A most consequential president

Update, December 22, 2019: Links to the original charts in figures 1 and 2 had become broken and so I have substituted charts I made following the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This elides a context in which labor market participation (figure 2) and the employment participation ratio (figure 1) remain at low levels.


So, we are to understand, because of the Iran deal,[1] re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba,[2] Obamacare, and alleged action on climate change and immigration, “Barack Obama is one of the most consequential presidents in American history — and he will be a particularly towering figure in the history of American progressivism.”[3]

There are some caveats that should be inserted there. Some of which Dylan Matthews, who authored that last quote, did indeed insert. He acknowledges that Obama “revived Clinton-style militarism in the Middle East, where periodic airstrikes and special ops missions take the place of Bush-style invasion and occupation. The drone war is a moral catastrophe, and the 2009 surge in Afghanistan was a mistake. And Obamacare “wasn’t single-payer; it lacked a public option, or all-payer rate-setting. And it still left many uninsured.”[4] I would add that the scale of Obama’s response to what is at least one of the most serious existential threats to human  survival.[5] amounts to recklessness.

But as much as I talk about climate change and its implications for our system of social organization,[6] when it comes to the problems of just getting through the day, Obama’s bank rescue, contrasted with the absence of help for underwater homeowners and the unemployed,[7] is consistent with his support for austerity for Greece.[8] In the U.S., the employment to population ratio (figure 1) and the labor market participation rate (figure 2) remain mired at 1970s to 1980s levels.


Fig. 1. Employment to Population Ratio during Barack Obama’s presidency, not seasonally adjusted, as of April 2017, inserted December 22, 2019. From Bureau of Labor Statistics data.


Fig. 2. Labor Force Participation Rate during Barack Obama’s presidency, not seasonally adjusted, as of April 2017, inserted December 22, 2019. From Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

This is no minor matter. Fixing this is what Obama was elected in 2008 to do as the economy was in a tailspin due to the financial crisis that began in 2007. Instead, Obama simply declared that “[w]e all know that there are limits to what government can and should do, even during such difficult times”[9] and left the job of putting people back to work to private enterprise. For me, personally, and for up to nearly 28 million people, according to my calculations, the failure of the economy to offer full-time work has been a catastrophe. And that’s before we even get to such issues as the absence of wage gains for the working and middle classes.[10] And while many of these problems have been developing since the adoption of neoliberal policy as a new orthodoxy in the 1970s,[11] Obama has only paid lip service to the problem. Most crucially, he continues to embrace neoliberal policy as with the TransPacific Partnership (TPP).[12]

And indeed, if we look at who benefits from Obamacare and the TPP, pharmaceutical companies stand out.[13] Just so we know who Obama is really taking care of.

As for the rest of us, we get to be spied upon and told we can compete with a world that works for pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, the U.S. government commits war crimes in our name.[14]

A major point that emerged from the Nuremberg trials was a principle that following orders is not an excuse for crimes against humanity. If even following orders is not an excuse, then complicity with the existing order is not an excuse. The ‘politics of the possible’ is inadequate: We have a moral imperative to stop this criminality.

And to the extent that Obama is indeed a consequential president, he has not merely failed to honor that imperative, he has ignored it.

  1. [1]David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon, “Iran Nuclear Deal Is Reached After Long Negotiations,” New York Times, July 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-is-reached-after-long-negotiations.html
  2. [2]Peter Baker, “U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” New York Times, December 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/americas/us-cuba-relations.html
  3. [3]Dylan Matthews, “Barack Obama is officially one of the most consequential presidents in American history,” Vox, July 14, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/26/8849925/obama-obamacare-history-presidents
  4. [4]Dylan Matthews, “Barack Obama is officially one of the most consequential presidents in American history,” Vox, July 14, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/26/8849925/obama-obamacare-history-presidents
  5. [5]Edward “Rocky” Kolb, et al., “Three minutes and counting,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 19, 2015, http://thebulletin.org/three-minutes-and-counting7938
  6. [6]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  7. [7]Neil Barofsky, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street (New York: Free Press, 2012); Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013).
  8. [8]David Francis, “Is the Greek Rejection of Austerity the End of Modern Europe?” Foreign Policy, July 5, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/05/is-the-greek-rejection-of-austerity-the-end-of-modern-europe/; Landon Thomas, Jr., and Niki Kitsantonis, “Greece Will Close Banks to Stem Flood of Withdrawals,” New York Times, June 28, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/29/business/greek-debt-crisis-european-central-bank.html
  9. [9]Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Economy,” White House, November 12, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-economy-jobs-forum
  10. [10]Patricia Cohen, “Jobs Data Show Steady Gains, but Stagnant Wages Temper Optimism,” New York Times, November 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/08/business/jobs-numbers-for-october-2014-reported-by-labor-department.html; Economic Policy Institute, “The Top 10 Charts of 2014,” December 18, 2014, http://www.epi.org/publication/the-top-10-charts-of-2014/; Richard Florida, “The Uneven Growth of High and Low-Wage Jobs Across America,” Atlantic Cities, September 27, 2013, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/09/uneven-growth-high-and-low-wage-jobs-across-america/6937/; Elise Gould, “Note to the Federal Reserve: It’s No Mystery Wage Growth Is Still Sluggish,” Economic Policy Institute, March 12, 2015, http://www.epi.org/publication/note-to-the-federal-reserve-its-no-mystery-wage-growth-is-still-sluggish/; Paul Krugman, “Fear of Wages,” New York Times, March 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/opinion/krugman-fear-of-wages.html; Sean McElwee, “Sorry, neoliberals: Inequality is driven by greed, not technology,” Salon, November 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/sorry_neoliberals_inequality_is_driven_by_greed_not_technology/; Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, November 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/technology-inequality-dont-blame-the-robots/; Catherine Rampell, “Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds,” New York Times, August 30, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/31/business/majority-of-new-jobs-pay-low-wages-study-finds.html
  11. [11]Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000); Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  12. [12]Jonathan Weisman, “Pacific Trade Authority Bill Wins Final Approval in Senate,” New York Times, June 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/business/trade-pact-senate-vote-obama.html
  13. [13]Peter Baker, “Obama Was Pushed by Drug Industry, E-Mails Suggest,” New York Times, June 8, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/09/us/politics/e-mails-reveal-extent-of-obamas-deal-with-industry-on-health-care.html; Emilio Godoy, “Pacific Pact – a Minefield for Health Care,” InterPress Service, October 8, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/pacific-pact-a-minefield-for-health-care/; Brad Jacobson, “Obama received $20 million from healthcare industry in 2008 campaign,” Raw Story, January 12, 2010, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/01/12/obama-received-20-million-healthcare-industry-money-2008/; Dawn Paley, “Tremendous Pharmaceutical Profits or Totally Protected Plunder?” Center for International Policy Americas Program, April 17, 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/9369; Gaius Publius [pseud.], “Obama Got $20 Million from Healthcare Industry in 2008. Was Killing Single-Payer Part of the Deal?” Naked Capitalism, February 5, 2014, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/02/gaius-publius-obama-got-20-million-healthcare-industry-2008-killing-single-payer-part-deal.html
  14. [14]Amnesty International, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” October 22, 2013, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/security-and-human-rights/drones/will-i-be-next; Human Rights Watch, “‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,” October 2013, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/10/22/between-drone-and-al-qaeda; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Compilation prepared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in accordance with paragraph 15 (b) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 and paragraph 5 of the annex to Council resolution 16/21: United States of America,” May, 2015, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/039/92/PDF/G1503992.pdf?OpenElement; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, United Nations Human Rights Council Rep. No. A/HRC/25/59 (2014).

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