Obama, The Neoliberalist Extraordinaire

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Pearl River In a political world riven between the new president, Biden, and the defeated, but still roaring, president, Trump, it’s easy to forget sometimes that Obama was president only a short five years ago. Obama’s presidency seems almost like another version of the faux Camelot for JFK in the warm glow of nostalgia. As Trump is scorned and Biden is beleaguered, both with tenuous approval ratings, Obama’s has grown since his departure. He shows up from time to time now in feel-good moments. Recently, he and Dr. Fauci visited a vaccination site for children in the Washington area. He and Michelle are on Netflix and have found a role as influencers.

Talking to Owen Symes on Wade’s World about his book, He Was Our Man in Washington:  A History of the Obama Years, was a reminder of some of the mixed and bittersweet accomplishments of the Obama administrations that often were as much “We Can’t Do It” or “We Won’t Do It,” as they were Si Se Puedes, Yes, We Can.  Symes approach to this period was methodical.  He picked a half-down or so of the key issues and constituencies, presented the history and context, and then analyzed as objectively as possible what the administration tried to do, and what they did, or did not, accomplish.  Symes is clear that he approaches these topics and the history from the left field, but no matter where anyone stands in the ballpark, it was mixed record.

Looking at the real estate meltdown that Obama inherited coming in, using the banks as the gatekeeper for modifications on the TARP money was a mistake that Obama and his team never corrected. The legacy of the mass foreclosures of that period are now concentrated ownership by private equity of huge numbers of single-family home rentals where they drive the market in cities from Memphis to Atlanta. The three-quarters of a trillion-recovery expenditure then pales in contrast to the multiple trillions spent offsetting the impact of the pandemic, and the rapid employment recovery is proof of the value of the more aggressive response. Economist Larry Sommers, one of the Obama whisperers then for less, not more, is almost alone in now carping that the lifesaving stimulus dollars are feeding inflation.

Similarly, looking at the centerpiece of Obama accomplishment in the Affordable Care Act, much was achieved, but his reliance on existing health care institutions and the private insurance companies made his early commitment to a consider a public option hollow. It also has meant continuing higher healthcare costs, gaps in coverage, no limits on deductibles, and other nagging problems. On climate, talk was equally cheap. It is painful to read how Obama was humble bragging in Houston about how he had boosted oil and gas production, even while mouthing the dangers to the climate and ignoring pipeline protests almost past the 11th hour.

Over and over again, Obama’s singular commitment to neoliberalism seemed dominant. Symes notes that Obama was always clear that he was not a “revolutionary.” He is also clear that the virulent and racist opposition to him also likely blocked the prospects of more. Nonetheless, there is no question, as one looks at the record, that Obama was never more than a moderate, even as so many of us had attached higher hopes for his politics and program. In another couple of years, maybe his moderation and its dimmer results, will be credited with forcing an even more moderate Biden to be more aggressive in his administration. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to admit that the disappointment in Obama still stings as so many opportunities lost, even while some progress was made.