President Barack Obama in the White House situation room on May 1, 2011, watching live updates from the military operation that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Among those with him are Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (White House photographer Pete Souza)
Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?
Below is the 37th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, who retired recently as a major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.
Part 37 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”
See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21; Part 22; Part 23; Part 24; Part 25; Part 26; Part 27; Part 28; Part 29; Part 30; Part 31; Part 32; Part 33; Part 34; Part 35; Part 36.
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Most serious historians, especially academics, believe that accounts of recent events—particularly within 10 years of the present—are more journalistic than historical. It is for good reason that journalism has been called the “first draft of history.” As the “American History for Truthdiggers” series nears an end, it looks at the administration of Barack Obama, who left the presidency less than 32 months ago. Because so little time has passed, the essay below is more a brief, analytical essay than a comprehensive reading based on established, long-scrutinized historical sources and discovery of new information. It should be viewed as this author’s first draft of rather recent history. —Danny Sjursen
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Barack Hussein Obama. That a man with a black Kenyan father and a name derived from African and Islamic etymology was elected president of the United States seemed profound indeed. America’s legacy of chattel slavery and racial apartheid was such that only a decade and a half before the 2008 election Tupac Shakur would rap that Americans “ain’t ready to see a black president.” Nonetheless, Obama won—with authority—over his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. By carrying traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, Obama appeared to have forged a new Democratic coalition. Perhaps more important was the claim of some of his admirers that he inaugurated a new “post-racial” America. That would turn out to be only wishful thinking.
Without the utter, historical failure and (by then) unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration, due largely to the 2007-2008 financial collapse and the intractable, unwinnable Iraq War, a man with Obama’s name and skin color would never have been elected. Indeed, it might have taken many more decades to elect a black president. Such is the contingency of history. Seen in this light, Obama was as much anomaly as transformational. Never as progressive as his rhetoric, always the astute—and ultimately mainstream—politician first, and often fearful of appearing “weak” or providing ammunition for his intransigent Republican opposition, President Obama proved disappointing for liberals and tragic for the Greater Middle East.
Tribal America: Party Over Country and More of the Same
Obama entered the spotlight and rose to national celebrity almost overnight. A last-minute choice to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the then-little-known Illinois state senator (running for the U.S. Senate at the time) delivered a thunderous and articulate address. This new, young face of color inspired the audience with his call for unity in a time of partisan division. Those who divide the nation into red states and blue states are incorrect, he said, declaring, “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” The speech was indeed excellent. Yet, as Obama’s later tenure as president would illustrate, the young state senator himself was wrong: There were, and are, two Americas. The people, and especially their elected representatives, were and are tribal and divided. The result for the Obama presidency was often stalemate, infighting and rightward moderation of even Obama’s most modest “liberal” legislation. In other words, the 44th president’s domestic policy was fated to be more of what had come before.
Obama entered the presidency at the nadir of what was dubbed the “Great Recession,” America’s worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Decades of right-wing, hypercapitalist, free-market orthodoxy—combined with fiscal deregulation, much of it stemming from President Bill Clinton’s policies—had set the stage for that collapse. Nonetheless, it was Obama who was expected to pick up the pieces and who would have his legacy judged by his response to the fiscal free fall. As a relative newcomer and an ostensible outsider among the party’s “New Democrat” leaders, Obama had a profound opportunity to forever transform the American economy and stanch the growing economic inequality plaguing the nation. That this was not to be became clear when the new president appointed an economic team spearheaded by Wall Street-friendly Clinton administration veterans such as Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Rather than nationalize banks, “bust” monopolies and pass a true New Deal-style public works and massive stimulus program, Obama—partly due to partisan opposition, it must be admitted—settled on a modest stimulus, weak financial regulations, counterintuitive tax cuts and a taxpayer-financed bailout of the criminals atop the nation’s largest corporations. None of the company executives were punished, most received “golden parachute” bonuses and America’s flawed, radically rightist economy remained in place.
Next, though he had been warned by his staff that it was politically unpalatable, Obama decided to move for health care reform, a goal long sought by liberals. Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton had tried to achieve something approaching universal health care coverage for the citizenry but had failed in the face of fierce Republican opposition and the well-funded lobbying efforts of the lucrative private insurance industry. Obama meant to succeed where his predecessors had failed. Nonetheless, precisely because of his obsession with getting something passed in Congress, the president failed to seriously alter America’s broken health care system. Realizing that Republican opposition, and Americans’ fear of the boogeyman of “socialized medicine,” remained strong, Obama never seriously considered the single-payer, universal coverage system prevalent and successful in most of the Western World. Though European single-payer, government health care systems cost far less than the American employer-based system, and though health outcomes in the privatized U.S. system lagged behind those of its industrialized peers, Obama decided that only a hybrid compromise had any chance of passing Congress. Perhaps he was right, but the new president did seem to fold rather quickly, and utterly failed to sell the logic of single-payer, universal coverage directly to the American people as both cost-effective and inherently moral.
Posted by The non-Conformist