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Has Obama really changed America?

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Is Barack Obama a transformational president? That was his ambition: to be more, as he put it, like Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton, to launch a new era, not simply tack to the prevailing winds of the old.

Not surprisingly, as the president readies his final State of the Union Address, the issue is contested. Liberals like New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman hail Obama as "one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history." Conservatives scorn his administration as a "socialist" interlude in a conservative time. On the left, many like Professor Cornel West are disappointed, seeing Obama as a "counterfeit" progressive who failed to seize a historic opportunity for progressive change.

What makes a president transformational? The first African-American president is inherently historic. Obama's cheerleaders tick off his big accomplishments, as well: healthcare reform; the 2009 fiscal stimulus that helped save the economy; more than 14 million jobs created in a record stretch of 70 months of growth; progressive tax reforms; progress on climate change; the nuclear deal with Iran; the move to normalize relations with Cuba, and more.

Skeptics note that his era may be called the "Long Depression" rather than the "Great Recession." They say the Obama administration brought us worsening inequality; stagnant incomes; bigger banks; greater big-money corruption of U.S. politics and governance; decaying public infrastructure; accelerating catastrophic climate change; and the United States mired in endless wars, facing off against Russia and China and draining its coffers trying to police the world.

The presidents widely celebrated as transformational - William McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan - all got big things done. But no president - even Roosevelt with his four terms - can be expected to realize a complete reform agenda. Real reforms are necessary but not sufficient to be a transformational president: He has to change the course of the nation.

That requires not only new policies but also framing and winning the ideological argument. It requires not only winning the presidency, but also helping to forge an enduring majority coalition that can sustain the era.

Obama is the first Democratic president to be elected and re-elected with a majority of the popular vote since Roosevelt. He both personifies and has helped to forge a new and growing majority coalition for progressive reform. Pollster Stan Greenberg has dubbed this coalition of millennials, people of color and single women the "rising American electorate." Political analyst Bill Schneider calls it the "new America."

In Greenberg's book, "America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation's Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century," he estimates that the rising American electorate will constitute 54 percent of the electorate in 2016 (63 percent if you include "seculars," those with no religious practice). And the two-thirds of those that show up at the polls will likely vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Yet the scope, durability and thrust of this coalition are still uncertain. Under Obama, the Democrats have lost control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Republicans have gained 913 state-legislative seats since 2010, control 30 state-legislative chambers and rule virtually unchallenged in states across the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

The turnout of the new America coalition plummeted in the mid-term elections. It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic presidential nominee can bring them to the polls as successfully as Obama did. No progressive reform era can flourish if the White House is an isolated island amid a sea of reaction.

A transformational president has to infuse his majority coalition with a clear direction. By framing the ideological argument, he or she must help Americans understand how they got in the fix they are in and what must be done to get them out of it. The measure of ideological victory isn't simply that Democratic officeholders, activists and voters understand and enlist, but also that the opposing party finds it must adjust to the new arguments to survive.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower could succeed Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman - but only by embracing Social Security and the New Deal economic reforms. Clinton succeeded Reagan and George H.W. Bush - but felt it necessary to declare the era of big government over. Clinton joined Congress in deregulating finance and corporations and repealing welfare as it was practiced. He ushered in an era of mass incarceration by launching a tough "war on crime."

Obama's record in the ideological debate is mixed. On his watch, the "wedge issues" that once strongly favored Republicans - gay marriage, crime, guns and even abortion - began to favor Democrats. When the White House glowed rainbow to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court's acceptance of gay marriage, it symbolized a Democratic Party confident that its social liberalism is on the march.

Still, gay activists, Black Lives Matter and Latino organizers would argue that Obama has been a laggard, rather than a leader, on their concerns. But there is no question that his victory symbolized and accelerated the changes, and he has responded when movements opened up the political space.

On economic policy, Obama celebrators and detractors argue that he has extended the power of the state more than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society. Obama's list is indeed impressive: an unprecedented economic stimulus; rescue of the auto industry; use of executive authority to address climate change; banking re-regulation, and 17 million more Americans with healthcare insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. He raised tax rates on the wealthy by largely letting the top-end George W. Bush tax cuts expire.

But at the beginning of his administration, in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama was essentially AWOL in the ideological debate. He consciously chose not to "litigate the past." He did not grasp the moment to educate the public on how the United States got into such a mess; he didn't explain the economic fundamentals and the need for a bold reform agenda.

Obama's signature appeal, he believed, was being above partisan divides. Promising to "change the culture of Washington," he insisted that he could bring the country together to find common ground. His economic stimulus, however, was weakened dramatically when he accepted Republican tax cuts in a vain effort to win bipartisan support.

He undercut his argument for more public investment to get the U.S. economy out of the crisis by arguing, only a few months after his stimulus bill passed, that government must "tighten its belt." He assembled the risible Simpson-Bowles commission to focus national attention on deficit reduction.

Later, Obama nearly signed a wrong-headed "grand bargain" with Republicans that would have cut Social Security and Medicare in the cause of deficit reduction. He was saved, however, by Republican aversion to any form of tax hike. Conservatives' austerity policies continued to erode public investment in areas vital to America's future. And public opinion grew ever more skeptical of government's competence.

Obama's Wall Street and fiscal reforms were similarly compromised. Dodd-Frank left banking more concentrated than ever, and no major banker went to jail for what the FBI called the "epidemic of fraud" that contributed to the housing bust. He continued ruinous corporate-defined free-trade policies.

His healthcare reform, declared radical by the GOP, was modeled on a Heritage Foundation proposal adopted by Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts governor. Obama refused to take on the drug companies over their exorbitant pricing, and he would not support a public healthcare option that might have put real checks on insurance-company abuses.

Though Obama spoke out against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to corporate money in U.S. elections, he spent little political capital trying to curb money in politics. In fact, his decision to forego public financing in his 2008 presidential campaign essentially marked the end of that reform effort.

Obama's first-term floundering fueled a revolt on his political left. Occupy Wall Street spread across the nation with its indictment of the 1 percent, which put inequality at the center of the U.S. public debate. The Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders progressive/liberal wing of the Democratic Party exposed how the rich "rigged the rules," spotlighted the Obama administration's revolving door to Wall Street and demanded tougher reform. The Congressional Progressive Caucus laid out a budget that combined bold - and long overdue - public investments with progressive tax reforms.

In the run-up to his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama embraced some of these themes, particularly income inequality. Now, as any hope of bipartisan cooperation has faded, he has been bolder at using his executive authority and more willing to use his "bully pulpit" in the cause of reform. But the task of interpreting the moment, explaining it and winning the public debate remains unfinished.

His failure of vision is even more apparent in foreign policy. Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination due, to a significant degree, to public dismay about the war in Iraq, which Hillary Clinton, his opponent, had voted for. He clearly hoped to extricate the United States from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and bring the inflated war on terror into perspective.

Yet he again chose not to litigate the past. He failed to offer a different vision and global strategy. His troop surge in Afghanistan turned out to be a trap. He reluctantly intervened in Libya and Syria. Though he withdrew troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he expanded the use of drones. He allowed neo-conservatives to drag him into raising tensions with Russia, even while beginning to confront the Chinese in the South China Sea.

U.S. Special Forces were active in more than 100 countries in 2015. If anything, Obama has expanded, rather than limited, the national-security claims of executive prerogative and extended surveillance and secrecy. The nuclear agreement with Iran and the easing of relations with Cuba hint at a different course. But one swallow does not make the spring.

No one president, even after two terms, can consolidate a new era. Obama's successor will significantly affect history's judgment of his presidency. If a Republican is elected president with a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama may well be seen as having lost the argument for reform. If a Democrat is elected, it will be left to him or her to interpret the moment for Americans, and to engage them in a bold reform agenda.

That Clinton has found it necessary to compete with Sanders by putting forth more activist and populist positions consolidates the thrust of the party. If a Democrat is elected president and successfully drives more reform, Obama will properly be judged as setting the stage for it. But if he or she is unsuccessful because of an obstructionist Congress, timid vision, economic woes or foreign calamities, Obama's successor could end up discrediting progressive reform before it had the opportunity to fully take hold.

Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He reportedly replied, "Too soon to tell."

Will Obama be considered a transformational president? Far too soon to tell.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

41 Comments
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Obama is 1/2 black, 1/2 white. Does that somehow mean he's African American?

-10 ( +2 / -12 )

@karlrb

Obama is 1/2 black, 1/2 white. Does that somehow mean he's African American?

Short answer: Yes

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Nine hours, two comments.

Even the liberals are bored with Obama.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

He's black, and he's white. He's both. But he identifies himself more with the black side of the family.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Has Obama really changed America?

Probably nothing like America has changed him!

6 ( +8 / -2 )

@lostrune2: Identifying yourself with any particular side does not make you part of that side. Your family tree is the actual deciding factor. Go ahead and identify with, prefer any part of that tree you want but don't claim to be only that part of the tree that really defines genetically who you are. I'm sorry but I'm just tired of hearing statements, (not made by lostrune2) that Obama is African American - if my memory is correct his mother is Asian, i.e. not Black.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

He is a human, a good one I think. Has achieved some good things, could have achieved more if his hands were not tied by a Republican upper house.

4 ( +8 / -4 )

I'm sorry but I'm just tired of hearing statements, (not made by lostrune2) that Obama is African American - if my memory is correct his mother is Asian, i.e. not Black.

So, a person who is born to a white father and asian mother is not at least half asian or half white?? Ummmm

President Obama looks black. Sure, he is of "mixed" race, but he plainly looks black. He is, in fact, the first black president get over it.

As for the original article, I think he tried to fundementally change the US for the better, but quickly found its not so easy. Took it off the chin by being centrist. Shame.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Yes, he has changed America.

He managed to borrow more from the taxpayers than all his predecessors combined.

He managed to increase racial tensions, rather than ease them.

He managed to get more American on welfare than any of his predecessors.

He managed to end up with an economy with a record number of part time, minimum wages jobs.

He manged to increase the wealth gap between rich and poor even further.

He spent more time on the golf course than any of his predecessors.

He managed to lose democrat majorities in both the house and senate only two years into office.

He failed to failed to bring together parties, and to end partisanship.

He created the most opaque administration we have yet had.

He failed to lead.

Yes, America is far different than it was when Obama took office, and not for the better.

-4 ( +10 / -13 )

@karlrb Would he have been allowed to drink out of half the white-only water fountains in the Jim Crow south? ...served in half the white-only military units in WWII? Would he have been welcomed in the fronts of buses half the time? Freed by half the plantations in times of slavery? What do you think? Tell us?

I'm just tired of hearing statements...that Obama is African American

yeah, are you? Why? Who decides what it means to be African American? I'd venture to say that many if not most African Americans have mixed backgrounds. You can guess why that is. So what is it that really makes you tired? Is it the fact that African Americans feel Obama is a symbol of some progress that is so fatiguing to you?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

@wipeout @sangetsu Would Sangetsu change his/her mind if it turned out any of these facts were wrong? As for the golf thing, well...by some estimates, Bush Jr. spent four times as much as Obama on vacation. Do I really care though? No. It's pettiness really. Presidents and ex-presidents will be spending tax-payer money for the rest of their lives any time they do anything. Although, I do think golf is a pretty silly sport. But that's besides the point. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2014/aug/23/who-took-more-vacation-george-w-bush-or-barack-oba/

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Doesn't matter what color he is his brain is not worth dirt. Same old catch phrase "let me be perfectly clear". His health care reform is a burden on the middle class self employed actually more than a burden it's crippling. Many employers only offer part time employment to avoid offering insurance for it's employees. The job growth was part time jobs and that is just sad. Yes, change and not for the better!

2 ( +9 / -7 )

"Obama is the first Democratic president to be elected and re-elected with a majority of the popular vote since Roosevelt."

So much for the "divisive" appellation.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

karlrbJAN. 23, 2016 - 10:22AM JST Obama is 1/2 black, 1/2 white. Does that somehow mean he's African American?

All humans alive today are partly black - what difference does it make.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

if my memory is correct his mother is Asian, i.e. not Black.

Before this misinformation gets out of hand, Obama's mother is white Caucasian of European ancestry.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Re vacations ... 'President of the US of A' is the ultimate telecommute job ... can work from anywhere ... imagine working from Air Force One!

As far as golf, a round of golf takes about 4 hours, plus travel time ... that probably means those days weren't full workdays. According to shallot's link above, Obama played 186 rounds during the first 4+ years of his presidency through Aug. 14, 2014, where Bush played 23 rounds his entire 8-year presidency (to avoid the image of playing around after the invasions).

Presidents wash into office based on how well they surf the waves. It's not like the job of King, or Dictator-for-Life.

Obama is just the guy occupying the office. He's probably as nice a guy as any president was. Presidents make a lot of influential decisions during their time in office compared to the rest of us, but how many can one guy make? Why blame him or any president? They're just the lightning rods. What else was Bush going to do, but invade Afghanistan? What else was Obama going to do, but continue Bush's TARP programs? At some level presidential actions are predictable and how can you blame or praise them for what they were going to do anyway?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

America is always the same. Wars and guns. Nothing changed, and I doubt he had the power to do it. It's not his fault, probably.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

lostrune2: Before this misinformation gets out of hand, Obama's mother is white Caucasian of European ancestry.

Supporting evidence: Obama as a child with his white grandfather and mother and half-Indonesian sister:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ann_Dunham_with_father_and_children_%28enhanced%29.jpg

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I don't know how his being black or white or both the things is really relevant to the topic.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Alex80: I don't know how his being black or white or both the things is really relevant to the topic.

An African-American winning the last two presidential elections probably changed America somewhat, just by winning.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

@turbosat: apparently no, since some people here are discussing about his skin color rather than on what he made.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I hope Obama and all other Americans call themselves Americans.

Quit putting other continents, countries, races or religions in front of the word American.

If you want to claim to be something else, then move to said country, place, Vatican, Israel, Italy, Afrika etc.

Be proud of your ethnicity if it comes up in question, but do not shove it down our throats.

Obama is American...Period

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Obama identifies as black, not white.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

All readers back on topic please.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are logical criticisms of policy and interesting perspectives on the role and scope of power of a president. Then, there is this Birch-ish wave of cookiness that is a kind of American tradition: that Obama isn't black, whatever that means, that he's not American-born, that he's a muslim, that he hates America, etc. Here comes Trump. It's sad that conservatism is being wiped out by the GOP's shortsighted opportunism. Republicans are staring down the future of marginalization. Obama was better than the alternatives. He probably did a reasonably good job under the circumstances, which weren't good.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I think the Equality, Health Care Insurance, and smarter use of military force have changed the USA for the better. Standing with science re: Climate Change is a good thing. And the return to strong diplomacy is welcome.

America is a better place thanks to our President.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

He is a human, a good one I think. Has achieved some good things, could have achieved more if his hands were not tied by a Republican upper house.

This, for the most part. The biggest change during his administration wasn't really his doing, though. The Republicans can claim that "honor" when they first decided to kowtow to Tea Party fanatics, then managed to let a megalomaniac hijack their party for his own purposes. The result is that the Republican party has become a punchline. Look for some alternate party to rise from the ashes, but the Republicans are done as a serious political party. RIP GOP.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

turbotsat: Obama as a child with his white grandfather and mother

wipeout: What aspect of that not completely correct information suggests to you that his white mother was part-Asian?

@Moderator: wipeout is, probably innocently, misrepresenting my post. Why shouldn't I contest this misrepresentation?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

He managed to borrow more from the taxpayers than all his predecessors combined.

untrue. the national debt was $10.625 trillion on January 21, 2009. its not $21.25 trillion at the moment.

1 ( +2 / -2 )

untrue. the national debt was $10.625 trillion on January 21, 2009. its not $21.25 trillion at the moment.

And a lot of the debt that has come since Obama was sworn in, was a result of spending by Bush. But the Republicans blame Obama for that debt.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

His health care reform is a burden on the middle class self employed actually more than a burden it's crippling.

Well, the issue with that particular thing is that the original idea for national healthcare was touted as being too "socialist" for 'murica. So he had to take what he could and we ended up with this pathetic excuse for "affordable" healthcare because....

HMOs were scared that they weren't going to make as much money as they used too if any. So they lobbied their butts up to what we have now. Only difference is they can't refuse people from getting insurance. The millions (if not hundreds of millions) of dollars that a CEO of an HMO can make could help pay off how many hospital visits and operating costs?

2.Pharmaceuticals were also scared they weren't going to make as much money as they used too, if any. So they lobbied their butts up so that the government wouldn't pass a law stating they could not keep using over priced brand names as an excuse to charge more than necessary to both consumers and insurance companies. The millions of dollars a CEO of a pharmaceutical can help pay off how much R&D, manufacturing costs?

The lobbyists for HMO's and pharmaceutical manufacturers were so successful at getting to the gullible people with their PR spin and fear-mongering, that don't comprehend that an effective National Healthcare system would actually be much cheaper than the current ACA system....

Why do I mention this? I work in healthcare... and I'd say one of the worst things I saw a few days ago was a medication that my pharmacy bought from a distributer for $2.92 for 100 tablets. The MSRP was... $782.84. I know I've seen medications that are even $10,000 for a single dose or two with many excuses as to why it should cost so much.

As for why the ridiculously huge mark up? Simple... Because the HMO's will pay for it. And that huge mark up is just one of the things that gets passed on to the ridiculously huge costs they charge as well as the premiums we all end up paying. Etc.

A fully nationalized healthcare system would probably mean the complete elimination of HMO's (no more paper work with them), a drastic decrease in the cost of medication (relief for the patient's wallet), and no more co-pay's, no more additional hospital bills even after insurance coverage, no more struggling to find a healthcare plan, no more having to search around for your medical records at more than one facility.

Yes taxes would go up, but people don't seem to understand that the tax would be cheaper than what they're paying HMO's. Even the companies that they work for would also be paying less as taxes than they are for HMO's for their employee's. Add that to federally mandated lowering of medication costs... its a big win for everyone.

But it's all too socialist for 'murica. And Obama wasn't allowed to have left that as what would have been a very lasting legacy.

Why not take the bitter medicine if it will make the country feel better in the end?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Yes, Obama has changed America. He made it more divided than any president in living memory.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Well, to be accurate, the Republicans have used him as an excuse for their dividing the country more than during any presidency in living memory.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Obama meant well and yes he has made some sweeping changes, but honestly, his hands were tied with a Republican majority in Congress. It doesn't matter what Obama says, Republicans will find a way to combat him.

2 ( +2 / -1 )

First of all, the presidency position is a puppet post, there are unseen forces behind the scene pulling the strings.So the said president has no real power to bring change, unless it serves the higher ups, and not the masses. When politicians campaign for presidency, many make promises of what they will do when they are elected, but as soon as they enter office, they realise that things are run differently. Obama promised to bring the troop home from the middle east, but after entering office, he did the opposite. Truth of the matter is, We don't have freedom. Politicians are put in front of us to give us an illusion that we have freedom whereas we don't. Has Obama changed America? The question we ought to ask is, "have the elites changed America while using Obama as a front man?"

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Obama promised to bring the troop home from the middle east, but after entering office, he did the opposite.

What are you talking about?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Has Obama really changed America?

I didn't vote for "change." I love(d) living in the bubble. Life was goood-

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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