Why I Hate Barack Obama
I've seen a number of defenses of Barack Obama's presidency lately. They generally make use of one or both of the following lines of argument:
1) Obama has a long list of underappreciated accomplishments, such as signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and according to some writers signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I'll be the first to admit that signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a good thing. But it was also a thing that took about 10 seconds, maybe half an hour if you count the entire signing ceremony. Half an hour of accomplishments is not that much for a presidency that has gone on for over 13,000 hours.
2) Obama has so many major crises on his plate, most notably the economic meltdown, that he hasn't had time to get to everything else. His critics are setting an unrealistically high standard and expecting him to magically make everything better with a wave of his wand. This line of reasoning would make sense if Obama wasn't actively making things worse in many areas. You don't get to complain you didn't have time to plant a new tree if you've spent all day cutting down more trees.
So what has Obama actually done for us? Let's take a tour through some of the policy areas I've paid a little attention to over the last year and a half.
Immigration: Making it Worse
In theory, Obama was supposed to push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform to fix our irretrievably broken immigration laws, while working within DHS to make the existing system's practice more humane. Considering that immigration is probably a low priority for him, I could accept a simple lack of change. But in fact, Obama has increased the punitiveness of the immigration system. Deportations have exploded under this president, while more troops are sent to the border and detainees (even those who have not yet been convicted of anything and pose little flight risk) continue to be funnelled into private prisons where emergency medical care is considered a luxury.
Health Care: Not Making it Better
Obama did sign the Affordable Care Act, which I'll grant was (barely) better than nothing. But I wouldn't be surprised if the signing ceremony was the first time he saw the bill. Throughout the long health care debacle, while the Senate was busy taking the Republican alternative to Clintoncare and watering it down further, Obama seemed allergic to taking a stand on any issue relating to health care reform. The term "Obamacare" would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic, but I suppose "Reidcare" or "Nelsoncare" don't have the same zing to them. Given his disinterest in the issue, it's hard to give Obama either credit or demerits for the final outcome. I do note, however, that he moved decisively to make sure that nobody covered under the new system could get any help with an abortion as soon as there were rumors that might happen.
Women's Rights: Making it Worse
Speaking of abortion, beyond the aforementioned signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Obama doesn't seem to realize that women face any particular hardships or issues in our society. (I take comfort in pretending that whoever came up with the "this is what a feminist looks like" cover for Ms. magazine has been fired and resigned from the graphic design business.) The "too much on his plate" defense might have some pull with respect to the way the administration has stood idly by as the states and Congress whittle Roe v Wade down into a hollow shell. But that doesn't excuse his penchant for reminding us, whenever he speaks on the issue, that if he had his druthers women would need to get a permission slip from their minister or priest before they could get an abortion.
Government Transparency: Making it Worse
A big criticism of the Bush administration was that it didn't want its employers -- the citizens of the US -- to know what it was up to. And for all his campaign rhetoric, Obama the president appears to think Bush was on the right track. Administration lawyers have been vigorous in using Bush-era doctrines to resist attempts at creating more transparency in government.
Civil Liberties: Making it Worse
This is another issue that Obama campaigned hard on, then immediately reversed course once he sat in the White House. Sure, he made a token effort at closing Guantanamo Bay, but that was much more about avoiding the stigma of that particular location than about any desire to reduce the US's reliance on torture or its insistence that nobody it takes into custody has any rights. Moreover, the administration has sought to expand surveillance of US citizens here at home, just in case we might do something bad.
Murder of Civilians: Making it Worse
I'll give Obama a certain level of credit here: While he lied brazenly about most of the areas on this list during the campaign and after, he's always been clear that he thinks there should be fewer Afghans and Pakistanis alive. He doesn't usually put it in those terms, preferring to talk about continuing the war in Afghanistan. But it's been clear for a while that all the war in Afghanistan is accomplishing is "collateral damage" to civilians from unmanned drone attacks.
LGBT Rights: Trying Hard Not to Let it Get Better
With a lot of issues, it's possible to finesse a bad position by talking about costs and practicalities and relying on studies whose calculations the average person can't critique. But LGBT rights are a pretty open-and-shut moral issue. The Obama administration has established a clear pattern of waiting for pressure to build to the breaking point, then throwing out the smallest concession they can come up with in order to diffuse anger among the base. So while these baby steps are good, they also come with a clear message of "we are doing the absolute minimum to address your concerns." Don't Ask Don't Tell, for example, could have been gone with the stroke of a pen, but instead we've been treated to an extended bout of whining about how Congress should make a move first, and doing studies and polls about the issue, and generally investing huge efforts into dragging things out until the Palin administration takes over. Meanwhile, the administration has time to make a vigorous use of homophobic arguments to defend DOMA in court.
The Environment: Tyring to Let it Get Worse
It was clear during the campaign that Obama didn't really get the environment issue. Sure, he could write soaring rhetoric about sustainability into his speeches, but when it came down to it, he saw the US's energy future as lying in expanded coal and oil production. We were then treated to the spectacle of the administration announcing expanded offshore oil drilling just days before the Deewater Horizon blowout. A president who truly believed in the importance of a transition to a green economy would have used the Gulf disaster to shift our national conversation, like Bush did after 9/11. But instead, Obama seemed most concerned with getting the disaster off the front page so it wouldn't disrupt the status quo. And as for the politicization of science that ought to guide environmental policy, complaints from agency scientists are actually way up under the new administration.
Pandering to the Right Wing: Making it Worse
According to standard political theory, a Republican president should pander to the right and the center, while a Democratic president should pander to the left and center. Bush basically followed that pattern. Nevertheless, he was occasionally willing to stand up to his base when he felt strongly about something, like his proposal for immigration reform. Obama, on the other hand, seems determined to do a better job of pandering to Bush's base. His message to the left has been "shut up, who else are you going to vote for?" while to the right he says "yes sir, how high shall I jump, sir?" This was made most obvious with the Shirley Sherrod incident, in which his administration fell all over itself to fire her as soon as they heard Andrew Breitbart might not like her (and then begged her to come back to save their skin when it became apparent what fools they'd been). This pandering doesn't seem to have accomplished anything, since the right's hate for Obama is based on made-up stuff like "he's a Marxist," "he was born in Kenya," and "he wants to institute death panels." So I can only conclude that pandering to the right is a cause he honestly believes in, rather than a bit of pragmatic spinelessness.
US Standing in the World: Making it Better
Caught you a bit by surprise there, didn't I? But don't worry -- while I think this is one area that has improved under the Obama administration, it's dubious how much of the credit for it Obama can really claim.
The first big reason the US's standing in the world has improved is that Obama has a lot of charisma. As you can see from the rest of this post, there's no good reason for foreigners to think Obama is substantively better than Bush, but apparently many of them, from the Nobel committee to the person on the street answering poll questions, are stupid. (And before you say that's an expression of American arrogance, remember that we're the morons who voted for him.) If "foreigners have an irrational crush on him" counted as an accomplishment, then maybe I should join the Hasselhoff 2012 campaign.
Finally, we come to one thing that looks like a genuine accomplishment: the new START treaty on nuclear disarmament. My sense is that this is one issue Obama legitimately believes in. While the Senate is likely to kill the treaty since it's Ronald Reagan-style socialism, Obama deserves credit for his role in negotiating an agreement with Russia.