Obama

Book Review: The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment edited by Julian Zelizer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/07/2018 - 11:40pm in

With The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment, editor Julian Zelizer brings together contributors to reflect on different aspects of the Obama administration, from social, economic and legal issues to foreign policy. Jonny Hall explores how the volume grapples particularly with the themes (and frustrations) of Tea Party obstructionism, Obama’s failure to live up to the expectations established by his 2008 campaign and the potential impact of the Trump presidency on his predecessor’s legacy. 

The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment. Julian Zelizer (ed.). Princeton University Press. 2018.

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Edited by the established historian and commentator Julian Zelizer, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment is a wide-ranging collection of chapters on sixteen different topics relating to the Obama administration, broadly grouped around four themes of domestic social and economic issues, foreign policy and legal questions. Each essay is fairly short and thus most are probably best treated as introductory chapters to the issue in question. However, there are several themes that do repeatedly emerge throughout the book which are worth highlighting, especially considering the lack of any clear thematisation or a concluding chapter.

Firstly, the election of Donald Trump lingers significantly over the book as a whole – somewhat unsurprisingly given that the conference that inspired this text occurred just days after the 2016 presidential election. In attempting to clarify the legacy of the Obama presidency, the extent to which even a one-term Trump presidency may irreversibly damage Obama’s achievements is touched on (but probably underexplored – how, even in theory given the publication date, does that affect Obama’s legacy?) in several chapters. Certainly, the ‘anything but’ doctrine is not a new phenomenon in US politics, but the gulf between Obama and Trump hardly needs elaboration here. Put in other terms, even before Obama had left the White House, this book would have been a very different one had Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

The fragility of Obama’s legacy links to the second theme that runs apparent throughout: that he increasingly relied on executive action because of the Tea Party’s electoral success from 2010 onwards. Indeed, if there is such thing as a group of ‘baddies’ in a non-fiction work, the Tea Party certainly fulfil that role here. This is best personified by one of Zelizer’s chapters, where he quotes then Speaker of the House John Boehner philosophising that ‘garbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage’ in explaining how ‘he had been able to deal with the younger members of his caucus’ (21), when the original article states that this comment was actually ‘referring especially to the grind of constant travel’. Beyond this, almost every chapter touches on how the actions of the Republican-controlled House (and later Senate) made legislating by consensus almost impossible for the Obama administration. Mitch McConnell’s statement that one of his ‘proudest moments’ was telling Obama that he would not let Merrick Garland even be nominated for the vacant Supreme Court seat is a telling example of this kind of unheralded obstructionism.

Image Credit: (Jared Tarbell CC BY 2.0)

The frustration of the authors with regards to Tea Party and Republican politics brings us onto the third theme of note: the failure of Obama to live up to the expectations established by his campaign. Many have claimed since his election that Obama is a believer in incremental change, which failed to fit with one of the most memorable, energetic and, most of all, hopeful presidential campaigns. This jubilant atmosphere is nicely illustrated in Obama’s counterterrorist policies; in Obama’s first week, the Washington Post would declare that ‘with the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the “war on terror”’ due to his executive orders. And yet, as Kathryn Olmsted notes in this volume (212), nothing else in Obama’s presidency baffled his liberal supporters more than the continuity between Bush and Obama in the counterterrorism arena. As in other policy areas, the general aura of Obama’s campaign and electoral success marred the fact that Obama was never as radical as some believed him to be; he had always supported the militarised ‘war on terror’ as a whole, just not its ‘excesses’. Somewhat paradoxically then, the hope of the campaign is part of the reason why Obama found himself critiqued by both individuals on the left (Bernie Sanders, Cornel West etc) and on the right, though the reasons for the latter’s critiques obviously differ.

At this point I have painted a rather miserable image of the Obama presidency. This is a little misleading, in that some of the authors in this collection are very complimentary of the Obama administration’s policy achievements. This is particularly so with regards to the economic recovery, health-care legislation, the decreases in economic inequality, higher-education reforms and social issues such as LGBT rights. And yet, even in these areas, the authors (most notably Paul Starr with his chapter ‘Achievement without Credit: The Obama Presidency and Inequality’) argue that the administration was unable to successfully portray its own message of policy success. Partly this relates to Obama’s own marketing failures, as he acknowledged in 2012 when stating that:

the mistake of my first term […] was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right […] But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.

The broader political context is again important, though: the relatively centrist policies pursued by Obama were always going to disappoint his supporters on the left, whilst always outraging his opponents on his right. (For an exploration of this dynamic as early as 2009, see here.) In this sense, the overall picture of Obama’s presidency is not that of misery, but of tragedy – failing to live up to progressive expectations, hampered by an increasingly belligerent right-wing movement and having to rely on future events to secure his legacy.

In closing, I would like to touch upon an excerpt from Obama’s close confidant, Ben Rhodes, and his new book, The World as It Is. Riding in a presidential motorcade in Peru, Rhodes quotes Obama as saying ‘sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early’. In the closing chapter of this book, ‘Civic Ideals, Race, and Nation in the Age of Obama’, Gary Gerstle seems to come to the same conclusion. As he concisely puts it:

tens of millions of white Americans were simply unable to accept him as their president. The amount of energy they dedicated to discrediting him, often on charges that any reasonable person would immediately recognize as ludicrous, has been staggering (278).

Let us not forget that one of the most public proponents of the ‘birther’ conspiracy against Obama was none other than the current president. Considering this unique challenge to the Obama presidency is of vital importance in judging the essentially mixed record that this book presents. Obama’s failings are detailed throughout (and fairly), but it is worth remembering that – especially with his favouring of consensus and incrementalism – Obama was probably president too early for the country he was elected to lead.

Jonny Hall is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the LSE. His research interests lie in American foreign policy, specifically counterterrorism discourse in the Donald Trump era and the value of presidential rhetoric in this area in historical comparison. Read more by Jonny Hall.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

 

 


SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Blame is Bipartisan: How the Democrats Ruined Central America and Worsened the Mess at the Border

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 30/06/2018 - 12:29am in

Image result for honduras coup

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat its mistakes blah blah blah, someone said —Americans don’t even pay attention to the news, so how the heck are they supposed to remember it after it becomes history?

So we keep making the same mistakes over and over. In foreign policy the biggest mistake the United States keeps making is interfering in the sovereign domestic politics of foreign countries it doesn’t know enough about. More often than not, the U.S. supports the wrong side: a privileged minority who oppresses the people, aka the majority. Eventually, because they are the majority, the people overthrow the jerks. Unsurprisingly to everyone except the State Department, the new government is pissed at the United States.

The progressive historian Chalmers Johnson called this stupid cycle “blowback.”

A classic example followed the decision of the CIA to arm the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s. The mujahedin gave rise to Al Qaeda, who caused us some sort of trouble in 2001 though I can’t remember exactly what happened there. Then there was the CIA-backed coup that ended the rule of the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. I’d be shocked if five percent of Americans have heard of Mohammad Mossadegh, but the Iranians have and they remember and for some reason they just won’t shut up about it and sometimes they give our citizens a hard time.

Blowback isn’t always terrorism and it doesn’t always originate in the Muslim world.

At this writing the Trump Administration’s mistreatment of illegal immigrants attempting to enter the United States from Mexico has drawn international condemnation, and rightly so. The cliché that most migrants come here to pursue economic opportunities is out of date. Nowadays much if not most of the migratory flow is comprised of refugees from violence, specifically from the so-called “Northern Triangle countries” of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala. Homicide rates are especially high in Honduras and El Salvador. A 2015 Doctors Without Borders survey of refugees from these countries found that most Central Americans seeking political asylum on the southern border were fleeing physical attacks or threats of violence against themselves or a close family member. More than 40% had had a family member killed in the previous two years.

American officials blame the violence on the drug trade, and accept some responsibility by noting the U.S. demand for illegal narcotics that is behind the violence. But while drug cartels are indisputably a big part of the problem, what no one wants to talk about — especially not Democrats who are having a field day watching the Republicans get beat up in the polls because the optics of forcibly separating children from their parents are so hideous — is the U.S. interventionism, most recently carried out by former President Barack Obama, behind the disintegration of civil society in Central America.

Shortly after becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama and his bellicose secretary of state Hillary Clinton faced a foreign policy dilemma: what, if anything, to do about a military coup that toppled Honduras’ democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya. As Al Jazeera remembers: “Latin American leaders, the United Nations General Assembly and other international bodies vehemently demanded his immediate return to office.”

Obama dithered.

The people’s will be damned; the U.S. government wanted Zelaya out because he was a leftist, an ally of Venezuela’s charismatic leader Hugo Chávez and an enemy of Honduras oligarchs, who had long been propped up by the U.S. and U.S. corporations. Zelaya’s crime: he wanted to reduce the country’s staggering chasm between a tiny clique of wealthy families and the rest of the population, who were desperately poor. But Obama had been elected post-Bush because he opposed the Iraq war. He couldn’t be seen as backing a Cold War-style intervention in favor of Latin American thugs.

So he played a double game. In public — after an embarrassing, telling silence — Obama decried the coup and called for Zelaya’s return to power.

Thanks to WikiLeaks we know that behind the scenes and in defiance of international law, Clinton reached out to the new junta leader to assure him of U.S. support and rejected the international community’s requests that the U.S. demand Zelaya’s reinstatement. The secretary of state worked hard to make certain democracy did not return to Honduras so that the new junta could remain in power.

The right-wing military junta, many of whom graduated from the Pentagon’s notorious assassin-training School of the Americas, were not good stewards. “The homicide rate in Honduras, already the highest in the world, increased by 50 percent from 2008 to 2011; political repression, the murder of opposition political candidates, peasant organizers and LGBT activists increased and continue to this day. Femicides skyrocketed. The violence and insecurity were exacerbated by a generalized institutional collapse. Drug-related violence has worsened amid allegations of rampant corruption in Honduras’ police and government. While the gangs are responsible for much of the violence, Honduran security forces have engaged in a wave of killings and other human rights crimes with impunity,” Al Jazeera reports.
Next door in El Salvador — the only other Northern Triangle nation with a higher murder rate than Honduras — Obama propped up sellout former leftist president Mauricio Funes, who abandoned his populist roots to open his country up to looting by transnational corporations. Poverty, violence and drug trafficking increased dramatically.

There is no excuse for the way the Trump Administration is treating applicants for asylum as they enter the U.S. from Mexico. But it’s worth noting that both major political parties are to blame here. Many of the children showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border are there in the first place because of the mayhem to which Obama and Clinton contributed.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

Why Manufacturing Still Matters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 20/06/2018 - 12:44am in

I've been reading in the spare time (not as much as I would like, and worse with the World Cup) Louis Uchitelle's Making It: Why Manufacturing Still Matters. I tend to agree with the general idea of the book and with many of the policy conclusions, even though I have some problems with minor points (for another post). As a result of this I went to check manufacturing output. There are many different statistics to check in the FRED database. Below a measure of industrial output.
And yes, it is below the peak from the previous recession. We were talking about this with Tom Palley, and it is clear to me that this statistics played an important role in the rise of left (Bernie) and right-wing (Trump) populism in the US. The failure of the Obama recovery to lift manufacturing, not just jobs, but output too is central to any political economy story about the last election.

Can Liberals Give Peace a Chance?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/06/2018 - 11:33pm in

There is no threat to the U.S. for the simple reason that all parties understand that any use of nuclear weapons would invite total destruction. Deterrence is a given.

Anthony Bourdain’s State Department Smorgasbord

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/06/2018 - 9:06am in

by Lorenzo, June 10, 2018 Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 will cement his reputation as a progressive celebrity with a unique acumen for explaining the world to his fans. CNN’s obituary says that the most common sentiment in response to his death is “I feel like I’ve lost a friend.” You’d have to go back to the death of Steve Jobs to find a celebrity who provoked this kind of personal investment on the part of his fans. Bourdain’s reputation was built for this, because the chef could be relied on to impart a very specific view of the world, and more importantly, to not look like he was doing it. This was the most consequential part of his work—why he was hired by CNN—and it’s the part that will get discussed the least as the adulation pours in. The following was written a few months ago but it is offered today with minor changes. As of March 2018 Patrick Radden Keefe, a journalist who typically covers El Chapo and ISIS, can add to …

Death Penalty Review

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/05/2014 - 7:20am in

Today's winner of the "I Feel Good About Myself and What I Do for a Living" award is …

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 02/09/2013 - 10:04pm in