Friday, October 8, 2010

Obama's Legacy

On the one hundredth anniversary of America's founding, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was asked to deliver a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln. As more than a decade had passed since the Great Emancipator's assassination, the memory of the bitter partisanship that had rankled his tenure had for the most part subsided. Thus Douglass shocked his audience when he reminded them of the once-dormant criticisms that had been levied against that president, using some of the frankest language in his rhetorical cache:

He was preeminently the white man's president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.

For this, Douglass was unsparingly critical of the Sixteenth President, pointing out his shortcomings on issues ranging from his refusal to punish Confederates who murdered and tortured black prisoners to his revocation of an earlier Emancipation Proclamation issued by General John C. Fremont (who also happened to have been the first Republican presidential candidate).

At the same time, Douglass recognized that Lincoln's limitations were due to the circumstances inherent in his profession. Because Honest Abe was a politician, his mind had been trained - through reinforcement from years of practicing his craft - to constantly keep a watchful eye on the prevalent views of the public. As such, his approach was to moderate his positions so that he could create as much meaningful change as practically possible without going so far that he risked alienating the public and being thus rendered politically ineffective.

This was no easy task, and often Lincoln's moderation resulted in a timidity that caused him to make unnecessary concessions to conservatives. He delayed the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation for far too long; he advocated that freed slaves emigrate from the nation which had been the only home they’d ever known; he frequently made overtures to the rebelling South that would have allowed them to maintain slavery provided that they peacefully return to the Union; perhaps more heartbreaking of all, he would often frame the ongoing conflict as being solely a battle for the preservation of the Union, piercing what many abolitionists and even moderate Republicans considered to be the moral soul of their cause. As such, it was only a matter of time before many of Lincoln’s progressive supporters soon resented him for being so quick to appease his adversaries.

Yet, as Douglass pointed out, Lincoln was attacked not just from the left, but from the right as well.

Few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was during his administration. He was often wounded in the house of his friends. Reproaches came thick and fast upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters. He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by the men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolitionist war; and he was most bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war.

As Douglass saw it, what mattered at the end of the day was the legacy that Lincoln left behind when the dust of his own era had settled. It was from this, he proclaimed, that Lincoln deserved to be hailed by progressives, abolitionists, and especially blacks as a true hero, for as a result of his actions…

... we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood... we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country... we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States... we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti... we saw the internal slave trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished... we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer... we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces... we saw Abraham Lincoln... making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more...

I mention this story because, twenty-one months into his presidency, Barack Obama is likewise assailed from every corner, receiving bitter charges not only from right-wingers (who are predisposed to claim that he is a dangerous radical regardless of the actual policies he pursues), but from liberals who believe he makes too many concessions to conservatives. While I have been among Obama’s liberal critics, I decided that it might be valuable for me to take a step back, as Frederich Douglass did, and assess the legacy of Obama's presidency from a more objective perspective (at least to the extent that any human being is capable of doing this).

When I made that effort, I was soon reminded of another quote from Douglass's oration.

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Virtually the same statement can be made about our current president: viewed from the genuine liberal ground, Mr. Obama seems tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he is bound as a statesman to consult, he is swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

It is easy to overlook this in October 2010, as Obama struggles with low approval ratings, impending midterm election losses, and a seemingly endless battle against high unemployment. Yet it is important to look at what he has achieved:

- He passed a stimulus package that prevented the economic catastrophe he inherited from further deteriorating. When he took office, the recession was so severe that unemployment had climbed from 5.7% in July 2008 and 6.6% in November 2008 (the month he was elected) to 7.7% when he was inaugurated in January 2009. His stimulus plan was passed in February 2009, and not a moment too soon, as the numbers from March 2009 (before it could begin taking effect) showed that unemployment had reached 8.6%, a rise of almost 3% in the eight months before Obama's policies. As a result of his stimulus, however, unemployment only rose another percentile before finally stabilizing, which it continues to do to this day. Consequently, the stimulus can be attributed for preventing the recession from turning into a second Great Depression (had the stimulus not been implemented, unemployment would be between 16% and 17% today).

- He passed the most comprehensive health care reform package since Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. This legislation provides insurance coverage to 32 million Americans, reduces the budget deficit by more than $1.3 trillion over the next twenty years, ends the exemption from antitrust laws previously granted to insurance comanpies, and eliminates various forms of injustice perpetrated by those corporations, including denying coverage to individuals with preexisting medical conditions, charging higher premiums on the basis of gender or preexisting medical conditions, establishing annual spending caps, dropping policyholders once they become sick, charging co-payments or deductibles for Level A or Level B preventive care and medical screenings, etc.

- He passed credit card reform legislation that will prevent many of the exploitative practices used by those companies on American consumers, all of which helped contribute to the current recession.

- He passed unprecedented regulations on Wall Street that will prevent the reckless financial practices which triggered the financial meltdown of 2008.

- He fought against Arizona's anti-immigration law which, if left unchallenged, would have codified racism into our legal system in a manner not seen since the days of segregation.

- He ended the war in Iraq, thus not only strengthening the morality of our foreign policy and improving our diplomatic relationships, but also fulfilling one of the central promises of his 2008 presidential campaign.

In short, Obama has achieved more meaningful positive change in twenty-one months than his predecessor did in eight whole years.

Does this absolve Obama of responsibility for his errors?

Of course not. Although he is drawing the war in Afghanistan to a close, his politically-motivated prolongation of that conflict is unnecessarily costly both in terms of financial resources and loss of human life. His health care reform bill, though a massive step forward, was unduly weakened by his premature jettisoning of the public option, as well as from a poor public relations campaign in promoting it. Finally, and most importantly, while the stimulus bill he passed was large enough to stop a further deterioration of our economy, it was far too small to create an actual recovery, thus leaving millions of Americans in a position of continued suffering and enabling conservatives to falsely claim that the legislation was entirely ineffective.

To defend Obama's achievements is not to ignore or even minimize these and other shortcomings. He is a politician, and like all politicians, his conciliatory and cautious instincts can cause missteps. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Obama, like Lincoln, is currently the victim of intense criticisms coming not merely from the inevitable partisan acrimony of his political adversaries, but from the bitter disappointments of his ideological friends. While it is impossible to accurately guess how Obama's legacy will be remembered years from now, when his accomplishments are the stuff of history textbooks instead of newspapers, the record is not nearly as bleak as many on the left currently perceive it.

Sometimes a little perspective can go a long way.

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