As of 2008, the two-term Republican presidency of George W. Bush left liberals and leftists with a long list of major grievances: The Patriot Act, the US’s invasion of Iraq, the growth of the prison population in Guantanamo Bay, and overall disregard for the environment, as well as the rights of women, people of color and the working class. For many, it appeared that Barack Obama, a charismatic mixed race former community organizer and law professor from Chicago, might be just the person to preside best over an end to the nightmarish Bush years. Early in the year, a select group of academic historians issued a statement as “Historians For Obama,” History News Network, April 21, 2008. The optimistic centrists, liberals, and leftists offered a number of mostly well-reasoned observations, arguing that voters needed to move the nation and its government beyond the legacy of Bush. In the end, most academic historians did, in fact, vote for Obama.
These expressions of political concern reflect deeply rooted relationships between historians and journalists. Almost exclusively enfranchised white men, the early historical profession emerged from the expanding government authority of the Progressive Era. Professors and newspapermen shared the pages of periodicals arguing that such institutional regulations and checks could thwart the “excesses” of capitalism. An entire school of historical interpretation came to be regarded as muckrakers with footnotes. So, as they appealed for hope and change, “Historians For Obama” tapped into a very time-honored academic self-image.
“The 2008 election,” wrote the HfO, “comes at a critical time in the history of the United States and the world.” They clearly focused on several issues on which they based their plea for his election.
The Rich and Poor.
HfO rightly complained that “the gap between the wealthy elite and the working majority grows ever larger,” but were no more interested than the mass media in calling the gap what it really is. It’s not just a gap that’s growing larger, nor the biggest gap since the Great Depression. Those living hand to mouth with no real reserves are proportionately close to what they have always been, while the wealthiest Americans are wealthier than any elite has ever been by a long shot. The unspoken truth is that, in terms of wealth, the present U.S. is the most polarized society that has ever existed in the history of the human race.
How has Obama done in this area? Not so good, in fact. By any measure, the gap has continued to grow under Obama. (See Rick Baum, “During Obama’s Presidency Wealth Inequality has Increased and Poverty Levels are Higher,” Counterpunch, February 26, 2016.) Worse, Obama has not even challenged the corporate leaders responsible for creating this polarization at the price of weakening our economy. Once in office, he immediately surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders, and, unlike Ronald Reagan, punished very few. (See Jesse Eisinger, “Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis,” New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2014.) In fact, the administration’s claims about “economic recovery” make less sense the farther we go from Wall Street.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, the realities behind Obama’s claims about job growth are simply grim. Leading economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger recently reported on the unprecedented rise of temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers, noting that “employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.” In a stark summary, Marty Hart-Landsberg wrote that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.” (“The Devastating Transformation of Work in the US,” Report from the Economic Front, December 28, 2016.) In short, the official claims of declining unemployment required redefining employment, much as the Reagan administration did when it dropped the government figures for its military into the work force in order to reduce the unemployment statistics.
What is particularly deplorable about this is that the victims of this unprecedented change in the nature of work in America tend to be the usual ones—people of color, women, and the young. In fact, the older, whiter, and more male a worker may be, the less likely he is to be fully aware of the problem. Rather than address the inequalities, we find the discussion rechanneled into vague concerns about “political correctness.” Or these commentators regularly complain about “the failure to launch” young people in a society that deliberately failed to provide launching pads—or disposed of them in such a way as to make a profit. In the end, government’s reliance on padded employment numbers precludes active measures to address inequalities of any sort.
We know that labor unions reduce income inequality. In light of this, how should we assess Obama? In the run-up to the election, Obama presented himself as a genuine champion of the labor movement. He promised to wear his comfortable shoes and join picket-lines with striking workers, and, more importantly, proclaimed his support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made union organizing easier by minimizing employer harassment. But during his first two years, when his party controlled both houses of Congress, Obama joined no picket-lines and left the EFCA as much a dead letter to the Democrats as to Republicans.
Clearly, there is no way to simultaneously foster more equality and please those who will only be pleased if there are no limits on the wealth they can extract from the labor of others.
HfO legitimately pointed out that “tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and others risk bankruptcy when they get seriously ill.” Eight years later, millions still lack health care. Covering everybody successfully and economically is difficult, particularly when this is made contingent on the ability of the pharmaceutical and insurance conglomerates to continue making obscene fortunes.
Obama once claimed to support a single payer government health care system. Such a position was hardly radical, having been advocated among some Democrats since the 1940s, when the western European nations, rebuilt after World War II, incorporated such measures as a matter of course. Like Social Security in the U.S., these programs, once implemented, became so widely used and popular as to become unassailable.
Once elected, Obama took his distance from single-payer, as though a proposal over half a century old represented some madly radical idea. He did call what was billed to be an all-inclusive White House summit on the subject, at which advocates of a single payer plan found themselves excluded and arrested. The administration’s alternative became the Affordable Care Act, what came to be called Obamacare.
The roots of Obamacare went back to when Richard Nixon anticipated running against Teddy Kennedy in the 1972 presidential campaign. In opposition to Kennedy’s long support of a universal government health care system, Nixon proposed changes in the privatized health care system that would force the uninsured to buy insurance. Lobbyists for the industry developed this idea under the auspices of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Most famously, Mitt Romney promulgated this plan while governor of Massachusetts.
The ACA has offered very expensive health insurance to larger numbers of otherwise uninsured Americans. The potential windfall this seemed to provide the insurance industry would be counterbalanced by making it impossible for insurers to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. Still, Obamacare has left 29 million Americans uninsured. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S.–the wealthiest country in world history–has the 37th best health care system. (See World Health Organization’s Ranking of the World’s Health Systems, The Patient Factor.) <>
That some liberal commentators praise this nationalization of Romneycare—a Heritage Foundation reincarnation of Nixoncare–essentially highlights just how low they have set the bar.
Also packed into the first sentence was a concern with the education system: “many public schools do a poor job of educating the next generation.” It is hard to judge whether public schools have done a better job under Obama. Education has been a major victim of the Republican Congressional strategy of reducing government functions they don’t like by what Newt Gingrich called “starving the beast.” That is, they promulgate budget cuts in the name of fiscal conservatism and then use inadequate performance as an excuse to further slash resources. For over twenty years, the Democrats have generally aided, abetted and accepted these actions.
Indisputably, the Obama administration has actively embraced some of the worst features of “education reform” fostered by profit-making private companies and lobbyist groups. In particular, the administration embraced the cynical and reactionary idea of channeling public funding to private “charter schools,” a practice that has survived study after study demonstrating how unsuccessful this approach is to the task of education. Like the similarly cynical and reactionary privatization of prisons, it profits the entrepreneurs today and passes the bill to the future.
Not surprising, the Obama administration has never sided with the teachers and parents who have sought to prevent this abuse. In fact, he appointed the anti-union Arne Duncan Education Secretary, and collaborated closely with Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago who, following a teachers’ strike in 2012, shut down close to 50 public schools.
“Due to the arrogant, inept foreign policy of the current administration,” complained HfO, “more people abroad mistrust and fear the United States than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War.” There is, quite literally, a world of issues meriting discussion under this rubric.
Most clearly, though, HfO referred to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and its bombings in Pakistan and Somalia under Bush the Younger. Certainly, Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, though he ducked the Senate vote on the issue and never took any action to end the conflict. Obama continued to engage in acts of war in those four countries. In the end, both presidents announced the war’s end while keeping U.S. troops militarily engaged in those countries.
However, the Obama administration has actually taken the U.S. deeper into the quagmire. The president authorized U.S. drone attacks—acts of war under international law–in Yemen, Libya and Syria, actually expanding American involvement into places the Bush had not perpetrated. Because automated drones do not require “boots on the ground” and the political risks that entails, the White House has used them very liberally, initiating the lion’s share of the estimated 1,560 to 2,389 attacks in the regions, which may have killed or injured as many as nearly 11,000 people (including several American citizens). An estimated 1300 civilians, including nearly 250 children, have died as a result of Obama’s legally questionable drone activities. (‘Get the data: Drone wars,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The administration has sent arms to more countries than Bush, including unprecedented numbers of armaments to countries with terrible human rights records like Saudi Arabia. (Marcus Weisgerber, “Obama’s Final Arms-Export Tally More than Doubles Bush’s.” Defense One, November 2016.) The literally unprecedented commitment of the Obama White House to send $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next ten years amounts to a giving a blank check to a right-wing militaristic regional power that demoralizes and discourages forces within Israel interested in redefining its relationship with its neighbors. (“Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “U.S. Finalizes Deal to Give Israel $38 Billion in Military Aid,” New York Times, September 14, 2014.) ()
So, too, under Bush, the U.S. expanded its previously rare use of “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists. This involves the seizure of foreign nationals without due process and their removal to detention facilities in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere. There, they are subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” torture—especially water boarding, for which the U.S. hanged Japanese officers as war criminals after 1945. Obama substantively promised only to close the U.S. facility at Guantánamo in Cuba, which he has not done. In truth, Bush established these detention centers by executive order as the commander-in-chief, and Obama has had the same authority to close the center without Congressional cooperation.
U.S. military involvement in the region merits a serious discussion, running the gamut from the ultimate moral defensibility of war through classical questions of imperialism to the strategic and tactical wisdom of having the American war machine regularly bashing the wasp nest with a two-by-four. However, the HfO poses only the issue of the extent to which “people abroad mistrust and fear the United States.” On this, there is no question. Most people around the world continue to see the US as a threat. There can be no serious question about this because a massive global poll conducted by Win/Gallup in 2013. Six years into the Obama administration has led many to conclude that the U.S. remains the greatest threat to world peace. (Meredith Bennett-Smith, “Womp! This Country Was Named The Greatest Threat To World Peace,” Huffington Post, February 1, 2014.)
It wasn’t even close.
Noting that “global warming speeds toward an unprecedented catastrophe,” HfO suggests that something substantive would happen by replacing Bush’s party. The Guardian sympathetically summarizes that “The president has called global warming “terrifying” and helped broker the world’s first proper agreement to tackle it, yet his administration has poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster.” (Sonali Prasad, Jason Burke, Michael Selzak and Oliver Milman, “Obama’s Dirty Secret: the Fossil Fuel Projects the US Littered Around the World,” The Guardian, December 1, 2016.) .
A general scientific acceptance of the fact that human activity since industrialization had begun to warm the planet emerged in the 1980s. At no point did Obama’s party attempt to take this concern into politics against the administrations of Reagan and Bush the Elder.
Eight years of the Clinton administration made no effort to do anything about it either, though it presided over the signing of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which was to go into force 2005. This sought clear limits for the warming “greenhouse gases” that would prevent a dangerous amount of climate change. Of course, the agreement required nobody to do anything until years went by, and nobody ever knew how much “too much’ would be any way. Too, the levels of measurable warming and their specific regional impact on polar ice had already proved to be greater than the earlier projections on which Kyoto had been based. In the end, those countries that wanted to ignore it did so. While the U.S. signed the protocols—and its officials took the photo ops—it never got ratified. In 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would join Russia, Japan and Canada in declining to extend Kyoto.
Pragmatists pointed that, while the accord had little practical value, they established a political precedent for international cooperation around the question. Nevertheless, the precedent seemed to establish an impressively strong tradition of disinterest and inaction. In 2007, the Bush administration pulled together various heads of state around a “Washington Declaration” aimed at establishing a functioning cap-and-trade agreement between the industrial and “developing” nations to bring about an overall meaningful reduction of global carbon emissions. Touted by government and media, this new, non-binding agreement provided more opportunities for misleading publicity. Seven years into this dysfunctional mirage, it excluded Russia for its activities in Crimea.
The Obama administration has done nothing to break that pattern. It did participate in the much touted 2015 Paris Agreements in which a large number of countries promised to cooperate to keep global warming from reaching more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Scientists have pointed out that nobody really knows what raising the average global temperature that much would mean. Perhaps, more importantly, beneath all the self-congratulatory hype and publicity, the major powers have once more offered non-binding “promises.” In the end, though, Obama’s great climate achievement extended the Bush combination of highly touted publicity with practical inaction.
This record on global warming, however, simply reflects domestic environmental policies on issues such as encouraging oil companies to use hydraulic fracturing to create fissures in deep rock structures to provide easier access to natural gas and petroleum. These techniques have produced a range of problems ranging from an increase in earthquake activity to the more immediate threats to air quality and the water table. The method took off under Bush. Despite earlier statements of interest in preventing the degradation of the environment through its pollution, the only real brake on the Obama administration’s encouragement of fracking and questionable new pipelines has been the low price of oil.
It does not seem honest to argue that one policy of doing nothing can be a lesser evil than another policy of doing nothing.
Do Black Lives Matter Under Obama?
“Obama has . . . the varied background of a global citizen . . . . These experiences have given him an acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class, while also equipping him to speak beyond them.”
The issue is very serious for those who are not willfully ignorant of it. The Guardian—a British publication—has tracked the police killings of civilians in the U.S., and counted nearly 260 blacks killed in 2015. (“The Counted. People killed by Police in the US,” The Guardian, and Killed by Police.net.) While smaller than the overall number of whites killed by the police, it is nevertheless proportionately immensely more.
The Obama administration has followed the lead of the Bush administration in sustaining the disastrously racist policy of the Clinton presidency in promulgating mandatory sentencing that has made the U.S. the nation with the largest proportion of its population incarcerated. Blacks—constituting 13.3% of the U.S. population—are more than half the prison population in most states and are nationally 5.1 times more likely to be behind bars than whites. (http://www.ibtimes.com/white-men-vs-black-men-prison-statistics-2016-why-are-more-african-american-males-2426793) While there has been some talk about this during the recent election year, the practice of the Obama administration has sustained this cruel, inhuman, and unutterably racist practice through the course of two terms.
In addition, the administration has deepened the overall trend of the Clinton and Bush administrations in moving military gear to local police departments. However, the expansion of military activities abroad has made this equipment more available for distribution at home. (See Matt Apuzzo, “War Gears Flows to Police Departments,” New York Times, June 8, 2014.) The Obama administration did specify that the military should not provide police departments with bayonets, grenade launchers, and weaponized vehicles, which make it easier and kill civilians more quickly.
Armed with military equipment and martial law powers, the authorities have launched tens of thousands of raids on American communities. (Alex Kane, “Not Just Ferguson: 11 Eye-Opening Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces,” BillMoyers.com, August 13, 2014.) In 2013, the last year for which we have solid numbers, authorities staged roughly 80,000 such military raids on Americans.
The suspension of constitutional strictures on search and seizure have gone the way of other such restrictions on the exercise of government power. In the name of the “War on Drugs,” recent court decisions have radically assailed the protections of the Fourth Amendment by sanctioning forfeiture laws. These permit local authorities to detain and search anyone suspected of illegal activities and seize any suspicious amounts of cash or other contraband in their possession with no formal arrests, trials or due process. The worst place for these polices, Oklahoma, is introducing the Electronic Recovery and Access to Data device. ERAD gives the highway patrol access to seize funds from gift cards, debit cards, and credit cards. (Adam Banner, “Oklahoma Continues Use Of Controversial ERAD Tool for “Highway Robbery,” Huffington Post, August 26, 2016.)
The practice effectively renders a law-abiding citizen guilty until proven innocent. Proving that innocence, as with all matters, ultimately requires enough money to take the issue to court where—eventually—in the fullness of time—she might get a hearing. This leaves those without the resources pretty much as helpless as they would be in any corrupt police state.
Obama’s response to such things has always combined his inspiring pull-your-self-up-by-your-bootstrap speeches and the selfless offering of himself as a role model. Beneath the hot air and superficialities, however, we are facing some potentially very serious problems.
Grade It Yourself
The concerns of HfO in 2008 did not seem especially controversial, though we think they should have gone further and raised more. First, we need a serious debate over the Patriot Act and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security with an institutionalized “black budget” for use in the U.S., for which it is virtually unaccountable. All of this got worse—more powerful and more expensive in the Obama years. Secondly, Obama’s promising (and promised) policies designed to protect and encourage whistleblowers exposing wrongdoing in government has, in fact, turned into just the opposite. (John Feffer, “Mouths Wide Shut; Obama’s War on Whistleblowers,” Counterpunch, October 9, 2015.) We would also evaluate his presidency on its inaction on securing equal rights for women in the workplace and with respect to paychecks—which most Americans have supported since the 1970s—and the duplicitous evolution of his administration’s position on gay, lesbian and transgendered equality.
Still, let’s limit ourselves to the issues HfO did raise. We invite the readers, including the document’s signers, to assign an appropriate grade to their judgment of eight years ago.
• Did eight years of the Obama administration close that concerning gap between the rich and poor? Did it stay the same? Or did it get worse? The statistics are rather painfully clear. _____
• Did the administration get everybody covered by health care? Clearly not, but we believe the administration deserves fair and full credit for getting health care to millions who did not otherwise have coverage, though it fell far short of universal coverage. It also falls far short of the kind of quality government medical care provided in every other industrial nation on the planet, because profits for the insurance industry still have priority over the well-being of the patient. _____
• Has education improved over the last eight years or merely extended the profit-making “education reform’ initiatives usually associated with the Republicans? _____
• Have we seen any positive change on matters of war and peace? Or have they gotten worse?—Wait, wait. Scratch that. The question is whether the people of the world are significantly less mistrustful of the U.S. _____
• Is the process of global warming changed? Has the environment improved or gotten worse? _____
• Do black lives matter more or less than they did when Obama became president? Here one must balance the reality of a mixed race president and his continued militarization of the police forces. _____
We fully understand the predisposition among historians to fall back on their tradition of a genteel “progressivism” when they face national elections, but the world has radically changed. Today, corporate preoccupations have completely gentrified “the Fourth Estate” adjacent to the historical profession onto which similar concerns have imposed an essentially ghettoized existence. Entrepreneurs with little interest in education and every preoccupation with profit began to renovate the very structures in which academics would labor. Year after year, what had been a kind of academic apprenticeship graduated people into a permanent indenture as “part-time” or “temporary” faculty. Without tenure or the hope of tenure and lesser or no benefits, they carried the burden of growing teaching loads.
Yet, much of the shrinking portion of the traditionally-privileged academic community has chosen to live in denial. At election time, they pack their kit and—rather like Civil War reenactors—set out to relive what they’ve imagined as a glorious past. In this case, taking their place with newspaper columnists around a tea table with Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK, or LBJ.
We respectfully suggest that there are more productive responses.
Mark A. Lause is a professor of American history at the University of Cincinnati and the author of numerous books, including The Great Cowboy Strike: Class, Politics & Violence in the Making of the American West [forthcoming]; Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class; and Race and Radicalism in the Union Army.
Chad Pearson teaches history at Collin College in Plano, Texas. He is the author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement and co-editor with Rosemary Feurer of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (forthcoming).