For Democrats, Moving Past the Cautious Legacy of Barack Obama Is Necessary and Good

Politics Features Barack Obama
For Democrats, Moving Past the Cautious Legacy of Barack Obama Is Necessary and Good

In Democratic national politics, what follows might be described as the most uncomfortable discussion. It involves Barack Obama—a man who enjoys a sort of emperor emeritus status among the moderate wing of the party—and the nature of his legacy. To criticize Obama from the left is nothing new, but before now it has truly come from the left, and as recently as the presidential campaign and the primaries, to say a bad word about him in public was to take your political life into your hands, such that even Bernie Sanders had to wear kid gloves when criticizing some policy or another. The fact is that people saw—and still see—Obama as a transformational figure, and in many ways they’re absolutely right.

Yet in purely political terms, with an eye on policy and governance, he was a continuation of the Democratic modus operandi rather than a departure from it. If his victories were symbolic revolutions, they were not political revolutions. And now that a temporary victory has been secured in Congress and the executive, Democrats are taking the important step of coming to terms with that. A fascinating piece in the New York Times looks at the ways in which Democrats in power today diverged from Obama-era tactics in passing the COVID relief bill, especially in comparison to his own recession relief efforts during the 2009 recession. The circumstances behind the two bills are quite similar, at least in their outlines—in both cases, you had a massive economic hit, and a Democratic party attempting to respond with control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate. It starts right at the top:

Party leaders from President Biden on down are citing Mr. Obama’s strategy on his most urgent policy initiative — an $800 billion financial rescue plan in 2009 in the midst of a crippling recession — as too cautious and too deferential to Republicans, mistakes they were determined not to repeat.

The Times goes on to note that this is a “highly delicate matter in the party,” which is perhaps even understating the truth. Not only do you risk alienating the large swaths of the country who still view Obama as a liberal hero, but you risk pissing off Obama himself—an act that isn’t without consequences. But it’s part of a larger reckoning that needs to take place, because beyond the image, Obama failed at seizing the initiative from his 2008 victory, suffered massive losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterms as a result, and paved the way for the shocking ascendance of Donald Trump. It was a consistent record of under-performance, from the relief bill to immigration to every corner of his policy agenda.

Supporters of Obama frequently cite the Affordable Care Act, and that piece of legislation did indeed help people, but the legacy of the ACA is more proof of underachievement: With Jim Messina’s help, Team Obama neutered the public option before they even began negotiating, and then made concession after concession to Republicans only to put the legislation before the Senate to get a grand total of zero Republican votes. Considering the fact that they had the advantage in both chambers of Congress, it’s one of the foremost examples of unnecessary self-sabotage in legislative history. A mark of a great piece of progressive legislation is that it becomes so popular with the American people that nobody can take it away. As we saw when Trump took office, only a personal feud between him and John McCain stopped the Republicans from doing exactly that without any real interference.

All of Obama’s failures, especially over the first two years, stemmed from a myth which it seems like he himself believed—the myth of the reasonable Republican, and the myth of compromise. He and his staff still seemed to believe that he could become the transformational figure who cut through the partisan divide. In that belief, he completely misread the political climate, and the extent to which Republicans were—and are—committed to fighting a dirty war in which they give no ground, and in which compromise only feeds their agenda without pulling the country out of the firm right-wing economic grasp.

It was a lesson that he didn’t learn, and that Democrats themselves couldn’t internalize even after he left. Now, though, they seem to be getting it. Per the Times::

It also highlights the rapid change in Washington over a decade of partisan brawling. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden came into office on promises of unity and bipartisanship in the face of an economic crisis, but Mr. Biden is the beneficiary of a changed landscape in the party. Democrats are now more cognizant of Republican obstruction, less deferential to the deficit hawks and energized by a growing progressive wing that has pulled the party’s ideological midpoint to the left.

A quicker way to express that sentiment might be: Obama thought it was enough to win, while Biden and the new Democrats know that winning isn’t nearly enough. And for progressives, that should be music to their ears.

“I came of age watching Democratic governance fail me and fail my family,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the Times, and while that attitude might have prevailed among the people long before now, we’re finally seeing it creep into the halls of Congress and influence political strategy.

Of course, the knowledge that Democrats have arrived at a sort of “post-Obama” mindset is enough—it’s not something has to be discussed at length, and probably shouldn’t be. People need their symbols, and it’s also true that Obama’s lack of boldness once in office had a lot to do with circumstances that have since changed. He could have tried to end the filibuster, or push harder against Republican intransigence, but it wasn’t quite as abundantly clear at the time how bad it would get, or how to go about sidestepping the obvious obstruction. Today, it’s clearer, and the fact that Democrats seem to be avoiding any repetition of Obama’s mistakes means the often unwieldy ship of state is moving in the right direction. There’s no need for a big, public rebuke, and in fact it would probably be very stupid, considering all the people who still love him.

It was a given that someone like Bernie Sanders would “get” it, but the fact that Chuck Schumer is also internalizing it…well, that’s incredibly reassuring.

“Schumer spoke to the very real pain of delaying decisive action, which is a self-inflicted wound, I would say, for the party,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “Where you delay and you water down, and you just kind of hand Susan Collins a pen, to have her diminish legislation for months, just for her to not even vote for it in the end.”

Collins, of course, was one of the loudest voices in complaining that Biden wouldn’t work with Republicans during the course of this year’s relief bill, and to hear AOC skewer her by pinpointing her M.O. is great. It’s even greater to hear that Schumer agreed. For once, Democrats seem to understand the two most important lessons of modern American politics. First, that Republicans are an intransigent enemy—a group that cannot be negotiated with, and must simply be defeated. Second, that a failure to pass meaningful policies to help people will result in the same kind of midterm rout that Obama experienced in 2010, and which, you can argue, hamstrung the next six years of his presidency…after he hamstrung the first two himself.

The legacy of Barack Obama is one of symbolic change and political stagnation. His eight years were a time of deportations and border detentions and drone strikes and meager economic policy gains that were obliterated when he left office or only survived by an accident of political melodrama. It culminated in complete and abject weakness, with the outright rejection of his (very moderate!) Supreme Court nominee by Mitch McConnell and the refutation of his eight years by the American people with the election of Donald Trump. In terms of representation, it was a major turning point in America. In terms of understanding the nature of Republicanism, and in terms of pushing policies that would transform our country, he was the tail end of a failed neoliberal legacy that crippled America for decades and empowered the worst, most conservative forces in the western world. To turn the corner in that fight means recognizing the Obama years for what they were, and among the very positive signs for our future that we’ve seen since Biden took office, one of the best is that for the first time in ages, Democrats can clearly see the past.

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