Friday, January 20, 2017

#ThankYouObamas? Obama Leaves with Hopes Dwindled, No Transformative Change

Obama Leaves with Hope Dwindled, Transformative Change Deferred

Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden acknowledge supporters during a campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio, October 23, 2012. | Photo: Reuters

Published 18 January 2017

The good fortune of being sandwiched between Bush and Trump will undoubtedly cast a golden hue on a tenure defined by unfulfilled promises.

Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to become the first African-American president of the United States after capturing the hearts and imagination of an American public starving for hop,e steadily fell back to earth over the next eight years as his star dimmed due to bad choices, an intransigent Republican opposition, and a sharp divide between his lofty campaign rhetoric and the oftentimes hollow reality of how much he was willing to fight to change the politics of the possible in Washington.
As he ran for office for the first time in 2008, the 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois rallied for hope and change as the administration of President George W. Bush foolishly led the country into two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, oversaw the country’s biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and left the U.S.’s international status tarnished due, in part, to ongoing torture scandals and the destruction of a major U.S. city, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, among other debacles and war crimes.
“Out of work? Tough luck. No healthcare? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don't have boots. You're on your own,” he said of the culture of politics in the United States when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in August 2008. “Well, it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.”
He vowed to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he promised to bring universal health care and to take a tough stance on Wall Street.
But one of the most notable promises Obama failed to deliver on is shutting down Guantanamo, a modern-day dungeon set up by his predecessor where hundreds of people have been kept without charges or trials, facing torture and mistreatment by U.S. military and intelligence interrogators.

Closing the notorious prison received opposition from both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress early on in Obama’s first term.
In May 2009, Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey refused to grant the White House the US$80 million that Obama had requested to close the prison from an emergency funding bill.
The move was a rejection of Obama’s plan to transfer the Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. prisons.
Republican lawmakers then seized on the row between the Democratic president and his allies in congress to further clampdown on any plans for closing the Cuban prison.
However, Obama managed to bypass lawmakers by striking deals with several countries to transfer hundreds of prisoners cleared for release. Just 45 detainees remain at the naval base, down from 242 when Obama took office.
He did end the war in Iraq and pulled out most U.S. combat troops from there, in part under pressure from Baghdad to realize their 2007 Status of Forces Agreement with Bush, which called for complete withdrawal by December 2011.
But the legacy of the 2003 Iraq invasion came back to haunt Obama as the security vacuum left by U.S. troops and the war in Syria gave rise to the Islamic State group.
Some say the Iraqi government was never ready to take full control of the country, an argument backed by the senses of Iraqi soldiers leaving their posts and taking off their uniforms as Islamic State group fighters stormed Mosul, the second biggest city in the country.
In recent years, however, Obama sent military advisers to Iraq for the publicly declared reason of “training and advising” the Iraqi army and giving other limited support, especially in the fight against the extremist group.
In Afghanistan, too, the U.S. did pull a significant number of its troops from the country, but Obama failed to keep his promise of a full withdrawal due to, according to his administration, the threat of the Taliban insurgency, again fueled by the security vacuum in the country and the weakness of the post-invasion government.
In Syria, Obama did keep troops away from the six-year conflict. However, U.S. Special Forces occasionally conduct limited operations in the country, often alongside the Kurdish guerrilla YPG forces in the north who have proven to be the strongest and most effective allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
However, the Obama administration has been for years calling for regime change in Syria and its Arab allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey, have been actively supporting moderate and extremist anti-government groups in Syria.

Washington also spent millions of dollars on a program for training rebel forces fighting against President Bashar Assad. However, after years of vetting and training, the program proved to be a failure and produced only 35 fighters.
But Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be marked by the drone war, his unique approach toward the so-called "war on terror" as he fought the troops-on-the-ground policy tooth and nail, even if it meant killing innocent civilians.
In fact, the Obama administration has launched nine times more strikes with unmanned flying bombers in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than his predecessors, a detail that might make his more liberal supporters uncomfortable. In May 2013, Obama defended U.S. drone strikes and claimed responsibility for overseeing the program.
He claimed that targets were limited to terrorists that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” and that strikes were executed only when there was “near certainty that the target is present,” “near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed” and “capture is not feasible at the time of the operation.”
But, in October 2015, Obama’s claims were ripped to shreds when a whistleblower leaked to The Intercept website documents revealing troubling details of the U.S. drone program. According to the documents, nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan "were not the intended targets" of the attacks.
Libya was another disturbing foreign policy aspect of the Obama administration. A U.S.-led NATO intervention into the country following Arab Spring-inspired protests unleashed some of the most troubling crises in the region, making the country a breeding ground for terrorist organizations while sending the country into political instability and record numbers poverty.
Declassified emails released in January and February of last year revealed that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the main instruments behind the so-called “humanitarian” intervention in 2011 by using false information of bloody crackdowns on protests by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.
Clinton’s emails reveal that she and her staff were aware that civilians they claimed to be protecting in order to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution on the NATO intervention, were not actually in danger from government forces.
But Obama made some major achievements on the international stage by securing the Iran nuclear deal after years of negotiations as well as restoring relations with Cuba after decades of almost total hostility.
The Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” was sealed in July 2016 and required Tehran to keep its nuclear program a civilian one in return for the removal of all economic and military sanctions against it by world leaders.
The deal resulted in Washington rolling back many of its sanctions against Iran, allowing Tehran to conduct business with many companies in Europe and the United States.
Obama visited Cuba last year and formally announced an opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, along with the signing of several economic agreements. But the Obama administration fell short from ending its harsh blockade on Cuba despite calls by the U.N. to end it.

Domestic affairs also saw Obama swinging between bad and good policies. On immigration, he managed to be the dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” by migrant justice advocates because he deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history. Between 2009 and 2015 his administration deported more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. Nevertheless, Obama did make some positive changes in the U.S.’s flawed immigration system.
Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, protected hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation, which they say allowed them to come out from the shadows and obtain work permits social security number.
Despite facing major opposition from the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, Obama managed to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, known as Obamacare, in 2010, which provided more than 22 million people with health insurance. However, the health care scheme fell short of his campaigning on single-payer and the most progressive aspect of the original legislation, the public option, was removed in an attempt to gain Republican support. Not a single Republican voted for it anyway.
Many across the political spectrum would agree that Obama successfully steered the country through a total economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were added every year, the unemployment rate looms around 5 percent as he leaves office while it was at 10 percent just months before he took office in 2008.
Some, however, argue that the U.S.’s first Black president failed to better the lives of people of color and poor white workers, which they directly blame for the rise of Donald Trump and white nationalism.
Obama was a friendly president when it came to the environment and the impact of climate change. At home, he rejected the Keystone pipeline using an executive order in 2015 over environmental concerns.

Just days before he leaves office, Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the transgender ex-U.S. soldier who leaked thousands of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, after months of calls from activists and rights groups for him to do so.
Also after months of protests and pressure from Native Americans and water protectors in North Dakota, Obama’s federal government halted the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. And, just a few months before he leaves office, he used decades-old laws to protect and ban drilling in millions of acres in Antarctica.
Obama also commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has been imprisoned in the U.S. for 36 years for his struggle to free Puerto Rico from U.S. colonial rule. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was one of the prominent voices calling for his release. Both Oscar and Manning will be released in May.
The celebrated clemency moves seem to be Obama’s last attempt to project his presidency as one of success and progressiveness rather than one that failed to realize its many of ambitions and promises.
Obama leaves a mixed legacy. Anyone, whether from the far right or far left, who can’t recognize some of the good things he leaves behind is just as blind as Obama's head-in-the-sand liberal supporters who refuse to recognize the more abundant dark blots on his legacy. But with a misogynistic, climate-denying, lying Twitter troll assuming office in a few days, history may be kinder to Obama’s legacy than the outgoing president deserves.

The true legacies that will be remembered long-term will be the accelerating income inequality and the near-collapse of the Democratic Party.
President Barack Obama's farewell address to the nation last night was a strange and disappointing attempt that failed to replicate the hope, energy, and optimism of his first 2008 address to the nation.
Instead of celebrating the unity of all those who joined to put him in office, the mood was downbeat, with Obama warning listeners that the country had become more divided than ever during his intervening years in office, that democracy was threatened on many fronts – cultural, legal, and economic – and that the people to whom he was speaking, and throughout the United States, now had the task to take up the fight to protect what's left and restore it, for clearly, he had not been able to do so.
At times the fire of hope, dominant in his 2008 victory speech, briefly returned. Obama declared, referring to 2008 and 2012, that "maybe you still can't believe we pulled this whole thing off." But what exactly was pulled off? What was accomplished that was so great is hard to know. But he apparently thinks something was.
During the speech he listed a series of accomplishments that represent, in his view, the high marks of his presidency: As he put it, he "reversed the Great Recession, rebooted the auto industry, generated the longest job creation period in U.S. economic history, got 20 million people health insurance coverage, halved U.S. dependency on foreign oil, negotiated the Iran nuclear proliferation deal, killed Osama Bin Laden, prevented foreign terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, ended torture, passed laws to protect citizens from surveillance, and worked to close GITMO."
Sounds good, unless one considers the facts behind the "hurrah for me" claims.
The auto industry was rescued, true, but auto workers wages and benefits are less today than in 2008 and jobs in the industry are still below 2008 levels. So, too, are higher paid construction jobs. Half of the jobs created since 2008 include those lost in 2008-2010, and the rest of the net gains in new jobs since 2010 have been low-paid, no benefits, part-time, temp/"gig" service jobs that leave no fewer than 40 percent of young workers under 30 today forced to live at home with parents. More people are working two and three part-time jobs than ever before. Five million have left the workforce altogether, which doesn't get counted in the official employment and unemployment rate figures. If one counts part-time workers, temps and those who've left the labor force or not entered altogether, the jobless rate is not today's official 4.9 percent but 10 percent of the workforce. That's 15 million or more still, and after eight years. Meanwhile, those who do have jobs are victims of the great "job churn," from high to lower wage, from a few, if any, benefits to none at all.
As for ending the Great Recession, the question raised is for whom it ended and what constitutes an end- The U.S. economy grew after 2009, but at the slowest rate of growth historically, post-recession, since the 1930s.
But he did end the great recession for the wealthy and their corporations. Corporations have distributed more than US$5 trillion in stock buybacks and dividends to their shareholders since 2010, as corporate profits more than doubled, as stock and bond markets tripled in value, and as more than US$6 trillion in new tax cuts for corporations and investors (beyond the US$3.5 trillion George W. Bush provided) were passed on Obama's watch. Not to be outdone by Obama and the Democrats, Trump and the Republican Congress are now about to pass another US$6.2 trillion for investors and businesses, to be paid for in large part by tax hikes for the rest of us and the slashing of education spending, Medicare, Medicaid, health care, housing, and what's left of the U.S. social safety net.
In his farewell address, Obama also cited how the country "halved its dependency on foreign oil." True enough, at the cost of environmental disasters from Texas to the Dakotas to Pennsylvania, as oil fracking replaced Saudi sources, in the process generating irreversible water and air contamination in the U.S. In foreign policy, he noted he signed the Iran deal, but left out mentioning that during his administration the U.S. set the entire Middle East aflame with failed policy responses to the Arab Spring, with Hillary's coup in Libya, to support of various terrorist groups (including al-Qaida) in Syria and to the arming of the Saudis to attack Yemen.
Looking farther east, Obama's foreign policy outcomes are no better. The U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan 16 years later – the longest war in U.S. history – as the Afghan government now collapses again in a cesspool of corruption and graft. And the U.S. is still engaged in Iraq. A related consequence of the failed U.S. Middle East policy has been the destabilization of Europe with mass refugee migrations that have been only temporarily suspended by equally massive payoffs to Turkey's proto-fascist Erdogan government (which also blames the U.S. for the recent failed coup there, by the way).
Other failures on the Obama foreign policy front must include the U.S. militarization of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe following Obama's inability to rein in Hillary's U.S. State Department neocons in 2013-14, who made a mess out of their U.S.-financed coup in the Ukraine in 2014. That debacle has driven the U.S. and Russia further toward confrontation, which perhaps Hillary and the neocons may have wanted in the first place (along with a U.S. land invasion of Syria at the time which, in this case, Obama to his credit resisted).
And what about Obama's much-heralded "pivot to China?" On his watch, China's currency achieved global reserve status, that country launched a major trade expansion, and a government-established pan-Asian investment bank. The collapse of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership will also mean a China-Southeast Asia TPP-style trade agreement, which was already well underway.
On the domestic front, Obama's legacies must include the most massive deportation of Latinos in U.S. history on his watch, nothing but words spoken from the comfort of the White House about police and gun violence and Black lives murdered on the streets of the U.S. and the rollback of voting rights across the country. And let's not forget about Barack the great promoter of free trade, signing bilateral deals from the very beginning of his administration, and then the TPP – all of which gave Trump one of his biggest weapons during the recent election.
The media and press incessantly refer to the 2010 Obamacare Act and the 2010 bank regulating Dodd-Frank Act as two of his prime achievements. But Obamacare is about to implode because it failed to control health care costs, which now amount to more than US$3 trillion of the U.S. total GDP of US$19 trillion – the highest in the developed world at nearly 18 percent of GDP (compared to Europe and elsewhere, which spend on average 10 percent of their GDP on health care). The 8 percent difference, more than a trillion per year, goes to the pockets of middle-men and paper pushers like insurance companies, who provide not one iota of health care services.
In his address, Obama touted the fact that on his watch, 20 of the 50 million uninsured got health insurance coverage, half of them covered by Medicaid which provides well less than even "bare bones," provided one can even find a doctor willing to provide medical services. The rest covered by Obamacare mostly got high deductible insurance, often at an out-of-pocket cost of US$2,000-$4,000 per year. Thus, ten million got minimal coverage while the health insurance industry got US$900 billion a year, which is what the program costs. No wonder the health insurance companies did not oppose such a windfall. Obamacare is best described therefore as a "health insurance industry subsidy act," not a health care reform act.
Obama will be remembered for scuttling his own program in 2010 by unilaterally caving in to the insurance companies and withdrawing the "public option" while his party refused to even allow a discussion about expanding Medicare to all – the only solution to the continuing U.S. health care crisis. In the wake of Obamacare's passage, big pharmaceutical companies have also been allowed to price gouge at will, driving up not only private health insurance premiums but Medicare costs as well, and softening up the latter program for coming Republican-Trump attacks.
As for Dodd-Frank, that's been known as a joke for some time, providing no real controls on greedy bankers and investors who were given five years after its passage in 2010 to lobby and pick it apart, which they've done. The one provision in Dodd-Frank worth anything – the Consumer Protection Agency – is about to disappear under Trump. And for the first time in U.S. economic history, no banker or investor responsible for the 2008 crash went to jail on Obama's watch.
So much for Obamacare and banking reform as his most notable "legacies."
The true legacies that will be remembered long term will be the accelerating rate of income inequality, the real basis for the growing divisions in America, and the near collapse of the Democratic Party itself.
Under Obama, the wealthiest 1 percent accrued no less than 97 percent of all the net national income gains since 2008, as stock markets tripled, bond markets and corporate profits doubled, and US$5 trillion was passed through to investors as US$6 trillion more in their taxes were cut. Under George Bush, the wealthiest 1 percent of households accrued 65 percent of net national gains. Under Clinton 48 percent. So the rate accelerated rapidly during Obama's term. Apart from talking about it, Obama did nothing during the last 8 years to abate, let alone reverse, the trend.
The other true legacy will be the virtual implosion of the Democratic Party itself during his administration. As the leader of a party, one would think ensuring its success in the future would be a priority. But it wasn't. On his watch, nearly two-thirds of all state legislatures and governorships – and countless court positions – have been captured by the Republicans. To be fair, the Democratic Party has been in decline for decades. It has won at the presidential level only when the Republicans split their vote, as in 1992 when Ross Perot challenged George H.W. Bush, and when George W. crashed the entire U.S., and much of the global, economy in 2008.
Obama and the Democrats had a historic opportunity to turn the country in a progressive direction for a decade or more, as Roosevelt did in 1932 and then 1934 by bailing out Main St. with another New Deal. But Obama chose to double down in 2010 on bailing out Wall Street and the big corporations with another US$800 billion tax cut, leaving Main Street behind. Unlike FDR in 1934, who swept the midterm elections that year, gaining a Congress that would pass the New Deal in 1935, Obama doubled down on more for investors, corporations and the 1 percent. He paid dearly for that in 2010, losing control of Congress. U.S. voters gave him one more chance in 2012, but he again failed to deliver. The result is a Democratic Party "debacle 2.0" in 2016, leaving a Democratic Party in shambles. That, too, will be remembered as his longer-term legacy.
Returning to his farewell address, the affair was a poorly rehearsed caricature of his 2008 inaugural, during which so many had so much hope for change, but ended up with so little in the end. Like a touring theater troupe putting on its last performance blandly, eager to change into street clothes and get out of town. True, the Republicans played hardball and blocked many of his initiatives, but Obama did little to fight back in kind. If he was a community organizer, he was from the most timid in that genre. He kept extending a hand to the Republican dog that kept biting it at every overture. He wanted everyone to unite and pull together. But in politics, winning is not achieved by reasoning with the better nature of one's opponents. That's considered weakness, and the biting thereafter is ever more vicious.
But perhaps Obama's greater political error was he never went to the American people to mobilize support, instead sitting comfortably within the Oval Office of the White House and enjoying the elite circus that is "inside the beltway" Washington. He never put anything personal or physical on the line. And that does not an organizer make. He repeatedly talked the talk, but never walked it. The results were predictable, as the Republican hardballers – McConnell, Ryan and crew – threw him beanballs every time he came up to bat. He struck out, time and again, calmly walking back to his White House dugout every time.
So farewell, Barack. Your speech was a nostalgic call to your hometown fans in Chicago to go out and organize for U.S. democracy because it's now in deep "doo-doo." Take up where I left off, your message? Fair enough. Do what I failed to accomplish, you say? OK. See you at the country club, buddy, after your lunch with Penny Pritzker, the Chicago Hilton Hotels billionairess, who put you in office back in 2008.
And now the United States changes one real estate wheeler-dealer for another, this time one who takes the direct reins of government. And he's Obama's legacy as well.

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