What to Make of Barack Obama?

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama offered a powerful rejoinder to the Right by arguing that progressive reform fits firmly within the Founders’ vision of a strong country advancing the “general Welfare” and securing “Blessings of Liberty.” But does his rhetoric reflect the real Obama?

American progressives tend to have two conflicting views of President Barack Obama: one that he had good intentions but inherited a poisonous mess from George W. Bush and then faced partisan, even racist obstructionism, or two that he was always a phony with a great smile who turned out to be “worse than Bush.”

Of course, there is much middle ground in assessments of Obama among progressives as from other political perspectives, but some prominent critics on the Left have opted for the latter point of view and berate anyone who takes the more forgiving position as an Obama “apologist.”

In particular, critics of Obama’s foreign policy have viewed it as an extension of Bush’s endless “war on terror” and only a slight redesign of U.S. imperialism, rather than a struggle by Obama to change the direction of America’s militaristic state, albeit gradually, deescalating wars and elevating diplomacy.

For instance, Oliver Stone’s Showtime documentary, “The Untold History of the United States,” likened Obama’s expansion of Bush’s lethal drone program against suspected terrorists to President Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, both presidents inviting a reckless arms race, according to Stone. But is that a fair comparison?

Surely, the drone program raises troubling policy and moral issues, including the acceptance of targeted killings (or assassinations) as a routine practice of U.S. statecraft, an issue that Obama will have to address in his second term. (And one would have to be naive to think that assassinations have not been used by many presidents over the years, whatever euphemisms or middlemen were deployed.)

But drones simply don’t represent the qualitative change in warfare that nuclear weapons did. Indeed, the idea of standoff attacks by a military, i.e. firing from remote locations outside the range of an enemy’s reach, is as old as the catapult and has advanced through history from the longbow to artillery to aerial bombing to Cruise missiles fired from aircraft carriers far offshore.

It’s true that drones may be the most extreme application of this age-old military tactic – with strikes launched from the other side of the globe – but drones don’t compare with the introduction of nuclear warfare with its indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and the potential to exterminate all life on Earth. To put the two weapons advances in the same sentence is a bit like comparing Obama to Hitler, an extreme example of hyperbole.

Obama’s ‘Team of Rivals’

But there are other criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy that have more merit, such as why he failed to break decisively from Bush’s foreign policy after winning election in fall 2008. Still, that choice can be read in different ways: that he was too accommodating to the Establishment out of a sense of insecurity or that he shared its outlook.

The political reality that Obama confronted as a new President was that — even though Bush had been discredited in the eyes of most Americans — the Establishment, which had shared Bush’s eagerness for war in the Middle East, remained in place. The editorial writers who had promoted Bush’s Iraq War still dominated the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, from the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to the Times’ Thomas Friedman.

The major Washington/New York think tanks had padded their staffs with high-profile neocons, from Robert Kagan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution to Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mainstream Democrats, like former Sen. David Boren and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, mostly urged Obama to opt for continuity over change, and more often than not, the mainstream media, even liberal-oriented outlets like MSNBC, followed the lead of the pro-war pundits.

So, after winning election, Obama bowed to these paragons of conventional wisdom who were then abuzz about the need to apply the lessons from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Official Washington’s takeaway from the book was that the ever-wise Lincoln had surrounded himself with political rivals so he could benefit from their strongly held alternative viewpoints. And, in late 2008, Lincoln’s supposed blueprint was hailed as the way to build Obama’s new administration.

In the real history, however, some of Lincoln’s Cabinet appointments were political payoffs promised at the Republican Party’s Chicago convention of 1860 so Lincoln could secure the presidential nomination. Yes, Lincoln did cut political deals. And the national crisis of the Civil War may have tamped down the fires of ambitions within other “rivals.”

In 2008, the danger of applying that ancient governing template to a very different era wasn’t taken into account. The idea of Obama surrounding himself with powerful people who had profoundly different policy prescriptions was a recipe for trouble, since these “rivals” could – and would – sabotage him with leaks and other bureaucratic warfare if he veered off in his own direction.

But Obama – with very limited management experience – went along. To the applause of Washington’s pundit class, he retained Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he kept on Bush’s military stars like Gen. David Petraeus; and he named neocon-lite Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State.

Faced with this line-up of heavy hitters, Obama predictably got shelled in 2009 when he wanted only a limited escalation and withdrawal plan for the Afghan War but was pushed into signing off on a broad counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, an approach favored by Gates and Petraeus with Clinton’s support. The Pentagon denied Obama the more limited options he requested and then – facing leaks about his “indecisiveness” – he acquiesced to the Gates-Petraeus plan. He reportedly regretted his decision almost immediately. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Focusing on Bin Laden

Also recognizing the longstanding Democratic vulnerability of being labeled “soft on defense,” Obama authorized the CIA under his close ally, Leon Panetta, to refocus U.S. counterterrorism efforts on eliminating al-Qaeda’s top leadership, most notably Osama bin Laden.

That led to an expanded use of Predator drones hovering in the skies over Pakistan and other countries where al-Qaeda operatives were seen as mounting terrorist attacks against the U.S. mainland. Drone missiles killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen as well as other al-Qaeda operatives (though bin Laden was slain by U.S. commandos airlifted deep into Pakistan).

The drones raised a variety of serious concerns, such as the risk of making war seem easy and cheap. U.S. boots could be kept on the ground at home – with “pilots” handling “joy sticks” thousands of miles from the actual war zones. But this tactic of targeting groups of suspected terrorists did create political space for Obama to finish withdrawing from the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan — despite harsh criticism from neocons and other pundits.

Belatedly, Obama also began replacing his initial Team of Rivals. Gates went into retirement in 2011; Petraeus departed amid a sex scandal in 2012; and Clinton is slated to be gone early in 2013.

So, there are two ways to view Obama’s foreign policy: one is that he let himself be hoodwinked by the hawks in his Team of Rivals but is now quietly extricating the United States from a decade of imperial wars, slowing steering the ship of state toward a more peaceful harbor, or two, he is just the latest manager of American imperialism with plans to reduce military operations in the Middle East only to expand them in Africa and Asia.

A similar duality of opinion persists about Obama’s domestic policies. In 2008-09, was he so terrified of tipping the world into a global depression that he swallowed his anger and acquiesced to bailing out Wall Street, or was he simply the latest Wall Street tool to become President with the singular goal of protecting Wall Street’s financial interests?

Did he get all that was politically doable on economic stimulus, the auto rescue and health-care reform – in the face of intractable Republican and right-wing opposition – or did he throw the fight on behalf of special interests?

If you wish to be generous toward Obama, you might add that just as the inexperienced president was entranced by the Team of Rivals illusion on foreign policy, he stuck way too long with another Inside-the-Beltway fantasy: the notion that he could somehow woo “reasonable” Republicans into putting aside partisanship and help him address a moment of grave economic crisis.

His courtship of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was particularly painful as he kept thinking he had a chance with her on health-care reform when she obviously was just stringing him along. Yet, to this day, Obama gets hectored by the likes of the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd for not schmoozing enough with Republicans, as if playing poker with them on Wednesday nights would somehow lead them into bipartisan camaraderie the rest of the week.

The mainstream media continues to peddle this myth that bipartisanship is possible if only Obama tried harder, even when all the evidence indicates that the Republicans set out from the start to destroy his presidency and to deny him any achievements regardless of the toll that would take on the U.S. and world economies.

So, the fact that there has been almost no accountability in the Washington pundit class for a long train of failures has to be taken into account when evaluating Obama’s first term. If Obama had struck off in a radically different direction on foreign or domestic policies, he would have encountered intense resistance not only from the Republicans, the Tea Party and the neocons but also from the mainstream media and other parts of the Establishment. Whether he could have maintained his political viability in such circumstances is debatable.

Perfection vs. Pragmatism

In that regard, the long-term decline of the American Left also must be factored in. A common refrain that I hear from folks on the Left is that America has no Left, at least nothing that compares to the power on the Right to reach out to millions of sympathizers – via a sophisticated media apparatus – and rally them into action.

Instead of having the capacity to mobilize supporters to fight for politically achievable reforms, the Left now even shies away from offering specific policy ideas, as happened with the Occupy protests in 2011. Long-term marginalization from practical politics has contributed to the Left’s tendency to adopt the role of critic, acting as the avatar of perfection.

Giving his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama may have been speaking as much to the Left as to the Right when he declared: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

Indeed, the answer to the question – who is the real Barack Obama – may not present itself until this second term plays out and possibly not even then. Even though his speech on Monday was the most ringing defense of liberal government that the American people have heard in decades, there will still be those on the Left who doubt his sincerity and will surely find evidence of inconsistencies in his compromises.

But the truth may be that Obama actually does believe in progressive governance, that he saw his Second Inaugural as his last big opportunity to make that case to the American public. In his heart, he appears to be a reformer, yet also a pragmatist, recognizing the many impediments and obstacles in the political terrain where he finds himself.

Yet, after a first term in which he seemed to cede too much ground, Obama took the rhetorical fight to right-wingers in his Second Inaugural, challenging their claim to be the true protectors of America’s Founding principles, that they alone understand American “exceptionalism” and that they might even have to resort to armed insurrection against the constitutionally elected government of the United States to stop “tyranny” and “take back” the country.

To those delusions, Obama said: “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.

“What makes us exceptional, what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. For more than two hundred years, we have.”

Obama then made his case for continued reform within the constitutional framework: “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

“Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune. Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

“No single person can train all the math and science teachers, we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

Reversing Reagan

Thirty-two years ago, when Ronald Reagan declared in his First Inaugural Address that “government is the problem,” the United States began a radical shift away from the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the post-World War II “GI Bill” and Dwight Eisenhower’s constructive Republicanism – the key elements that built the Great American Middle Class and achieved an unprecedented level of financial security for many Americans.

Behind Reagan, a resurgent Right sped off in a new direction, convincing many white middle- and working-class men that their interests lay more with the rich plutocrats than with struggling minorities and underpaid women, that the real victims in America were Ayn Rand’s supermen whose economic dynamism needed to be “unchained.”

Thus, for most of the ensuing three decades, through lower taxes on the rich and deregulation of industry, the nation’s wealth shifted dramatically to the top 1 percent, the financial speculators prospered, the middle-class shrank and finally the economic “bubble” burst.

While Obama’s First Inaugural – and indeed his first term – concentrated on addressing the economic crisis, his Second Inaugural warned that now the United States must begin facing other crises, from global warming to gun violence to rebuilding the middle class to protecting important social programs for those in need. He said:

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. … We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. … We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.

“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other: through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. …

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Some pundits on the Right and Center immediately criticized Obama for taking shots at Ayn Rand acolytes like Rep. Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential nominee who complained about a nation of “takers, not makers” and the global-warming deniers who see a socialist conspiracy behind scientific warnings of climate change.

Skepticism and Rejection

But Obama also has encountered skepticism and criticism when he talked about finally bringing the last decade of war to an end. He said, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Then, in a reference to World War II and the Cold War, Obama added, “we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well. We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law.

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” It was a message that the neocons disdained and that many on the Left doubted.

Obama then wrapped up his Second Inaugural with possibly its most memorable promise, a commitment to advance the cause of justice and equality:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. …

“Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay.”

Obama then called on American citizens to create the political space so these necessary reforms can be achieved: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

The final measure of Obama and his presidency may not be just how well he lives up to the commitments of his Second Inaugural but how forcefully the American people insist that those commitments become real.