How Obama's failures paved the way for American socialism
The soaring hopes and eventual bitter disappointments of his presidency have empowered an unapologetically left-wing agenda
The year 2008 was an auspicious time to graduate from college. I have been a political obsessive since my early life, but as a science major, I had not paid much attention to political economy, focusing instead on the war in Iraq, the war on drugs, and civil liberties. So when the economy entered free-fall in early 2008, hemorrhaging millions of jobs just as I was set to enter the job market, it felt as though the foundations of America were cracking apart.
It seemed like an all-hands-on-deck moment, and led me to my first moment of electoral political activism: knocking on doors for the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. When he and his party won a gigantic victory, and the president-elect gave a thrilling victory speech, it seemed as though everything that was wrong with America was about to be set right. George W. Bush was just an anomaly on the road to a better and brighter future.
But it was not to be. On Tuesday night, over eight years later, President Obama gave his farewell address. It is a perfect moment to recount how the soaring hopes and eventual bitter disappointments of his presidency paved the way for a return of American socialism.
To start with, it must be said that Barack Obama is a hugely able person, certainly one of the most formidable occupants of the presidency. He is perhaps the second-best writer among presidents (after Lincoln), a rivetingly charismatic orator, and an inspirer of intense personal loyalty. His mind is subtle and his reasoning deft. He is virtually always cool and collected, and exudes competence. In few other times has an American head of state's political legacy been so defined by his singular characteristics.
But this top-heavy account also goes some distance towards explaining why so much of the Obama promise fizzled out. He came to power at the head of a political force that was much more anti-Bush and dazzled by his personal charm than it was behind any coherent political or ideological program. What's more, he took power at an extraordinarily unfortunate moment — when the neoliberal economic structures that had been built up on a bipartisan basis since 1980 came totally unglued. The economy had been rotting from the top for decades, and was in total freefall from the second he took office.
In the moment of panic, the old logic of Keynesianism managed to get through, and total collapse was avoided with the Recovery Act. But the president was far too dedicated to institutional thinking — to appearing respectable according to existing elite norms — to make the radical political break that was, in retrospect, obviously necessary.
Neoliberalism quickly reasserted itself among Obama, his inner circle, and the right half of his party. They just barely managed to get health-care reform through, deeply compromised by capitulation to the insurance and medical industries, and punched full of holes by neoconservative-lite senators like Joe Lieberman. They pivoted to austerity in early 2010, and lost their 60-vote Senate supermajority with the death of Teddy Kennedy and a shocking loss in the ensuing election. Unwilling to abolish the filibuster, and with unemployment still at 10 percent due to the inadequate stimulus, the Democrats were crushed in the 2010 election — ironically, most of those who lost were in the party's conservative wing and most pro-austerity.
But, in keeping with a political movement overly focused on a single personality, Obama's closest associates mostly did not treat this as a political emergency. Instead, they cashed out with plush consulting gigs (or went to work for David Cameron). They continued to rake in mega-payouts from corporations while the party fell to pieces downballot.
On foreign policy, Obama's coldness overtook his ethical sense. He was much more concerned with avoiding "dumb wars" and the concomitant waste of resources than he was about respecting the moral personhood of all human beings. His was a presidency that embraced or extended most of the violently illiberal Bush security apparatus, and whitewashed what it did not endorse; a presidency where American bombs and special forces are in dozens of countries around the globe; a presidency where an American grandfather must hear from locals in Yemen that his 16-year-old American grandson, targeted by the Obama drone program without explanation, was "blown to pieces." Meanwhile, Obama's personal charm ensured that the many slavish Democratic partisans would invent reasons to support these actions.
Taken together, these failures — the grindingly slow and unequal economic recovery, the inadequate and frustrating health-care reform, the collapse of the party downballot, and the overseas moral atrocities — quietly paved the way for a return of American socialism. (Much of Obama's final speech, in which he returned to the same themes of unity and faith in America as his 2004 convention speech and the 2008 campaign, sounded frankly preposterous with Donald Trump waiting in the wings.)
But it took the crowning of Hillary Clinton by party grandees and Democratic partisans as the approved nominee to demonstrate just how ready the country was. She is Obama with none of the spellbinding magnetism, a far longer history of neoliberal triangulation, and an immense pile of baggage to boot. Cranky old Bernie Sanders, the only self-described socialist anywhere near the top rank of politics, ran what was to be a protest primary campaign to raise awareness and push his pet issues. Instead, to the complete astonishment of everyone, including himself, he nearly won.
He got so much traction in part because his unapologetically left-wing agenda obviously plugged the holes in the Obama presidency. No more fiddly little tax credits and jerry-rigged market mechanisms. Deal with student debt by making college free for all. Deal with the broken health-care system with Medicare for all. Deal with crumbling infrastructure with a cool trillion bucks in spending. Deal with climate change with an aggressive carbon tax. Deal with income inequality by sharply increased taxes on the rich, massive redistribution, and running the economy red-hot. On that and many other issues, democratic socialist policy provided a convincing account of why the Obama years have felt so desperate, and how they might be fixed.
And then Clinton lost to the most buffoonish nominee in American history — and Sanders has become the most popular politician in the country.
I still find it impossible not to feel some affection for Obama, even after all this. But it is unquestionably true that his brand of politics is dead. It remains to be seen whether democratic socialism can mount an effective challenge to Trump. But on the left, that is where the energy and vision lies.