Friday, December 30, 2016

These Past Eight Years, Part 1

In about three weeks, the 44th President of the United States will leave office, by virtue of the 22nd Amendment. Over this past eight years, Barack Hussein Obama has held a steady hand, but in these increasingly polarizing times he (depending on who you ask) steered America back in the right direction or further into the abyss.  From a historical perspective, however President Obama will ultimately rank somewhere in the middle of the pack. There is such a compelling case for his strengths and weaknesses, from his liberal champions to his right-wing detractors, that they nearly cancel each other out. The general consensus --if there is one-- suggests that Obama was a weaker president than Bill Clinton but stronger than George W. Bush. For myriad reasons, that is reasonable opinion on the surface but substantially not so cut and dry.

Indeed, the most divisive president of our time may have been a victim of circumstance. Just before taking office, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh openly and infamously wished that Obama would fail, and most right-wing pundits never gave the man the chance. If you were compelled to vote for Obama in 2008 on the oversimplified promise of "hope" and "change," then there is no doubt that you were underwhelmed. The reality was more pragmatism than cynicism, and even if there was only a sprinkle of hope and a spoonful of change, President Obama made a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes of his embattled predecessor.

After an embarrassing showing by Republicans in the 2008 elections, the Tea Party movement rose out of thin air, created internal strife within the GOP and proved rather persistent in their criticism and obstruction of the president. Moderates in the ranks, anyone who could've potentially agreed or compromised with Obama, either retired or fell victim to this pesky grass-roots movement. The failure to capitalize on the super-majority of 2009-10 led to one filibuster after another, the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the midterms that year, then lost the U.S. Senate four years after that. Arguably, President Obama's repeated inability to connect with voters outside of urban areas and Democratic safe spots may have played a part in Donald Trump's victory last month. Even when Obama tried to play the middle, wins did not come easy. The vision of post-partisanship remains a pipe dream.

If there is one thing that truly bothered me about President Obama, it was his timid, wait-and-see approach to foreign policy. That is not to say Obama was a complete milquetoast: he was very cooperative with our allies and encouraged multilateral thought, he ended the Iraq war, and bolstered our presence in Afghanistan. At the very least, Obama deserves partial credit for the death of Osama bin Laden. Still, his handling of Syria was oddly meek, and his rapid pullout of American troops may have contributed to the rise of ISIS. (Bibi isn't happy, but then again, it takes a lot to please the guy.) The impact of the Iran nuclear arms deal and resuming trade with Cuba, like a certain grandiose piece of legislation of his, will take years to unfurl and truly understand.

This is in relative contrast to to how President Obama handled domestic affairs, which was both effective and with an even keel. Amid layers of hearsy and legal prattle, the actual substance of Obama's domestic policies and their impact on the country remains poorly understood. I will elaborate more upon this with part two, sometime in January.


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