“Yes we can. Yes we did.” But did he?
Barack Obama bowed out in fine style, with tears and soaring rhetoric, while the Twittersphere went nuts asking, Where’s Sasha? For reasons unexplained his younger daughter was absent.
He was a good man, who served with dignity, diligence, honour, integrity and intelligence. We will all miss him.
We know that he was good at making speeches. Here is the full text, with annotated comments on important parts.
He is frank that progress has been difficult and has not proceeded in a straight line.
- If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11…if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens – you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.
And the transition to the next presidency will be peaceful – democracy at work. He the structures his speech as a focus on democracy in the US. In his preamble he says this:
- I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life. It was in neighborhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.
After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.
It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
This is the great gift our Founders gave us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, toil, and imagination – and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a greater good.
He sees the presidency as a partnership between the office and the people. He sees the institutions of democracy as needing to change, and urges people not to give up on it as it depends on public participation. So it is now over to the people to create their own future.
He virtually ignores the Trumpsters, which is a telling commentary without saying anything.
There are more achievements than mentioned in the quote above, for example, climate change, which he mentions, and good working relations with the Chinese. Many blame Obama for ISIS, Syria, and the problems arising out of the Arab Spring, and deposing Gaddafi in Libya specifically. Gaddafi perhaps, but for the rest, his predecessor’s adventurism in Iraq has contributed far more. In general, I think Obama was mindful of the limitations of American power and sought others to take more responsibility.
A huge question remains about Obama’s use of drones to assassinate terrorist leaders. We are told that he took a personal interest, and met every Tuesday to decide who would be targeted next.
Strictly, these are extra-judicial killings, often with collateral termination of those in the vicinity, and can be argued as counter-productive in their radicalising effect.
At home, his presidency must be judged in the political context of complete non-cooperation by Republicans in Congress. Everything he proposed was opposed because he was him, and a Democrat, without regard to the merits of the case, at least after he lost control of the House of Representatives in 2011.
Martin Wolf describes how Obama rescued the US economy, when George Bush left it a basket case with the GFC.
US business added 15.6m jobs from 2010. Real wages grew faster than at any time since the early 1970s. By 2016, the economy was 11.5 per cent larger than before the GFC. Real gross domestic product per head was 4 per cent better. Household net worth grew 50 per cent above 2008 levels.
But there were negatives. Male workplace participation for 25 to 54 year-olds has trended down from basically full employment mid-century to around 88% now. Female participation has flatlined. Business investment has been weak, and innovation has slowed. The growth of labour productivity has also slowed.
Probably worst of all, those responsible for the GFC were not punished, so Obama was unable to channel rage. Trump could.
Matt Stoller at Washington Post is even more direct and pungent in Democrats can’t win until they recognize how bad Obama’s financial policies were.
When he came to power Obama controlled both houses of Congress. He had the opportunity to reshape the financial system, and punish the miscreants. Instead he recreated the system in its former shape. Those found to have acted criminally were not prosecuted. Monopolies flourished with mergers and acquisitions while the Federal Trade Commission went after such villains as music teachers and ice skating instructors for ostensible anti-competitive behavior.
Both banks and homeowners suffered losses and there should have been some burden-sharing as there was in the New Deal arrangements in the 1930s:
- But the Obama administration took a different approach. Rather than forcing some burden-sharing between banks and homeowners through bankruptcy reform or debt relief, Obama prioritized creditor rights, placing most of the burden on borrowers. This kept big banks functional and ensured that financiers would maintain their positions in the recovery.
It was no surprise, then, that the Democrats lost control of the HoR in 2011 and we’ve come to where we are.
Joseph Stiglitz has a similar analysis. Essentially the manufacturing jobs have gone to China and India, and won’t be back.
- Rising inequality, meanwhile, will continue to contribute to widespread despair, especially among the white voters in Middle America who handed Trump his victory. As the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed in their study published in December 2015, life expectancy among middle-age white Americans is declining, as rates of suicides, drug use, and alcoholism increase. A year later, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy for the country as a whole has declined for the first time in more than 20 years.
In the first three years of the so-called recovery after the 2008 financial crisis, 91% of the gains went to the top 1% of earners. While Wall Street banks were bailed out with billions of dollars in taxpayer money, homeowners received only a pittance. US President Barack Obama saved not only the banks, but also the bankers, shareholders, and bondholders. His economic-policy team of Wall Street insiders broke the rules of capitalism to save the elite, confirming millions of Americans’ suspicion that the system is, as Trump would say, “rigged.”
The Democrats will have a future only if they reject neoliberalism, and adopt the progressive policies proposed by leaders such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Sherrod Brown. This will put them in a strong position against the Republicans, who will have to figure out how to manage a coalition of evangelical Christians, corporate executives, nativists, populists, and isolationists.
With the arrival of Trump, and with both major parties now redefining themselves, the coming year may well be remembered as a turning point in US and world history.
In Obama’s speech he recognises those who have been left behind, says the necessary changes are not easy and will take time. Obama worked as a community organiser in Chicago when he was young. William Wan tells of a derelict housing settlement in Chicago called Altgelt, which is scheduled to be bulldozed in the name of ‘urban renewal’. Obama visited them in 2008 when campaigning to become president, said he’d be back, but never made it.
- It wasn’t that Obama didn’t do anything to help communities like theirs, they said. “I bet every person here is better off because of Obamacare, because of what he did to save the hellhole of an economy they handed him,” said one man, Hugh Midderhoff.
But Midderhoff, 56, a factory worker at a nearby Ford plant, said people here have come to a frightening realization.
“After all these years, after all that we’ve been through as a race, as a country, we finally got a black man into office and what did it do? What has it really changed? Our schools? The cops? Courts? The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer?” he said.
“It doesn’t feel any less rigged than before. If a black president can’t change that, what will?”
It’s sad, really.