Democrats need to get over their Obama nostalgia
On Stephen Colbert's The Late Show, a recurring gag has the host getting misty-eyed over former President Obama. Back in 2017 Colbert showed footage of Obama discussing the Republican health care bill, and responded by saying "I miss you" directly into the camera. In April this year, after talking about President Trump's child separation policy, he joked that Obama had also "confiscated" children's "hugs."
The jokes work because they speak to a deep well of nostalgia for the former leader among the Democratic electorate. He was the avatar of the party for eight years, and the first black president — not to mention intelligent, suave, elegant, and handsome. Especially comparing him to Trump, it's not hard to see where this attitude comes from.
But it's long since time for liberals to reckon with the fact that Obama was simply not a very good president. He failed to grasp the reality of his political situation, and often used his power in morally abominable ways. If the Democrats want to put the forces of Trumpism away for good, they will have to do better than returning to the pre-2016 status quo.
Let's review some history. In 2008, the Democrats were riding high. They won the presidency and sweeping majorities in both houses of Congress — including a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for a brief period. After the grotesque horror of the Bush presidency and the ongoing financial crisis and recession, it really seemed like the country had turned a corner. Obama was going to put things right.
And he did do some things right. He did pass a big stimulus package in early 2009, and got through halfway decent reforms of health care and financial regulation. But from the beginning, Obama's agenda was severely compromised with his (and his party's) fixation on bipartisanship.
From the very beginning of 2009, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell filibustered almost every piece of legislation he could, grinding the wheels of government nearly to a halt. It was patently obvious that Republicans would do everything in their power to stymie Obama's agenda. Yet the administration designed the stimulus with about one-third tax cuts, hoping to attract Republican votes. (They ultimately got zero in the House and only three in the Senate.) And Senate Democrats wasted months making concessions to the likes of Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to get bipartisan support for ObamaCare, but every last Republican senator voted against it anyway.
To be fair, that Republican obstruction did limit what Obama could do in some arenas. But he had a free hand in his response to the housing crisis, and his administration used its power to make it worse. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner deliberately designed a homeowner assistance program (using money already authorized as part of the bailout) to help banks on the sly. The point, as Geithner told Elizabeth Warren, was to "foam the runway" for the banks, so they didn't absorb foreclosures too fast.
All this seriously worsened the Great Recession, as foreclosed houses acted like economic neutron bombs on neighborhoods across the country. That, plus Obama ruling out additional stimulus as of early 2010, meant a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate on election day 2010, and thus a sweeping victory for the Republicans.
When it turned out banks had lost most of the mortgage paperwork during the go-go bubble years, and were foreclosing on millions of people with systematically forged documents — plus committing literally hundreds of other crimes, including money laundering for drug cartels and terrorists — the Obama Department of Justice let them off the hook with wrist-slap fines. (He also refused to prosecute any Bush-era officials for illegal torture or other war crimes.)
And contrary to Colbert's whitewashing joke, Obama's immigration policy was quite bad, especially in his first term. Again trying to appease Republican xenophobes, he scaled up border enforcement and deported more unauthorized immigrants than any president in history up to that time. Liberals have sometimes mixed up pictures of Obama-era immigrant detention centers with those of Trump (who has still been far worse on immigration, to be clear).
As major Democratic donor and former FCC chairman Reed Hundt writes in A Crisis Wasted, in 2008 it was clear the country required a drastic, fundamental overhaul to repair the damage done by four decades of neoliberal devastation. But Obama instead attempted to restore the pre-crisis status quo, saving the banks from their own misdeeds while letting homeowners drown, and going for moderate, incremental reforms when he did anything at all. The result was a catastrophic collapse of the party's fortunes, losing over 1,030 federal and state seats, control of both the Senate and the House, and finally the presidency as well.
Much of that ground has been recovered due to Trump backlash, but Democrats will have to do better if they actually win power in 2020. The country still needs a top-to-bottom economic overhaul, plus a huge decarbonization program to wrench down greenhouse gas emissions, plus reversals of the horrible damage Trump has done to government and society. Simply returning to the pre-2017 status quo is not going to cut it.