Barack Obama was my least favorite of the final three candidates in 2008. My family initially supported supported Hillary Clinton. As lifelong Democrats, we looked forward to a restoration of the smart centrism of the Clinton era.
Why Clinton? Well, it starts with America from 1992 to 2000, the administration of President Bill Clinton. Today, Americans talk about those years with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight. Naysayers of the left, right, and center criticize Bill Clinton for various mistakes, from the subject matter of Ken Starr’s investigations, to weaknesses in financial regulations, to problems with the 1994 crime bill.
Few seem to recall the massive deficits, the crime wave, the partisanship, and the economic problems that preceded Clinton. Few recall the Republican Party’s near-universal, and universally false, opposition to Clinton’s first budget based upon predictions of economic collapse. Few recall how much attention Clinton paid to fiscal rectitude, free trade, government reform, and economically-oriented foreign policy. Few recall the concrete details of the Clinton economic boom, including rapid economic growth and a narrowing income gap.
For many in America, Hillary Clinton in 2008 seemed to be our best chance to return to that era. But Hillary lost the primary, so we didn’t have an opportunity to see whether she could recreate the economic and societal gains of her husband’s administration. The choice, instead, was between Barack Obama and John McCain.
McCain was a strong contender. In the early weeks of the general election of 2000, he held occasional poll leads despite the negative climate for Republicans. Since the 1990s, McCain’s lifetime of courage in Vietnam and in the Senate served as an inspiration to “good government” centrists. In 2000, after the New Hampshire primary, McCain became the first Republican to whom I’d ever donated money. But for Karl Rove’s tactic of spreading racist lies in the South Carolina primary, McCain might have won in 2000, and the subsequent years would have been very different. In November 2008, however, I decided to pull the lever for Obama after watching Sarah Palin’s disturbing interview with Katie Couric. McCain was not young, and the chance of Palin as President a risk too great.
Reasons For Skepticism In 2008
Why was I so skeptical of Obama? I am Jewish, so I sometimes wonder whether subconscious racial bias might have influenced me. On the other hand, I had enthusiastically supported other African American political candidates throughout the country. What was different about Obama?
By contrast with McCain and Clinton, the young Senator seemed too academic, too inexperienced. Obama’s soaring rhetoric, his career history as an organizer, and his legions of young fans worried me. These were not the career steps of a typical pragmatist. Indeed, as a Senator, Obama had not shown the backbone or leadership of either Clinton or McCain in challenging their respective party orthodoxies.
Obama’s first-term stumbles in office, such as the healthcare rollout, seemed to justify the skeptics. Many of my private sector friends, who had funded and defended Obama in 2007 and 2008, started to worry. Obama’s approval ratings plummeted. The Democrats lost both chambers of Congress. Obama’s inaugural address that America was about to “slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet” seemed like a punch line.
Today, in 2016, the worst elements of the Republican Party seem ascendent in both Congress and the race for the White House. The economy, while far better than the one Obama inherited, has not come close to replicating the growth of the Clinton years.
Those headlines, however, ignore two broader truths.
Courage, Integrity, and a Rapid Learning Curve
For starters, Obama learned on the job. His performance as president has gotten better and better. In 2012, he campaigned very differently than in 2008, focusing much more on the prose of governance vs. the poetry of his first run for office. He began using his executive orders more effectively. Historically, few of our nation’s presidents have been as effective in their seventh and eight years in office as Obama has been.
Obama’s steady competence brings to mind the long-term successes of great sports teams such as the San Antonio Spurs over the past twenty years, or the Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson. These teams succeeded because they adapted to change without overreacting to short-term trends. In the corporate world, this kind of leadership is called vision. In earlier eras, America would have called it integrity.
Integrity seems to be a particularly important label in the context of the fights that Obama has picked in the twilight of his Presidency. As we noted in the Progressive Policy Institute blog, Obama in 2015 repeatedly stood up to powerful interest groups of the left, right, and center to do what was best for America. Those include:
Standing up to left-wing college students who were trying to impose campus speech codes;
Standing up to the fossil fuel industry by forging a climate deal among 196 nations;
Standing up to education bureaucrats by appointing long-time reformer and educator John King as Secretary of Education;
Standing up to xenophobes and nativists by welcoming Syrian refugees;
Standing up to warmongers including powerful interest groups in Washington DC by negotiating a diplomatic settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions; and
Standing up to big labor by ignoring their protectionist and backwards-looking attacks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The value of this trait emerges by comparison with the second terms of Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon. As Bill Scher wrote recently, President Obama seems to have “broken the second term curse.” He has been active without overreaching, has avoided or managed potential scandals, and has improved his leverage with the legislature (for example, by negotiating with the Republican leadership to secure a budget deal).
American history provides few comparable combinations of long-term competence and profiles in courage. By these measures, Obama ranks behind only the most legendary American presidents — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — and compares favorably with greats such as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
Remember When Obama Took Office?
Obama shares a second characteristic with great Presidents: he faced great challenges.
When Obama took office, the stock market was collapsing, global terrorism was expanding, and anti-American leaders were gaining power in every part of the world. To be sure, these geopolitical and domestic challenges were not as great as those faced by Lincoln (the Civil War), Washington (the nation’s founding), or FDR (the Great Depression and World War II), but they were comparable to those facing Thomas Jefferson (domestic federalism and tensions with Britain) and Teddy Roosevelt (domestic monopolies and management of America’s growing world power).
Furthermore, in assessing Obama, we need to be blunt: Obama faced a racist backlash and related domestic political challenges unlike those faced by any of his forebears.
In an odd sense, the mobilization of latent racism may have been inadvertent. Most of the funding for the Tea Party came from the Koch brothers, who wanted a libertarian counterweight to the Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Unfortunately, the Tea Party soon shed its libertarians and coalesced around angry, disaffected, and older white males. Establishment Republican figures frankly encouraged these voters’ fear and hatred, seeing it it as electorally useful. Long before he formally announced his presidential campaign, Donald Trump took advantage of the Koch-backed movement to promote the “birther” conspiracy that Obama was a foreigner and (gasp) a Muslim from Africa rather than an American-born citizen. These actions by Republican leaders consolidated and fanned a growing racial hostility among anti-Obama white Americans. As documented by American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein:
One year into his presidency, ABC News catalogued an array of racially tinged and overtly racist statements or actions taken against Obama. They came from election and party officials and media figures, including Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In the years since, the number of prominent figures using race as a wedge only grew. They include a New Hampshire police commissioner using the “N” word to refer to the president, a Montana federal district judge sending racist emails, and many others.
This level of race-based hostility complicated Obama’s already-difficult job. Scholarly research has confirmed that anti-black racism influenced Obama’s approval ratings. The organized core of anti-black racism made it difficult for Obama to work with Republican members of Congress even in areas of mutual interest.
Despite this, the numbers show that Obama oversaw a turnaround. Occupy Democrats, an admittedly partisan group, compiled the following statistics sheet:
One Of The Greatest Of All Time
When Obama won the presidency, even his adversary John McCain, acknowledged that America had done something important in electing an African American. As the satirical magazine The Onion captured with its headline “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job”, however, the work of getting elected was only the beginning of the story. America’s resilience and progress during Obama’s two terms in office, in the face of a racist backlash, has proven me and the other Obama skeptics wrong. When historians gather with the benefit of hindsight, Obama will emerge as one of the half-dozen greatest presidents of all time.