Front Page      The Paradox of Obama's Legacy by Bill Benton
January, 2017 
by Bill Benton
The Paradox of Obama's Legacy 

I first encountered Barack Obama in a junior high school gymnasium in a blue collar suburb of Minneapolis, the same one where the moviemaking Coen brothers and the column-writing Tom Friedman came from.  

This was several years before Obama became a national figure.  He was there to help promote a local prosecutor named Klobuchar who was running for Senator. The popular governor was there too. The gym was crowded and Obama’s half hour talk was well received. He was relaxed, friendly, and charming - mostly on the topic of how much people liked him. I remember thinking at the end of the talk, This guy is a political genius - he has talked for half an hour without actually saying anything at all.  I did not join the mob seeking to shake his hand, despite the fact that we were both Columbia grads.

Here we are ten years later and it is possible to evaluate Obama’s eight years in the White House.  My impressions are good, bad and ugly.

The good parts of the Obama legacy are linked paradoxically to all the things he did not do. Obama did not start a large, stupid and vicious war like his predecessor did in Iraq.  He did not expand the brushfire wars in Afghanistan and several other places into Armageddon.  He did not allow the Republicans to take control of the White House in addition to their domination of Congress.

That last point was, in my opinion, an exercise of political genius.  Obama retained the presidency in the 2012 elections despite his being black, and despite four years of bitter calumny and obstruction and propaganda from the right wing.  For instance, I viewed his support for anti-marijuana Federal law enforcement as a political sop to older Midwestern voters.  I figured that it was a necessary step to continuing control of the White House.  It worked.  He was re-elected.

The bad parts of Obama’s legacy are also mostly things he did not do.

Liberals and progressives overwhelmingly voted for the unknown Obama eight years ago and got stiffed. He did NONE of the liberal stuff we wanted. That is in 2016 the Democrats lost Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. No infrastructure jobs, no cost control in health care, no end to the wars and Guantanamo, no legalization of marijuana. No bankers in jail, no tax increases on inheritance and capital gains. And there's more...Elizabeth Warren kicked to the curb.  If you have not read Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men, it is a fun read.

More important, Obama the master speaker failed to use the bully pulpit.   That is the term for an excellent speaking platform.  Teddy Roosevelt pointed out that the President really does not have much power to do things, but does have a ‘bully pulpit’ from which speeches can be effective.  

Somehow, despite my assiduous reading of political news, I did not hear Obama’s thunderous calls for infrastructure jobs, for an end to unjust financial inequality, for Medicare for All and a smaller military. Perhaps there were no such calls from Obama. We were left with Occupy Wall Street, eloquent but ultimately silenced.  And of course with the equally eloquent but aging Bernie Sanders, who unfortunately spoke without Obama’s backing.

So much for the good and the bad.  Now for the ugly.

The mis-named Affordable Care Act, usually called Obamacare, has not made health care or insurance more affordable.  Costs of both have continued to skyrocket.  There are slightly different groups of winners and losers in the health care billing racket, but the totals and the averages are still double the rest of the civilized world.  Academics know the costs and they are never mentioned in the media.  That means the news ain’t good.  

The only clear winners are the doctors and insurance companies. Furthermore, about 75% of the additional insured people are the result of more states adopting Medicaid, a 25 year old program that had nothing to do with Obamacare.  Senator Lieberman dropped his opposition to Obamacare when the insurance lobbyists, as reported clearly in the NY Times, gave him a million dollars cash and gave his wife an additional million for good measure.  

Obama also bequeathed candidate Hillary Clinton as part of his legacy. With a minimally competent and energetic candidate, the Democrats would have won the Presidency.  Hillary made half as many campaign stops as Trump, and she made none in Wisconsin at all (see for details). Black and Hispanic Democrats stayed home in droves.  Hmmm.  Yes, Hillary won the popular vote but wasn’t she supposed to occupy the White House too?

So there you have it.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  More of la comedie humaine.  A lot better than the disastrous Bush-Cheney team, probably not much different from a Mitt Romney administration.Certainly not Rooseveltian in either sense.  Give Obama a B-/C+ grade, and be happy it was not worse.  

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Bill Benton attended Columbia, then taught math at U C Berkeley.  After ten years as a management consultant he founded and led a Silicon Valley software company.  Now he produces a political drama show on cable and internet.