Category Archives: Obama Administration

Has Obama Been Successful?

A friend of mine asked me a question that I think about all of the time. With less than a year remaining in his presidency, now is the time to start answering the question: Has Obama been a successful president?

I’m going to use the scale of A+ to F-.
With A+ being highly successful; C being moderately successful; F- being an abject failure.

“Obama would much rather be remembered as an extraordinarily intelligent president than as a great president but only of moderate capabilities. I really believe that – and that’s a problem. Ultimately, Obama needs to be right even if he’s not successful.” claims Ian Bremmer, political risk analyst, in a recent interview on The Charlie Rose Show.

I begin this blog post that way because I, personally, believe that Obama will go down as probably the smartest president, person-for-person, we have ever had. I think Obama is brilliant, well-read, and eminently modern as hell. However, Obama’s brilliance hasn’t translated into all that much success and has sometimes been a handicap.

As a leader: C

I do not think that President Obama has been that much of an effective leader. Parsing through Obama’s numerous statements and one can easily see that he is aware that he has failed to bridge the partisan gap, for example. Others may blame Congress but Obama has often commented that he considers this to be his fault because it is his responsibility. On all sorts of different issues, the president has failed to make his case to the country, and to Congress, that we should pass bills that accomplish specific goals. Obama has called for jobs/construction bills; carbon taxes; for Congress to raise the minimum wage; and to “do something” about guns. Moreover, Obama says not being able to do something regarding guns is his “biggest frustration.” I blame Congress for many if not all of the misfires but Obama could have done more to make his case. As far as leading regarding foreign policy, President Obama has helped improve our countries image while simultaneously decreased our trustworthiness. Reviewing comments from world leaders has most of them admitting that they don’t trust America. Citizens respond more positively: a median 65% of poll respondents in over 40 countries have “confidence that Obama does the right thing,” according to a Pew Research study from June 2015. I honestly think it’s more important what leaders themselves think because Obama has to work with them directly.

I give the president a barely passing grade as a leader and this is not good. Not good at all. The more I learn about the importance of leadership in my personal travails; at work; and at university, I am realizing that leadership is critically important. Leaders set a precedent for their subordinates and their peers. Obama trusts only a few insiders and he rarely meets with Congress.

On foreign policy: B

Grading on a curve because the president inherited a disaster and he became captain of a ship who’s foreign policy for over 60 years has been one of hegemonic dominance through coercion aligned with notsoliberal partners. In the past our relationship with military dictatorships has blemished our image and tainted our values. Rendition. Torture. Mass-spying and mass-collection of data. Participation in military coups over democratically-elected leaders. Funding groups that we now consider terrorists who we found acceptable as long as they were battling the Soviet Union. I could go on and on. The history of American foreign policy has left Obama with few options. As a realist thinker myself, I don’t fault Obama for not taking radical steps when he didn’t. I do fault Obama for taking radical measures, however, like the intervention in Libya which has produced another state that is barely staying afloat. At least this intervention wasn’t unilateral and was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), however

The “pivot to Asia;” the completion of the yet-to-pass Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the Iranian and Cuban rapprochements; and the Copenhagen climate agreement, the Obama administration have achieved some daunting and challenging successes.

I think Obama’s foreign policy moves have been sporadic and we do lack a strategy (There is an argument to be made that only China has a foreign and/or domestic strategy in the entire world.) Some of President Obama’s public comments have lacked self-awareness and lacked appreciation and patience of the average American’s views towards the state of the world. Overall, I am sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy with a couple of massive caveats such as the proliferation of drone usage which surely will make the world much more volatile. I don’t know if any other president would have made any better decisions with the understanding that too much change in a short period of time can be quite risky. Obama has been a risk averse presidency and that is understandable.

On his campaign[s] promises: C-

Obama has kept, according to PolitiFact, less than half of his “promises” to the country. However, if you count the promises considered “compromises on…” as “kept” then that number looks better with Obama either keeping or compromising on his promises at 70%. I don’t have much to add here myself; politicians do tend to try and honor their spoken words while campaigning, contrary to what the American public seems to think.

On domestic policy: C

The presidency in the U.S.A. is a defensive position. Congress has the power of the purse and our judicial system gets the last word regarding the Constitution. Obama has offered a rather status-quo preserving budget throughout his presidency. That said, let’s review the lay of the land.

Civil rights issues such as gay marriage has progressed positively. Obama is on the record on supporting LGBT equality through the law. Climate change mitigation has been caught up in the courts but, programmatically, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) has organized itself based on prevailing scientific understanding.

The military budget keeps growing, in dollar amount, and Obama hasn’t reigned in any abuses regarding civil liberties. Obama has also codified, supported and widened just what we call classified and secret; executive overreach to some; national security imperative to others.

Obama’s big two focuses in 2009-2010 were, first, rescuing the economy from the Great Recession and, second, passing comprehensive health care reform.

Official unemployment has dramatically improved from 7.6% in January 2009 to 4.9% in February 2016. However, income gains have mostly gone to the 1% while the average worker’s wages are stagnant. Money to help foreclosed Americans largely never came and the banks are now bigger – though arguably not as risky – than ever.

The average health care cost, per policy, has decreased. According to the Congressional Budget Office, as reported by The New York Times, “the cost of insuring people will be substantially lower than the budget agency expected when the law was passed. It now estimates that the cost will total $465 billion in 2016-19, which is 25 percent less than its original estimate.” Health care reform has had mixed results. Some Republican-led states are not making it any easier.

Race relations have worsened under Obama. I don’t blame Obama for this but it needs to be mentioned, at least. In fact, I attribute this on the history of white supremacy and the current response of millennial activists reminding white Americans of historical and contemporary problems. Passionate opinions have split the country and Trump and Sanders can largely be seen as Americans picking sides regarding identity politics.

Overall: C

I think President Obama has been moderately successful. I think history will judge him positively especially when we realize that this was the beginning of massive change due to mass empowerment/disruption tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and all sorts of globalized channels, institutions, and ideas. Could someone have done a better job than Obama in this polarized and partisan environment? I don’t know. We can’t know.

For all intents and purposes, I think Obama will go down historically as a good but not great president. Was he successful? At times and in some ways, yes. I rank President Obama as moderately successful.

Illustrative Example of Obama’s Foreign Policy

I like illustrative examples; specific actions that can symbolize an entire….administration, or decade, or era, or an individuals temperament, for example. Here is good example of what I’m talking about regarding President Obama’s Syrian dilemma. In 2012:

“Obama did ask his military and intelligence chiefs to come up with plans to speed history along, and in the summer of 2012, CIA Director David Petraeus laid out a scheme to arm a group of “moderate” Syrian rebels. The plan, which Petraeus had formulated with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan and a few other Arab security chiefs, called for shipping small arms, mainly rifles, to a small, select group of the Syrian opposition. …The plan had the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Joints Chiefs of Staff. But the president rejected it.

“This was not a winning argument with Obama: he was looking for something that had a chance of succeeding in the near term, and he did not want skin in a game played in the quagmire of a sectarian civil war. While Petraeus was working up the plan, Obama asked the CIA to produce a paper on how often in the past U.S. arms had succeeded in helping rebels oust hostile governments. The answer: not very often. That sealed the case.”

Fred Kaplan, in an well-written essay of Obama’s foreign policy dichotomy between theory and practice, mentions that Obama was worried that this would also drag Iran more into the mix. Kaplan argues that Obama’s preferred tools were – “words, logic, persistent questions, and sequential problem solving.” In a world like this one: good luck, Mr. President.

In 2014:

“In any case, two years later, Obama approved a similar plan. However, when the American-backed rebels started racking up victories on the battlefield and appeared to be closing in on Assad, Obama’s prediction of what would happen next came true: the Iranians redoubled their support for Assad, sending Quds Force soldiers to fight the rebels. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing the loss of Moscow’s sole outpost outside the former Soviet Union, sent tanks, planes, and missiles to support the Syrian army.”

Obama’s foreign policy motto could be: In any case.

This isn’t an attack on President Obama, by the way, more of an assessment on the difficulties of making decisions in an anarchic world. It has been repeated, like a mantra, that in politics, your choices are all horrible. This also illustrates the outsider/insider bias/dichotomy. Outside and without any power, it’s easy to condemn and to say you would have done X over Y if you were in power. Inside: you must make a decision based on imperfect information and the possible black swans, or simple spillover effects, are unknown.

A Brief Primer on: US Drone Strikes

HuffPost going hard: “A Drone Program That Has Killed Hundreds Of Civilians Finally Killed Some That The White House Regrets,” by Jason Linkins and Ryan Grim.

What follows is some of my thoughts and info that I am aware of regarding drones.

American drone strikes are something that we as a nation do not like to really talk about. We have conducted at least five confirmed drone strikes in 2015 alone. In 2014: 22 confirmed drone strikes (New America, 2015). Moreover, according to PEW and Gallup, Americans tend to support an aggressive foreign policy regarding potential terrorists around the world. To many this debate is over: the U.S. can and should do whatever it takes in this ever-expanding power-vacuum-creating War on Terror. So what if this (or these, potentially) “kill list(s)” grows and grows. What’s the worst that could happen?

In the wake of 9/11, fear became – once again – a dominant political and social force. A ontological phenomenon, if I may say so myself. It’s often been said that a scared population tends to value security – or what they’re being sold as security – over civil liberties, or human rights, for example. History abounds this notion. But does the public and the government, even know who we are killing?

“We’re in a new kind of war,” claimed then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice shortly after America’s first drone strike; which was conducted in 2002 in the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen (Scahill, 2013). Rice would go on to be a persistent vocal supporter of setting us this targeted killing regime. Many critics of drones see them as extra-judicial executions in violation of international human rights law. And by critics I mean everyone from constitutional law scholars, the United Nations, civil liberty and human rights groups, and every day Pakistani, Yemeni, and American citizens. Opponents of drone strikes have well….really good arguments, all around.

The U.S. government has used drones strikes that have killed thousands of people in this last decade during our “War on Terror.” This is on top of the millions of total casualties in the Iraq, Pakistani, and Afghanistan military adventures since 2002 in what can properly be called total war. There has been award winning documentaries produced about our expanded global war that two subsequent administrations, the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration, have started and escalated, respectively. Since Obama, we are now conducting military and intelligence operations in over 100 countries and drone strikes are being conducted by the military and by the CIA. The Obama administration has even constructed a secret air base in Saudi Arabia, to conduct drone strikes(Scahill, 2013).

It is terribly important that the public knows that 8 American citizens – confirmed by the state – have been killed in drone strikes so far. It’s also surreal that, as professor Micah Zenko, currently the Douglas Dillon fellow in the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) writes: “The United States simply does not know who it is killing” (ForeignPolicy, 2014). Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with warheads that drop Hell Fire missiles on people in the likes of Pakistan, Somalia (East Africa Al Qaeda cell), Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq. Jeremy Scahill writes about how CIA agents, after the aforementioned first strike in Yemen in 2002, “went to examine the aftermath of the strike and to obtain DNA samples from the dead.” Post-mortem is when we really start caring about identifying just who we are killing. Sometimes we drop a bomb on wedding parties. In Somalia, “AC-130 attacks resulted in a shocking number of Somali civilians being killed,” illuminates Scahill. Oxfam warns that the U.S. is ignoring the international mandate to distinguish between military and civilian targets (Scahill, 2013). We don’t know who we are killing, and it honestly doesn’t seem like we really care. Former White House Press Secretary and now MSNBC correspondent, Robert Gibbs is on record saying of one drone victim that he should have had a better father if he didn’t want to be killed by a drone strike in Yemen (Friedersdorf, 2012).

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued many “white papers” with their legal justification for what they do. They often point out that high-level al-Qaeda and affiliate group members are who is targeted. Moreover, the U.S. does not consider drone strikes to be assassinations; they consider them to be “conducted according to the ‘law of war principles’“ (Isikoff, 2013) as well. Media reports paint a different picture: CNN reported on the fact that “a White House evaluation of drone strikes in summer 2011 found that ‘the CIA was primarily killing low-level militants” (Bergen and Rowland, 2012). As “The Civilian Impact Report” issued by the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School in conjunction with the Center for Civilians in Conflict eloquently states: “When the scope of who may be targeted enlarges, the chance that civilians will be caught in the crossfire increases” (2012). The U.S. military and the CIA often do not completely know who they are killing when they issue drone strikes. This has humanitarian implications. This has legal and constitutional implications.

I appreciate the Huffington Post responding this way: A recent drone strike killed two Western hostages, once from Italy and one from the United States, and suddenly we feign concern regarding strikes that have killed thousands of people, including 16 year old Colorado-born Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of the once moderate turned radical jihadist cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. He, too, was killed in an earlier drone strike. (Samir Khan as well.) I’m not saying these former two aren’t horrible people who wanted to kill American civilians; they are and they did. I’m saying that it’s way more complicated and grey than that. I’m saying that this drone issue is a crisis and we as a country really need to understand what is going on. I’m saying that at least 172 children have been killed

Seriously, if you have devoted little time to our disastrous foreign policy, I highly recommend reading Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill and also watching the documentary version as well. Chomsky has been great on this issue too; Zenko has been critical and informative as well.

Other quality sources to learn about U.S. counter terrorism (CT) policy: Brookings, CATO, Helene Cooper & Mona El-Naggar, Dissent, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been an invaluable source as well. New America has compiled good data. The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School has studied the issue; “The Civilian Impact of Drones,” is one of their most substantive publications regarding them.

Hope this was kind of informative and I hope the hyperlinks can set you in a good direction to learn more about this.