By Carolina Baum
Donald Trump didn’t wait until Inauguration Day to insert himself into U.S. foreign policy. He broke with precedent when he intervened to pressure Egypt to withdraw a draft U.N. resolution condemning Israel, and the U.S. to veto the final resolution.
At the same time, President Barack Obama is not going quietly into the night. He has used that pen of his to sign a rash of last-minute executive orders commuting the sentences of some prisoners, pardoning others, banning drilling off the Atlantic coast and in parts of the Arctic Ocean, and declaring 1.65 million acres of desert in Utah and Nevada as national monuments.
When he isn’t making mischief for his successor, Obama is busy drafting his legacy, which will culminate in a reprise of the historic moments of his presidency as part of a Jan. 10 farewell address in Chicago. (Why wait for others to assess your legacy when you can do it yourself?)
Obama is certain to relate his successes from the past eight years, including the enactment of the Affordable Care Act and more than six years of sustained job growth. Then there are a handful of things he would prefer that we forget…
1. It’s (still) the economy, stupid
The expansion that began in June 2009 has been the weakest since World War II, with real gross domestic product growth averaging 2.1%. At 7 1/2 years and counting, it is also among the longest on record. But it hasn’t packed much of a punch. Cumulative growth of 16.5% since the trough is well shy of the 38.4% increase during the 1982-1990 expansion and 42.6% from 1991-2001, according to the Wall Street Journal.
To be sure, the process of digging out from a financial crisis is more arduous than recovering from a garden-variety recession, as Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff chronicled in their 2009 book, “This Time Is Different.” And an aging population is curtailing labor-force growth, which in turn constrains how fast the economy can expand without generating inflationary pressures.
That said, fewer regulatory impediments would have encouraged new business formation, which increased in 2015 for the first time since 2009, and capital investment, giving productivity a needed boost. Stronger economic growth would have lured more labor-force dropouts back to the working world.
New signs of optimism emerged immediately following Trump’s Nov. 8 election. The stock market has been positively buoyant while consumer, business and home-builder confidence have all soared. Surveys suggest businesses are planning to increase capital spending.
That sense of optimism will need to be ratified by results, but the message to Obama is unmistakable: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
2. A Legacy of Ashes
Obama’s continued popularity hasn’t had much of a trickle-down effect. In the eight years since he was first elected, Democrats have lost more than 1,000 seats at the state and national level. Republicans now control 4,170 state legislative seats compared with 3,129 for the Democrats, an all-time low.
Republicans now hold 33 governorships and will have full control — governorship and both houses of the state legislature — in 25 states compared with five for the Democrats.
Democrats lost 12 governorships, 13 Senate seats and 69 seats in the House of Representatives during Obama’s two terms, highlighting “a devastation up and down the party across the nation,” according to The Hill.
A legacy is generally thought to be a gift handed down from one generation to the next. For the Democratic Party, Obama’s legacy is anything but.
3. Keep your friends close
At his year-end press conference on Dec. 16, which was short on questions, long on answers, Obama spoke about his response to the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee emails during the election.
He said that when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in China in September, he told him to “cut it out” in terms of the hacking.
Sorry, Mr. President, the world isn’t afraid of you and your empty threats. Eight years of leading from behind has left America’s standing in the world diminished, its moral authority compromised and its foreign policy in tatters.
The wars Obama inherited are still going on. The Taliban has made a comeback in Afghanistan. Syria is in shambles. And Secretary of State John Kerry has been so ineffective that no one even bothered to invite him to the Syrian cease-fire negotiations among Russia, Turkey and Iran.
If that isn’t wreckage enough, Obama broke with 36 years of U.S. policy by abandoning its ally Israel and allowing the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2234, declaring Israeli settlements, including the Western Wall and Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, illegal. It was a vindictive act that discourages bilateral negotiations and puts a two-state solution increasingly out of reach. Friends don’t knife friends in the back.
4. Divided we stand
Obama may have broken racial barriers when he became the first African-American president of the U.S., but his election did nothing to improve race relations. In fact, a majority of Americans (54%) say that race relations deteriorated under Obama, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
Obama’s efforts on behalf of African-Americans often backfired. Before he had the facts in hand, the president accused Cambridge, Mass., police officers of acting “stupidly” when they arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home in 2009. The police were responding to a report of a potential burglary, which turned out to be Gates trying to pry open his front door.
The incident divided the country: blacks supported Obama’s accusations of racial profiling; whites said he had played the race card. Obama’s response was to bring the parties together for a “beer summit” at the White House.
Obama has promoted the idea of a police force biased against blacks. He vehemently denied FBI Director James Comey’s explanation for the surge in violent crime and homicide rates last year as a result of the “Ferguson effect,” with law-enforcement officers pulling back from proactive policing following the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Chicago, Obama’s hometown, witnessed 762 homicides last year, the most in two decades, and 1,100 more shootings than in 2015. Obama’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the reason is the Ferguson effect, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald. What’s more, statistics show that police are three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white ones.
Obama is not entitled to his own facts. If he doesn’t want to talk to those on the front line, he should listen to those who do.
“As killings rose, police activity fell,” CBS’s 60 Minutes reported in its investigation of the “Crisis in Chicago,” which aired on Jan. 1.
5. That which must not be named
Radical Islamic terrorism. Obama has spent eight years deftly avoiding using those three words to call an act what it is. He has intellectualized his position by claiming the phrase “equates Islam with terrorism,” which is counterproductive to U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Instead, Obama prefers terms such as “workplace violence,” even if the terrorists in question pay homage to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State. A terrorist act provides an opportunity for the president to lecture the nation on the need for stricter gun-control laws.
Calling something what it is may not solve the problem, but avoiding it makes Obama look silly.
Everyone remembers the gilded setting, complete with Greek columns, that served as the backdrop for Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. Don’t expect the same pomp and circumstance at next week’s farewell address.
Unlike in 2008, when Obama was all about hope and change, the 2016 audience will have results in hand to determine if the hope was misplaced and the change worthwhile.