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The Obama Legacy’s Empty Spaces

Obama is not and never was in charge. No president is, in truth.

The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dearly for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes. To preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world, he is content to eat dust before the real masters who stand erect behind the throne.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Having endured eight long nightmare years of George W. Bush, preceded by the media-driven priapic frenzy of the Clinton administration, and bearing fully in mind the unvarnished calamity to come, it is safe to say without shame or hesitation that I will miss the presidency of Barack Obama. Whatever else he may be, the man is cool. He is funny. He is breathtakingly intelligent, and more subtle than a subharmonic beat you feel without hearing.

Only a fool or a bald-faced liar could claim the president lacks any accomplishments after his eight years. He saved the US auto industry, nailed down a tepid but very real global agreement on climate change, passed a health care law that allows many previously uninsured people to access insurance, signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and supported same-sex marriage, established relations with Cuba, commuted the sentences of more than a thousand victims of the failed “war on drugs,” placed a pair of non-Scalia justices (both women) on the Supreme Court, signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and all the while managed to run through the raindrops in DC without even the vaguest hint of scandal.

As a public speaker, President Obama rose to the occasion so often and so well that, for the first time in generations, exceptional political oratory became commonplace instead of rare, and that is something we are all going to miss in very short order. When he spoke words of comfort in my home city of Boston after the Marathon bombs ripped through us all — “This special place, this state of grace” — I loved him in that moment with a fierceness that is difficult to adequately describe.

Love is easy, however, when the band leader is playing your song just right. On that day, I needed those words and he delivered … but words are wind, as they say in Westeros, and winter has come. If the point of this exercise is to look upon the totality of the Obama experience, I am forced to fall back upon the judgment of Hunter S. Thompson written half a century ago: “It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer.”

There are many who will despise me for being so harsh, and many who will despise me for not being harsh enough. I guess that makes this the perfect argument: Like the perfect deal, it leaves no one happy. I’m not happy. Why should you be? How about, for a refreshing change of pace, we take this thing by the teeth and just tell the damn truth.

Let’s start with two areas of immediate import.

In August of 2014, President Obama stood before the world and admitted what everyone already knew: “We tortured some folks.” He delivered this staggering admission as a throwaway line before going on to tell us not to be “too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” because they were “patriots.” The message came through in vivid Technisanctimonious,” while those who actually did the torturing — by way of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “rectal feeding,” beatings, stress positions and other gruesome tactics — are “patriots.”

Mr. Obama had been president for six years when he made those remarks, and in all that time, not one single person — from George W. Bush all the way down to the meanest private at Abu Ghraib — was brought to justice for the crimes of torture and murder. It all just went away with a flippant “We tortured some folks,” but violence of such magnitude rarely disappears on its own. More often than not, it multiplies. Case in point: President-elect Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that torture will be back on the menu once he’s in office, and despots all across the globe are licking their chops at the opportunity to follow suit.

Not acting is also a decision, and in this case, the decision to let torture stand unpunished means that torture itself will not only stand, but expand. The Obama administration could have set a legal precedent by prosecuting the perpetrators. It chose not to, and so this corpse flower of a policy will bloom once again. This was not the hope and change we were looking for.

Then there is the matter of Wall Street and the financial collapse of 2008. President Obama and his administration did yeoman’s work holding the economy together after all the gaskets blew, and the recovery we have enjoyed since those dark days is not to be sneezed at. Yet that recovery is merely an accent in the symphony of financial fiction we labor under like so many cheese-seeking mice in an endless maze.

This is not Mr. Obama’s fault, of course, but it is telling that, as with the torturers, none of the Wall Street thieves who eviscerated the economy to their great profit were ever prosecuted for any of their crimes. A number of them, in fact, got pretty sweet gigs with the administration, and many more besides were looking forward to their own civil service sinecures upon the election of Hillary Clinton. They all got away with the heist of the millennium and walked off into the Manhattan sunset with cash falling out of their pockets. Exactly one bankster from that era was prosecuted — Bernie Madoff — and the only reason he got clipped was because he stole from rich people.

Again, not acting is also a decision. The worst people from that massive smash-and-grab robbery found out just how untouchable they are, because the Obama administration chose not to reach out and touch them. No legal precedent was set, no firewall erected, and now the chickens are coming home to roost with high-flying security clearances and brand new offices thanks to President-elect Trump.

Stephen Mnuchin, who made his fortune by illegally foreclosing on people, is about to be secretary of the US Treasury. Jay Clayton, who made his bones as a top-gun Wall Street lawyer for the likes of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, is about to become head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The foxes are not merely guarding the henhouse; they’ve been handed knives and forks. They are going for the loot, plain and simple, because that is their way. Charlie Pierce had the right of it when he wrote on Wednesday, “It’s not that we learned nothing from what happened eight years ago. It’s that the wrong people learned all too much, and they learned it all too well.”

In a nation willing to spend trillions of dollars on wars and weapons that don’t work, President Obama time and again bought into the nonsense “austerity” arguments proffered by the wreckers on the Republican right. Instead of shredding those decades-doomed trickle-down tropes for being the brazen lies they are, he accepted the premise and made Social Security and Medicare actually seem negotiable instead of sacrosanct. Now, like the rest of us, he’ll get to watch a Republican Congress destroy 75 years of progress because he failed to explain that we’re not actually broke, we just have skewed fiscal priorities. Not acting is a decision.

The dualities are weighty enough to bend the very light.

The president who warns eloquently of climate change while all but ignoring Standing Rock as he champions fracking and tar sands oil pipelines.

The president who promises transparency while stomping on whistleblowers.

The president who denounces terrorism while making new terrorists by way of the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people through his drone war.

The president who champions the middle class while peddling the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The president who wept after Sandy Hook but did nothing of any measurable merit to stem the tide of gun violence in America; when schoolchildren are slaughtered and nothing changes, the argument is over and the NRA has won.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner who sold more weapons to the world than any administration since World War II.

Is everything Obama’s fault, then? There are many who would like you to think so. Blaming him takes the onus off them — “them” being everyone from high officeholders to the news media to the many voters who seem to choose candidates the way monkeys fling feces at the zoo — but that is obvious nonsense. The man’s first day at work involved two catastrophic wars and a melting economy, hey, howaya, lemme show you how the phones work. Upon arrival, he was greeted with a campaign of GOP obstructionism that knows no peer in American political history. What is wrong with this country has been a group effort spanning generations, and anyone trying to lay it all on one guy is looking to sell you something.

More than anything else, I am grateful to President Obama for showing me my country. No masks, no happy, sloppy paint jobs obscuring the holes in the plaster, but the real deal. The election and re-election of the first Black president — touted properly as a transcendent moment in the annals of our history — was followed by a detonation of brazen racism that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Herman Melville, writing of the berserk Ahab in Moby Dick, described how the captain piled upon the whale “the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” That’s eight years of “Thanks, Obama” in a nutshell. This racism is as much a part of our national DNA as corn and Coca-Cola.

President Obama showed me something else, too, and herein lies the ultimate heartbreak. He is not and never was in charge of anything. No president is, in truth. The true power resides with the polluters, the war profiteers, the oil peddlers, the gun manufacturers, the insurance companies, the TV people, the stockbrokers and the bankers for the bankers. Mr. Obama had a thousand chances to upset the applecart, and each time he came down on the side of the moneychangers in the temple. He was never in charge when it came to these matters, in no small part because he chose not to be, and thus surrendered what power he may have had.

People are ready for genuine change. I remember the luminous faces in the crowd when Mr. Obama spoke on the night of his victory in 2008. In my own neighborhood, people were out in the streets dancing and banging frying pans together. Today? They’d stay indoors for fear of getting shot down by some hyper-militarized cop in body armor with an AR-15 his department picked up on the cheap from the Iraq War.

It comes down to this, one more time for emphasis: Not acting is a decision. President Obama had eight years to show his mettle, to disembowel the facile arguments of the far right, and time after time he lined up with the very forces that are tearing us apart. It’s hard to sell “change” to a disillusioned population that has heard too much empty talk already.

Missed opportunities. Opportunities missed by choice. We are all about to hurt, and that pain will be coming from those empty spaces, those squandered chances. Is it all too much to ask of one person? Perhaps. But then again, don’t apply for the job if you’re going to lie on the application form. Another Nobel laureate named Dylan can tell the president all about it:

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s alright …
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