A President Who Baffles Us, Colltalers
Hard to guess. A common denominator about President Obama’s two-term in office could be its unpredictability. It was again on display last week, when he buried the TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline project. Because it could have gone either way.
In fact, less than two years to the end of his White House residence, the president has already left a bewildering trail of seemingly contradictory decisions, which to some have been mostly liberal biased and to others, just plain, and deeply, disappointing.
That’s a premature and unfair assessment of his presidency, to be sure, as it’s been ludicrous the profoundly racist abhorrence he’s faced throughout his terms, mainly from extreme right-wing segments of American society, but also from the Republican Party.
Having received one of the greatest popular mandates of any high-office holder, on the account of his personal trajectory and gifted oratorical skills, the first African-American president proceed, once elected, to favor neither his racial constituency nor that of the great majority of progressive forces in this country, who had seen in him a perhaps unduly hope for real change.
Not that he hadn’t fueled such hopes during his presidential campaign, which explicitly traded in just such a word. Few at the time cared or could afford to sort it out between what was essentially his powerful way with words, or even his personal brand of integrity, from the political expediency required of any neophyte willing to break through such a high-stakes challenge.
That a black man with a name such as Barack Hussein Obama II would be elected a U.S. President was, in itself, a triumph of long odds of the first magnitude. But it’s also such a meaningful and overriding event, that even extraordinary acts of sheer benevolence that may have followed it, wouldn’t be able to rise above it without being completely overshadowed by it.
But President Obama neither betrayed completely all campaign promises nor succeeded much advancing some of the most crucial issues he told us he wanted to address, when he applied for the job. What he did accomplish was to keep us all guessing.
Thus, as soon as he took charge, he opted to go
after health care coverage for Americans who couldn’t afford it, a worth cause long thought to be as untreatable as most cancers. For a moment, it seemed that the whole country, except his avowed enemies, was behind his efforts, and approved the fact that he was willing to employ his political capital in order to achieve it.
Then, a curious thing happened on our way to finally have, as most Western nations already have, universal medical coverage: the president buckled and allowed insurance companies to be his partners in the enterprise. Right there he wrote into the fundamentals of the new U.S. health care system the same rotten elements that have been undermining it all along.
He also immediately lost, if not the support, at least the enthusiasm of everyone who had given the matter a thought or two and concluded that only a so-called single payer system, i.e. Medicare for all, would work, no insurers involved, thank you very much. With them in the loop, costs could eventually fall, but not their ultimate control over how much we all pay.
After a two-year bruising battle, that pretty much emptied that ‘political mandate’ account he’d received, a system was finally in place, one that has defeated a record several dozen attempts at destroying it. But it’s also one that’s far from meeting the demand of millions of uninsured or underpaid Americans, besides being still expensive and lagging behind that of other nations.
It did help between 20 to 30 million citizens, even though establishing clear data about the system is depending on a number of factors – or what kind of source is consulted. Still much better than it had ever been and that’s a credit to his administration.
But it’s far from what those who voted him into office expected and likely the reason that they did not return in the same numbers, when his reelection came around. He won that one with the help of an almost completely different constituency, one that’s expected to rally behind front-runner 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton, and not her more progressive competitors.
The point though is that, for all his incredibly inspiring campaign rallies, which defeated not just Clinton but a whole prospect of things getting even worse for the U.S. than George W. Bush had managed to make them, the candidate Obama remains years ahead of President Obama in pretty much all issues the former convinced the nation that the latter would certainly accomplish.
Thus a comparison between the two continues to be a sobering exercise into where ‘politics of what’s possible’ radically differs from the perhaps too idealistic view that when a country comes together behind a gifted leader, things really change.
Just the other week, another major tenet of his presidential campaign has received the all but final blow: the promise of bring troops home. Not just the Afghanistan stay has just been extended, but he’s recommitted American forces in Iraq and now Syria, and left hanging to dry all diplomatic efforts to bring a pacific solution to the U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Then again, reinforcing our central theme, such a disappointing decision is not, in any way, in line with others he’s made recently, including the arguably most transcendental one of his administration: the agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
There are, however, at least three factors to be considered, before anyone is ready to discard the whole idea of a representative democracy as an effective instrument for social change and justice. And they’re crucial in the case of this president.
The first is the aforementioned racism. The hostility and malevolence that greeted Barack Obama in Washington have no parallel in the history of the Republic and it’s no wonder that racial issues have reawakened, if ever dormant, with a particular nasty streak of vengeance since he’s in office. Congress, specially, did its part undermining and trying to sabotage every one of his initiatives.
Secondly, if 911 ended the myth of an open society, the collapse of the financial system at the eve of his inauguration did the same for another myth, that of upward mobility. Instead of forcing a reassessment of big corporations and financial institutions as undue pillars of a nation’s economy, the crisis somehow boosted even more their power. Wall Street beat Main Street to a pulp.
Thirdly, for all he represents, even taking into consideration his rise from community organizer to a constitutional law professor, Barack Obama was always far from a political firebrand. Excepting his intellectual brilliance and the color of his skin, he’s been a moderate, who in Washington sought an Abe Lincoln-style consensus building in his decisions. And failed spectacularly at it.
In this context, his administration’s zeal prosecuting whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and John Kiriaku, keeping for years prisoners without charge at Guantanamo Bay, despite such a blatant violation of international law, his lenience towards Wall Street – personally barring Senator Elizabeth Warren from going after it – all but seem to be part of right-wing pattern. Or is it?
Because it is not when one considers his rejection of Keystone Pipeline. Or the not comprehensive but still positive blocking of some Arctic areas for drilling until at least he’s out of the office. Or reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And a few others.
They all come with caveats, political concessions, crucial details missing, and/or altogether not really expected to be more than to make him look good on the books, even though many are not expected to last much longer after he’s out, unfortunately.
But that’s the idiosyncrasies of the political process for a president who has had to go alone in more issues than one, and at important moments lacked support even from his own party. Or call it pragmatism from the part of a leader who’s had his share of political burnings even before his hair began to turn completely gray as it’s often the case with people in high offices.
By most accounts, the Keystone Pipeline was not just the right decision but one that should have been taken at least two years ago, when it first came to his desk for consideration. Then as now, the picture was the same: while generating only a few dozen jobs, the project had huge potential for environmental disaster, all in the name of a dubious partnership with a Canadian corporation.
On the other hand, critics point that, overall, the president’s decision won’t have any meaningful impact on the hairy issue of transporting tar sands oil by a foreign enterprise through thousands of miles of American soil, which may still happen anyway. Which means that they see that more like a symbolic act, not related with our sick dependence on fossil fuels. Fair enough.
But it’s one of those things: a decision had to be made and it’s better that it went that way and not the other way. And we all just wish that many more just like it had also gone in the same direction. The Arctic again comes to mind. Next time, perhaps.
For now, we’re left with a puzzling president who, despite six years in office, remains close to completely inscrutable when it comes to decisions that may or may not influence not just his legacy but in certain cases our own future. Some, however, would call that refreshing, since it shows his willingness to independently sort his way out of political quicksand without sinking into it.
Perhaps. When it’s about the environment, we take anything we can. It may be all a political calculation for the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, in just a few weeks; after all, the U.S.’s desperate need to lead, in this case, coincides with the interest and desire of the majority of Americans. And the Earth certainly stands to gain with it. Have a great one. WC