seeing the Obamas enter the helicopter and fly out of the Capitol, just as George W Bush did eight years ago. Then comes the trek along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House by the new president, the parade in front of the White House and the inauguration balls.
Always the most impressive moment is the rendition of the national anthem at the inauguration ceremony, this time performed by Jackie Evancho (who?). She’s a 16 year old opera singer and comes from that great nursery of major talent these days, reality TV. It was a classy and dignified rendition, and really honoured the occasion itself.
BARACK OBAMA’S LEGACY
Since the election, Barack Obama has been on a “victory lap” promoting all his achievements. Apparently he’s now the best president he’s ever been, which is probably the same sentiment most of them share. There’s no real preparation for such a job, so it’s all learnt day by day, and it’s probably not until the final year or two that a president feels fully attuned to their role. Nostalgia then kicks in, as the president reflects on all these years in the job, and the sadness of suddenly being evicted. That’s more so when another party takes over and there’s a feeling of unfinished business, as Obama seemed to have. No president wants to see his work undone either. CNN did a good job recently of compiling Obama’s presidential legacy in a 2-hour special. Although it was hosted by Fareed Zakaria, a known Obama supporter, it raised many good points, exaggerated some, debunked a few, and totally missed others. The reality check.
THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT (OBAMACARE)
The biggie, as it’s the only major reform or legislation Obama produced in his 8 years in office. First, for those outside the USA, Obamacare is not the universal healthcare that most of the developed world experiences, where you can walk into any public hospital, get treated, and walk out without incurring any costs. Obamacare is a plan to subsidise insurance companies to make insurance more affordable. While there’s dispute about actual figures, the general consensus is about 40 million Americans were uninsured and Obamacare took care of 20m of those. Mostly that was achieved by heavy subsidies and expanding Medicaid (government funded healthcare for the poor).
Reality Check: The US population is about 330m, which means nearly 90% of people were covered, typically by their employers, while veterans and the elderly were covered by the government. Those with plans were mostly were happy with them. To target that 10% uninsured, Obamacare disrupted the entire insurance system, throwing people off their plans, forcing businesses to stop offering insurance, raising premiums and raising deductibles (you could pay $5000 out of pocket before the insurance kicks in). Worse than that, these were all broken promises. A family’s premium was meant to reduce by $2500 per year, existing plans could be kept, as too existing doctors. It’s these broken promises that has infuriated much of America. They weren’t one-time spontaneous promises either. Obama pounded and pounded, particularly about keeping existing plans, to reassure most Americans they would not only be untouched, they’d be better off. Obamacare is in a death spiral anyway, as costs increase, people drop out, and insurers can’t compete. Much of the initial price rise stems from the vast array of essential services plans must offer to be eligible for the exchanges, and therefore eligible for Obamacare subsidies. Because people with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied insurance anymore, they’ve signed up in huge numbers, as have the poor. Meanwhile younger people in good health haven’t bothered, and those earning just a little too much to get subsidies to offset the higher premiums have bailed. Instead of a gateway to universal healthcare as most of the world knows it (Obamacare was always meant to fail so government would take over), the only real legacy is if key mandates, like pre-existing conditions and children on parents plan until age 26, are preserved when Republicans repeal and replace it. In politics, policy is often debate in itself, shifting sentiment and setting foundations, so on that measure, Obama has succeeded to help ensure no American should be denied health insurance. Grade: C
After inheriting a financial crisis, the unemployment rate is now less than 5%, and there’s been continued economic growth over much of Obama’s presidency. He also brought it some good reforms to stabilise the financial sector and he “saved” the automotive industry. What’s not to love?
Reality Check: The real problems lie behind the figures, with job participation low, under-employment high and wages stagnant. The under-employment, or high level of part-time workers, is partially due to Obamacare regulations that don’t mandate employer-based insurance for workers on 30hrs or less per week or companies with fewer than 50 workers. The one policy Obama did institute for the economy, the massive fiscal stimulus of almost 1 trillion dollars (that’s $1,000,000,000,000,000,000), failed by his own measure. Unemployment wasn’t meant to rise above 8% (it went beyond 10%), the economy took 2 years longer to begin its recovery and there’s still way too many people on food stamps and other welfare. Even now, guess what the number one issue was at the last election? The economy! Let’s not forget the USA is also lumbered with a $20 trillion debt, almost half of which is Obama’s. Grade: D
ISIS, Syria, Libya, Crimea and Russia – the world’s never been as dangerous and American power never looked so weak. In fact, Russia seems to have taken over as the world’s “policeman” by intervening in Syria to remove Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons and creating mischief in the presidential campaign. It’s a debacle. The Middle East is still a mess, and made even worse when the USA was complicit in the UN Security Council declaring Israel’s settlements illegal, and the Iran Nuclear Deal has its critics.
Reality Check: Obama ran on being the anti-war President. The USA was meant to retreat, or even “lead from behind” as cynics say, and encourage other nations to do their bit in the world’s crisis areas. Americans don’t want to be involved in any more wars, so it was easy – and honouring a promise – not to send any American armed forces into combat. His main mistake was his rhetoric did not match his actions. Talks of “red lines” in Syria made him look weak, and almost ridiculous once Russia intervened. Closing Guantanomo Bay on day 1 was never a reality (it’s still open), and it being a supposed recruitment tool for terrorists is laughable compared to Obama’s own drone program that’s killed thousands of people. Still, Obama kept the homeland safe from major attack (the key role of a president), killed Osama bin Laden and even won a Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W Bush. Grade: A
One of the big promises that failed. Under the much vaunted slogan of “comprehensive immigration reform”, Obama didn’t even try, preferring to eventually use executive orders in his second term to enact DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which ensured so-called “Dreamers” (children brought illegally into the USA by their parents) would not be targeted for deportation. Not that they ever were anyway. Authorities struggle enough as is with recent arrivals and criminal aliens, so it was all symbolic to energise his party as the pro-immigration one. Sanctuary cities – cities that disobey requests by federal immigration authorities for illegal immigrants, even violent ones, to be held in detention – were allowed to flourish too. That particularly infuriated Republicans, as these cities are seen as deliberate acts to encourage illegal immigration. To counter that, Obama supporters touted the record millions of people that have been deported. These are mostly caught at the border and immediately deported. Sometimes it’s the same people over and over again, so it’s not indicative of any real commitment to border control.
Reality Check: There’s a basic, almost primal, policy difference between the two sides. Democrats want open borders, Republicans want secure borders. Republicans won’t act on any amnesty or legal status for current illegals until the border is secure, while Democrats want it all done at once. That’s why “comprehensive immigration reform” from Democrats is a code-phrase for do nothing. When you consider both sides like to use the issue politically, there’s even less appetite for reform. All of Obama’s “work” will be annulled by new executive orders, and the politicisation of the issue backfired spectacularly with the manifestation of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Grade: F
Even with such tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Obama made no incursions into curtailing the numbers and capabilities of firearms. In the face of the constitutional right to bear arms, America’s deep gun culture and strong resistance across the country, Obama flapped around the edges with extra background checks and closing a few loopholes on gun registration. Others in his party began talking vague and suspicious slogans like “comprehensive gun safety legislation”, and even had ideas of holding gun stores and sellers accountable if the buyer commits a crime. Eventually, Obama got nothing, and the appetite for restrictions is even lower than before. The bemused rest of the world must realise that most Americans are so skeptical of federation government intrusion, and they see gun rights as the cornerstone in the protection of their individual rights and freedoms. If their guns go, what’s next?
Reality Check: Obama needed to use the constitutional right as a weapon. At the time the constitution was written, the founding fathers had no idea about the strength of weapons in the future. It was all single-shot muscats back then, even for the federal government. They couldn’t foresee semi-automatic weapons or even nuclear missiles. These days, no militia could stop the feds taking over if they wanted, and there’s gun restrictions already. Americans cannot own machine guns or bazookas, for example, so begin to extend that. Even though it’s doubtful such talk would have changed much, in a democracy, it’s all about shifting sentiment. It might take years, or even decades for something tangible to happen. It needs to start somewhere, and Obama missed the opportunity. Grade: F
This shows you the importance supreme court justices, which was an issue pivotal in Trump winning the presidency. Relax! No justice that Trump nominates will overturn the two key social issues the gay marriage and abortion. Even Obama’s two selections only kept the left-leaning numbers on the court preserved, with the pivotal decision coming from Justice Anthony Kennedy, an appointee under the Ronald Reagan administration. Essentially his opinion was that under the constitutional right to equal protection, there could no longer be discrimination against same-sex marriages.
Reality Check: Obama also removed the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy about gays in the military. Of course, to show you the power of rhetoric, he was the first president to talk about gay marriage, which no doubt shifted enough sentiment for those supreme court justices to act in its favour. The country is way past this issue now. Grade: A
Tougher regulations and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, that’s about it.
Reality Check: Just like any regulation, it can be easily reversed. The PCCA is a compromise, as it’s not binding, and rather than the familar deal of restricting emissions by a certain percentage, the PCCA’s spurious “deal” is to keep warming under 2C degrees for the rest of this century. How nations will manage that, or measure it, is mystifying. It almost confers a god-like stature on governments that their action will directly cause changes in the temperature, when, conceivably, warming could halt without any “action”. After all, no one predicted the recent 18-year plateau in warming. Strangely, no one, despite all the “action” taken around the world, took credit for it either. The PCCA was designed like this solely to get the likes of China on board. They remain free to increase CO2 until 2030, when they only promise it will plateau. The good news is that, under Obama, the USA is now a major consumer of much cleaner natural gas. Fracking has taken off under Obama, meaning USA’s emmissions are way, way down, and ahead of any previous target. While that might not sit well with climate hysterics that wanted a socialist style redistribution of cash from big business and power-intensive industries to poor people unable to pay exhorbidant power costs, in terms of reducing emmissions, Obama has been a major success. Grade: A
RACE RELATIONS & UNITY
Despite Obama’s proclamations that they’ve never been better, they’ve gone backwards, and much of that is Obama’s fault. The soaring rhetoric of unity 8 years ago quickly fell for hyper partisanship, identity politics and acquiescence to real race problems in America, notably the obscene murder rate and gang violence in his home city of Chicago. Politically, the country has never been as divided before, nor the politics so corrosive. His party’s boycott of Trump’s inauguration was a disgrace, and Obama’s reluctance to speak about it, even when directly asked, epitomised his tenure to snub obvious moments of providing influence and much required leadership if it didn’t suit him politically.
Reality Check: Obama was elected twice, entered office with approval ratings nudging 80% (Trump is mid-40s), and leaves office with them almost 60%. For such a supposedly racist and bigoted country, that’s a decent achievement, even if much of it is more about his personal likeability than anything he actually did. Grade: C
THE FINAL LEGACY
During Obama’s two terms, the Democrats lost both houses of congress, lost the presidency, and lost around 1000 seats across federal and state houses and senates throughout the country. 34 of the 50 state governors are now Republican. It’s a damning indictment on his policies, and he’s left his party in tatters.
A part of the blame for Obama’s under-achievement is the system itself, that presidential candidates are selected so far in advance, and issues can change substantially. Obama was meant to get the USA out of Iraq and then institute his sweeping social reforms on a seemingly sound economy. He even hammered the Bush administration over the ever increasing national debt. Instead he faced a financial crisis, and was unable, or unwilling, to cope with new crises in the world. His cruise-control approach to leadership didn’t suit at the time, and once the Republicans swept into the house following the 2010 mid-terms, his reluctance to compromise effectively made him a lame duck for the next 6 years. From there it was about consolidating his own base and ensuring a Democrat followed him in 2016. He failed there too. Hillary Clinton, who he defeated in the primaries on his way to the White House, would have been far more suitable in 2008, with Obama coming in now.
Mostly Obama will be remembered as a nice guy. There hasn’t been any president as cool or affable as this one, and he’s been a good ambassador and figurehead for his country. In some ways he’s lucky Trump is the incoming president rather than a strict conservative, as his populist mindset will ensure key aspects laid by Obamacare, like no denial of coverage, will stay. How it stays, that’s the big unknown. At least for Obama, he’ll be the one remembered for laying that key foundation, even if others are responsible for building the structure. Final Grade: C