With Donald Trump representing a frightening unknown future, more akin to foreign authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Ergodan of Turkey and Abdel Fattah el-Sis of Egypt than anything in American history, Barack Obama looks better all the time — a fact reflected in his approval ratings.
But there's a good argument to be made that a more forceful, more boldly progressive Obama could prevented this outcome. Not a radically different person, just one more comfortable with the sort of direct confrontation that was central to the teachings of Saul Alinsky, whom he was tarred with anyway.
One trope that’s emerged after Trump’s election, is that leftist attitudes are somehow responsible. A recent Politico article is typical of pieces with this argument that liberal smugness was to blame for Trump:
The attitude extended way beyond election politics. Over the last few years at universities across America, for example, liberal students effectively banned Republicans from delivering commencement speeches by protesting speakers like Karl Rove, Rand Paul and Condoleezza Rice, forcing them to withdraw.
This argument overlooks two things: first, the worldwide rise of authoritarianism over the past two decades, intensified both by the fight against al-Qaida and then ISIS and then by the worldwide Great Recession; and second, the failure to indict high-level officials of former president George W. Bush's administration for actual crimes. Not every Republican is a criminal, of course. But with crimes unpunished and democratic norms eroding, those students are expressing a moral censure that the nation’s institutions and political leadership ought to have provided on their own.
This was primarily President Obama’s responsibility — one he ducked in the name of “looking forward, not backward,” a progressive, no-nonsense way of framing letting war criminals go scot-free — and financial criminals as well, the ones who crashed the whole world economy. There were reasons offered for those decisions at the time, but by now the failure of that approach should be obvious.
If Obama wants to help lead opposition to Trump going forward, he would be far more effective if he reflected deeply and came to terms with his mistakes. And even if he does not, the rest of us need a much clearer sense of what a bolder, more progressive Obama would have done — and what sort of leadership we should demand for the future. Here are a few of the main things a bolder Obama might have accomplished:
Demanding a much larger stimulus. The need for this was obvious from the beginning, as The New York Times' Paul Krugman argued as early as Nov. 10, 2008, just days after Obama’s election. Krugman concluded that the stimulus package should be $600 billion — twice what he had heard rumored that Obama’s team was considering. Things got worse before Obama took office, and his stimulus grew somewhat in response. But at less than $800 billion, it was still only a fraction of what was needed.
Much later, it was revealed that by December of that year Christy Romer, soon to be Obama's chief White House economist, had calculated a need for “about $1.8 trillion over two years,” but Obama never saw that advice. Still, economists like James Galbraith and Dean Baker were publicly arguing much the same.
Of course, people say that Obama couldn’t have received more money fromCongress. But he surely could have fought for it and explained why it was necessary. His popularity was at a peak, and he could have rallied massive public shows of support. Yes, it went against the prevailing conservative orthodoxy, but that orthodoxy was in well-deserved shambles after the financial crash. There was never a better time to challenge it, especially since this was an opportunity to educate the public about well-understood principles of economics.
What happened was exactly what Krugman had feared: Because the stimulus was too small, the recovery it produced was anemic, compared with what could have been, and Republicans quickly labeled it a failure. After that, they used the supposed failure to argue for a return to precisely the wrong sort kind of policy: budget-tightening austerity, which only further crippled the pace of recovery, a tragic trajectory that Krugman revisited in 2014.
The small size of the stimulus wasn’t its only problem: It was also poorly conceived, with a with a substantial share of tax cuts (about a third of the total) meant to gain Republican support. Obama originally thought it would pass the Senate with 80 votes. Tax cuts do less good than spending to stimulate the economy, but Republicans love them no matter what — just not enough to vote for Obama’s stimulus. But another problem leads to the next missed opportunity.
Initiating a green New Deal. While the economy needed massive federal spending, there was an obvious goal to spend it on: transitioning America's economy to a carbon-free future. As was the case wtih the stimulus itself, Obama embraced the idea but dramatically failed to fund it adequately. In early October just weeks into the financial crisis, George Soros appeared on "Bill Moyers' Journal," and explained the logic:
You see, for the last 25 years the world economy, the motor of the world economy that has been driving it, was consumption by the American consumer who has been spending more than he has been saving, all right? Than he's been producing. So that motor is now switched off. It's finished. It's run out of — can't continue. You need a new motor. And we have a big problem. Global warming. It requires big investment. And that could be the motor of the world economy in the years to come.
A related argument was made by Van Jones in his book, "The Green Collar Economy," summarized in a Nation article, "Working Together for a Green New Deal," in which Jones laid out the coalition politics that such an effort would require and empower. Soros and Jones were hardly alone.
Also that October the United Nations Environment Program launched its “Green Economy Initiative” with the aim of creating a "Global Green New Deal." A 2009 report issued to further this idea proposed that the U.S., the European Union and other high-income economies should spend "over two years at least 1 percent of their GDP on reducing carbon dependency.”
Although the Obama administration did put some money into green technology development, it fell far short of the U.N. proposal and was never promoted as an integrated effort to solve two problems at once, the way Soros had clearly articulated. Nor did it make any concentrated effort to marshal the wider range of voices calling for a green New Deal in order to change the direction of public debate.
Strengthening unions and working people's self-organizing power. One key reason for Obama’s election and the scope of Democratic power in Congress to support him was the combined electoral activity of unions. In return, they had one key demand: a change in labor laws to make it easier for workers to join a union and harder for employers to harass and intimidate them into giving up. More than half of all American workers say they’d vote to join a union if given the chance, but private-sector union membership is less than 8 percent today — clear evidence that the existing system is broken and has been since the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Labor's favored solution was the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have lifted three key impediments bosses use to stop workers from forming a union. First, it would have removed the employer's right to demand an added, separate ballot after more than half of the employees have already signed up for the union (known as “card check”). It would also have required binding arbitration to produce a collective agreement at least 120 days after a union is recognized. Finally, it would have increased penalties on employers who discriminate against workers for union involvement.
Although Obama vocally supported this act, he did nothing to make it a top-tier issue, which was needed to overcome a GOP filibuster and counter a well-financed conservative offensive to misrepresent the Employee Free Choice Act as anti-democratic. He had the bully pulpit, and he didn’t use it. Failing to pass this act was easily the greatest missed opportunity for strengthening workers' power in the past 16 years. Given how important labor is to the Democratic Party’s success, this failure has come back to haunt Democrats since then, many times over.
Saving homes and mortgages of millions of Americans. Just from January 2007 to December 2011, there were more than 4 million completed foreclosures and more than 8.2 million foreclosure starts, of which only a small fraction received effective help from Obama’s Home Affordability Modification Program, which provided government payments to mortgage servicers and investors in exchange for lowering a mortgage's interest rate and occasionally reducing the principal. This was a clearly ill-conceived plan that relied on the same people who had caused the problem in the first place.
Those who lost their homes included people who were deliberately sold mortgages they couldn’t afford, along with two major groups affected by spillover effects: those at least marginally (or better) qualified for the loan, who lost their jobs as a result of the recession and then fell into default, and those whose home values plummeted as the housing market collapsed, leaving them with underwater mortgages.
The Tea Party electoral victories of 2010 were sparked in part by a February 2009 CNBC rant by Rick Santelli. “This is America!” he shouted to a sea of well-off traders. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”
While Obama couldn’t have specifically foreseen Santelli’s rant and its impact, he could have responded by explaining how shortsighted and wrongheaded this was — and he should have crafted a robust foreclosure crisis response to deal with the different facets of the problem. As it was, he was attacked early on for the little he tried to do and then was later criticized again for failing to help save millions from foreclosure.
In 2010, economist Dean Baker explained how the Home Affordability Modification Program was on course to spend $100,000 of taxpayer money for every homeowner able to keep his or her home. “This is a rather steep price, especially since even many of the people helped still won't accumulate equity," he pointed out. "They will just be allowed to stay in their home until family, job or other factors lead them to move.”
A much simpler, less expensive alternative was available. Baker’s “right-to-rent” plan would have allowed people to stay on as renters after a foreclosure, helping to stabilize whole communities. Unfortunately, Obama seemed incapable of thinking outside the very structures that had produced the catastrophe in the first place.
Prosecuting bankers and others responsible for housing bubble, crash and financial crisis. The flip side to Obama’s foreclosure failure was his unwillingness or inability to hold any insiders criminally responsible for the greatest financial crime spree in American history. In March 2009 economist and former regulator William K. Black provided a road map for understanding the crimes involved.
“The FBI has been warning of an ‘epidemic’ of mortgage fraud since September 2004," Black wrote. “It also reports that lenders initiated 80 [percent] of these frauds,” which qualifies it as “control fraud,” he explained. “The FBI correctly identified the epidemic of mortgage control fraud at such an early point that the financial crisis could have been averted had the Bush administration acted with even minimal competence.” Obviously, it did not. But Obama, unaccountably, refused to hold anyone criminally responsible.
In 2013, the Frontline documentary, “The Untouchables,” looked back at what had happened. “Even during the bubble years, the Department of Justice had arrested and prosecuted many small mortgage brokers, loan appraisers and even home buyers,” but no bankers had gone to jail. Only the little fish got caught.
“We have known for decades that repealing the rule of law for elite white-collar criminals and relying on corporate fines always produces abject failure and massive corporate fraud,” Black wrote in 2015. But that was precisely what Obama chose to do.
Investigating and prosecuting Bush administration crimes — especially those that eroded democratic norms. Obama also failed to investigate the crime-ridden Bush administration — not even by way of a special prosecutor, outside of the political chain of command, to ensure independence and credibility. The crimes start at the top with Bush’s responsibility for lying the nation into war, resulting in deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 American troops. That was reason enough, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi argued in a best-selling book, "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder."
Beyond that, Bush and other high officials were responsible for multiple crimes including torture, destroying the CIA tapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, politicized hiring and firing at the Department of Justice and the massive National Security Agency wiretapping programs. Slate provided a handy overview.
In 2012 the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission found George W. Bush guilty of war crimes in absentia for the illegal invasion of Iraq, along with former vice president Dick Cheney, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and their legal advisers Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, William Haynes, Jay Bybee and John Yoo. We failed to do anything, but the rest of the world has not forgotten.
The failure to prosecute Bush-era crimes had the direct result of normalizing them, precisely when the exact opposite was needed. More generally, this helped erode liberal democratic norms, whose observance is crucial to preventing a descent into barbarism. Yet rather than prosecuting such crimes and definitively disavowing breaches of established moral norms, Obama has continued in the same spirit in several troubling ways.
In late 2011, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that Obama had signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, including a sweeping worldwide indefinite detention provision. Although Obama issued a signing statement saying he had “serious reservations” about the provisions, that statement has no force of law for future presidents.
Obama had threatened to veto an earlier version of the act, but backed down on the final version. There is also Obama’s infamous “kill list,” allowing for worldwide assassination of named individuals, including U.S. citizens, which the administration justified with its own John Yoo-style memo, as revealed in early 2013. These last two policies lead into another major missed opportunity.
Fundamentally altering our post-9/11 response to terrorism. Obama hinted at a dramatic change of course in his Cairo speech of June 2009 but utterly failed to follow through in building any infrastructure for a peaceful alternative. Instead he chose to escalate the war in Afghanistan and vastly expand the scope of drone warfare and a wide range of special operations, so that we’re now involved in what Nick Turse has described as “A Secret War in 135 Countries.”
In theory, Obama understands that al-Qaida and ISIS are deadly enemies of Islam, and in the long run can only be defeated by Muslims themselves. Yet by continuing down Bush’s lawless military path, Obama makes that outcome only more difficult to attain.
Following a common thread seen throughout the failures listed above, Obama interpreted “pragmatism” as political compromise with his domestic opponents, rather than as finding solutions that would or could work. Meanwhile, the views and aspirations of those who most passionately supported him have barely been considered.
No one expects that everything they might wish for can come true. Change is hard. We get that. There were significant obstacles in the way of many of the goals I’ve listed above — though hardly all of them. But we should expect leaders to fight for what’s right, even if the battle can’t be won today.
The vision of what’s possible, of what is right and just, must be advanced or it falls into retreat — imperceptibly at first, and to some, but nonetheless into retreat. And that’s a big part of what has made President Donald Trump possible — not "leftist" college students who don't want war criminals and their fellow travelers lecturing at them for massive fees but liberal leaders like Obama, who have not only failed to prosecute such people for their crimes but become complicit in them along the way.
If we want a champion to lead us against Trump, it will have to be another Obama than the one we actually got — the Obama who wasn’t but should have been. It’s up to us to imagine him and what all our champions ought to be. It’s up to us to imagine ourselves.