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Obama Destroyed the Democratic Party

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SNA (Tokyo) — With his roughly 55% approval rating, Barack Obama will be leaving office as one of the most well-liked and internationally-respected US presidents in history. His administration has been remarkably scandal-free and he has unfailingly conducted himself with honor and dignity. Even when hosting President-Elect Donald Trump at the White House (a man who had hounded him for years with vicious and baseless accusations that he wasn’t even an American citizen), Obama awed onlookers with his graceful and constructive attitude. And yet, despite his enormous personal attractiveness, Obama has nearly destroyed the Democratic Party and done tremendous damage to progressive causes more generally.

The electoral facts speak for themselves. When Barack Obama swept to power in the “Change You Can Believe In” 2008 elections, the Democrats also retained majorities in both houses of Congress, riding the popular disgust with the failed Iraq War and the massive banking crises. But only two years later, in the midterms of 2010, Obama led the Democrats to one of their worst defeats in history, losing 6 seats in the Senate and a whopping 63 seats in the House of Representatives, which put the Republicans in a majority in the latter chamber.

In other words, even before the next six years of gridlock were to occur, Obama had squandered his first two years as President and his enormous personal popularity to achieve very little.

Obama handily won reelection in 2012, but his victory did little to improve the Democrats’ position in Congress. The bloodbath resumed in 2014, with Republicans picking up 9 seats in the Senate—gaining control of that chamber too—and another 13 in the House. When it was all over the Republicans dominated the Congress in numbers that had not been seen since the eve of the Great Depression in 1928.

And then, of course, came the elections this month. President Obama made little effort to disguise the fact that he supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primaries, even turning over the Democratic National Committee to a group of people who were effectively her surrogates. Again it proved to be the case that Obama’s relative personal popularity did not translate into electoral victory for the Democrats. Voter turnout among progressives plummeted, leaving Donald Trump and the Republican Party with a wide swathe of wins gained mainly because too many Democrats stayed home.

While Obama naturally does not deserve ALL of the blame for the meltdown, his own share in the debacle should not be minimized.

Fundamentally, Obama’s main fault is that he never really fought for a progressive agenda, but usually hung back and stayed well out of the fray. In his spectacular campaign of 2008, he vowed to “change the way Washington works” and positioned himself as the symbol of progressive values. His victory was historic, and tremendous hope was in the air.

But once in office, Obama quickly moved from the political left to the political center—and that’s where he would stay for the next eight years. He had promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prisons within a year of coming to office and to end the lawlessness of the Bush-Cheney regime. Instead, Guantanamo remains open today and most of the unconstitutional security policies have simply become the new normal. Rather than improving the economic position of working people, Obama left in place almost all of the Bush Era tax giveaways to corporations. After pouring trillions of taxpayer dollars into the major banks, whose greed and irresponsibility had precipitated a global economic crisis, Obama let all serious financial industry reform measures die in Congress. No banker went to jail despite massive evidence of illegal behavior, and the banks are bigger and their power more concentrated than ever.

Fans of Barack Obama may argue, with some justice, that the Republican Congress of his last six years was hostile to any sort of reform and would have blocked everything he tried to do.

But what Obama never did was to really fight for anything, with the partial exception of the Obamacare program. He didn’t use his bully pulpit to try to rouse popular opinion against those forces blocking positive reform, even when public opinion polls showed that most Americans were on his side. He also turned over the Democratic Party to the corporatists and the donor class, and occasionally even revealed his distaste for the progressive wing of the party upon whose hopes he had ridden to power in 2008.

Barack Obama will no doubt go down in history as a “good” president. He was sensible, decent, honorable, and moderate. But he can never be classed as a “great” president, because in an era in which strong reform was desperately needed by the nation, he simply didn’t step up. And because of his failure of leadership, he set the stage for Donald Trump and the wicked era that we are about to enter.

And, worst of all, now Trump and the Republican radicals have all of the tools of unconstitutional “national security” measures and voter suppression techniques that eight years of Obama non-reform have normalized for them.

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