Paul Krugman is the liberal columnist at the New York Times, the foil for conservative David Brooks. An economist at Princeton who defected from the Reagan dogma, he has written quite eloquently on the GOP's descent into climate change denialism, and political obstructionism and its embrace of discredited economic models.
Like too many other mainstream "liberal pundits," however, Krugman has failed to provide similar critical analysis of Democratic Party politicians. He has mockingly dismissed Bernie Sanders and his supporters on many occasions, backing Hilary Clinton in the 2016 race.
Krugman's April 1st column entitled "Learning from Obama," provides a defense of Obama's policies that shows Krugman to be out of touch with the struggles of working people driving support for the Sanders campaign and Donald Trump on the right.
Krugman lauds Obama for helping to pass the Dodd-Frank Bill, Obamacare and stricter auto-emission standards and signing of the Paris climate agreement. Obama's stewardship, says Krugman, helped reduce unemployment to below five percent and resulted in the gain of ten million private sector jobs and overall economic stabilization. The lesson of the Obama years, Krugman concludes, is that success doesn't have to be complete to be "very real. You say you want a revolution, well you can't always get what you want -- but if you try sometimes, you just might get what you need."
This worldview is comforting to societal elites who don't have to bear the direct cost of social injustices. They can feel good about themselves by moving slowly to eradicate, or purportedly eradicate, selective problems while preserving the system in which they enjoy great privileges.
In his recently published book Listen Liberal, journalist Thomas Frank provides a critical analysis of the Obama presidency that strongly counter's Krugman's defense. Fitting with the mentality of the Democratic Leadership Council which became ascendant after the defeat of progressive-populist George S. McGovern in the 1972 election, Frank argues that Obama and his inner-circle believed they were fit to rule based on their academic pedigree and professional success and looked down on working class people who did not go to top colleges like them. In their view, economic growth was best achieved through the promotion of technical innovation in business and "educational reform" especially charter schools and by extending student loans, not through traditional populist prescriptions which the Democrats had long abandoned.
After winning the historic 2008 election, Obama demobilized his progressive base and appointed many of the same elitist economists to manage the U.S. recovery who had pushed deregulatory policies like repealing Glass Steagall (separating investment and regular banking functions) that had caused the 2008 financial crash. Since the recession ended in June 2009, the country's Gross Domestic Product grew under their oversight by 13.8 percent, though salaries in that time have gone up a mere 1.8 percent, while the clout of labor unions continues to shrink. The African American community has been particularly hard hit despite supporting Obama overwhelmingly as have young people facing heavy student debt and bleak job prospects, resulting in a rising drug "epidemic".
In the pursuit of a grand bargain with the GOP, Obama as Frank points out sent an important signal by failing to prosecute any of the white collar criminals who crashed the economy. Like with Guantanamo Bay, he also broke his pledge to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which cost an estimated 700,000 American jobs since it was passed by Bill Clinton in 1994, and has pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which promises to off-shore many more manufacturing jobs, while primarily benefiting big pharmaceutical and other multi-national corporations.
With regards to the environment, Bill McKibbon in an article in The Nation Magazine entitled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry," details how a decline in carbon emissions resulting from the closing of coal mines and new fuel efficient cars has been offset by huge methane leakages. These have been caused by the burning of natural gas and fracking (involving exploding subsurface geology so that gas can leak through newly opened pores), which Obama has invested heavily in and endorsed as a centerpiece of his energy policy.
Obama has meanwhile presided over record prosecutions of whistle-blowers and an unprecedented surveillance apparatus that has extended to American allies. He expanded the international war on drugs and drone assassination programs and the Af-Pak war to seemingly no end. At the behest of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Obama at the same time participated in another war that destabilized Libya, and provided a record $60 billion arms deals to Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships and a leading sponsor of Sunni terrorism in the Middle East.
Krugman does not say whether being the "drone king," arming dictatorships and destabilizing Middle-East countries is part of Obama's great success. Perhaps he thinks that is the case. His worldview, which echoes the Democratic Party establishment line, only blames the GOP for blocking pro-active change, though with regards to Libya it was many GOP lawmakers who opposed the illegal war on constitutional grounds.
Barack Obama Jr. has to be sure faced difficult circumstances in his presidency, racist attacks directed against him, and Republican obstructionism unprecedented in the annals of the modern presidency. He has done numerous good things, like opening Cuba and signing the Iran nuclear deal for foreign policy, and at least acknowledges science and the need for regulation of the financial system.
However, any honest assessment of his presidency should acknowledge the considerable missed opportunities, back-tracking on campaign pledges, close ties to Wall Street and the so-called military industrial complex, and the abandonment of America's working class, which Krugman does not. That he is the main voice of "liberal" opinion in America's newspaper of record is thus highly problematic. The Times has generally failed its readers by failing to include a genuine liberal-populist on its editorial pages who recognizes that the corporatist bent of the Democratic Party over the last generation has contributed to marked social ills alongside the Republicans.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches history at the University of Tulsa and is author of "Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century" (Massachusetts, 2012) among other works.