Originally posted on 10/18/2019
I first heard of Barack Obama in 1991 when he was finishing up at Harvard Law. That is because I became acquainted with Brad Jefferies, and told Brad that he should be the first Black US president. He corrected me, and told me it would be Barack Obama.
Brad was a man from what some would call “a disadvantaged background” in the South. This did not prevent him from winning a scholarship to Harvard for his B.A., joining the Navy and become a SEAL officer for 8 years (at the time, one of the few Black SEAL officers), and then returning to Harvard to go to law school. A strong Conservative, Brad had the strength of character to go through Harvard Law being constantly “hissed” by his classmates due to his political positions, but refused to conform to or be bullied by the fashionable Lefty intellectual currents at Harvard Law. He had the highest grades of any Black student in his class at Harvard Law and was invited to join the Harvard Law Review: when he discovered that his grades were just below the cut-off for Harvard Law for White students, he refused to accept what he considered an affirmative-action appointment (I disagree with his position on that, incidentally, but it gives the reader an idea of the man’s character). A mutual friend convinced us we should know each other. When I got to know Brad and told him that he should be the first Black president of the United States, he told me that there was another, a Black man who had gone through Harvard Law a year or two ahead of him, named “Barack Obama”. He said that Obama had already been singled out as the man who would become the first Black President, that it was widely understood his whole way through Harvard Law, which had strewn his path with roses.
In the late 1990’s or early ought’s I had an opportunity or two to meet Barack Obama in Chicago. That was because I was one step removed from Tony Rezco, a Syrian Christian who is tight with the Assad family. Rezco lived in Chicago, was Barack Obama’s money-guy in the Illinois phase of Obama’s political career, was jailed in 2008 for on fraud and bribery charges, and in 2011 was sentenced by Judge Amy St. Eve to 10.5 years on corruption and extortion charges. Last I heard, Tony was a-keepin’-his-moutha-shutta, as Syrian Christians know how to do (which is why guys like Assad use them as their money-guys). I had two invitations to meet Rezco and then-unknown Barack Obama many years before Obama emerged on the national stage, and declined.
Like most of America, I felt pride and excitement in seeing the US elect our first Black president. I did not vote for him (I voted for Ron Paul), and I had misgivings about Obama’s politics, which reminded me of the politics I used to come across in university settings in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. During his campaign there were three things that concerned me deeply. The first was his association with the bigoted ignoramus Reverend Jeremiah Wright (cf. “Sorry Guys, Jeremiah Wright Is Where I Get Off the Bus“, Ta Nehisi-Coates, The Atlantic, March 2008: “this would come off as bigoted to me”). The second came from Michelle Obama, when she said after Candidte Obama’s nomination, “let me tell you something — for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Yet these were actions of others, including a wife whose comment may be overlooked as excited carelessness in seeing her husband nominated for the presidency. But there was a direct indication that Obama harbored the political views that have come to dominate university life, and that was his comment about the American working class made while attending a fund-raiser in San Francisco:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not….And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Even Hillary Clinton called these comments elitist: “I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America… His remarks are elitist and out of touch.”
These three were strong signals to me that Obama ran in circles which harbored the kind of resentments that masquerades for political thought within elite circles in the US.
But most disturbing to me was that, on the campaign trail in 2008, while visiting Milwaukee, Candidate Obama said that we ought to be open to reforming the US school system with whatever works, even if that means school vouchers (which I heartily endorse and would have won him my vote). However, the next day his campaign issued a statement that when the candidate had said that We ought to be open to using anything that improves schools, even school vouchers, he had not mean to say that we ought to be open to using anything that improves schools, if it meant school vouchers. This backtracking was at the behest of the National Education Association (fully 20% of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are NEA members). Due to my support for school choice, the NEA have designated me their public enemy #1, and Candidate Obama’s politically expedient decision to favor their interests over the interest of Black schoolchildren such as those he was visiting in Milwaukee lost him my vote.
Still, on 2008’s election night I was on Fox Business, calling it along with a few other guests, including the extraordinary Charles Krauthammer (RIP). I believe that night, and in a couple of interviews in the weeks that followed, I responded to some sore-loser-ism on the side of the Republicans with words to the effect: You know, the fellow did not elect himself. The American people elected him. He’s our President now. That was and is my sincere attitude. That is also why I was extremely dismayed when Candidate Trump refused to acknowledge whatever outcome arose from the 2016 election (and why I have been horrified over the last three years, knowing what I know, and understanding that it amounts to historic sore-loser-ism on the part of Democrats).
How did Obama do as President? Americans should remember that we have an odd Constitutional structure in that the role of Head of State is united with the role of Chief Executive. Most countries divorce the two roles: in the UK, the Queen has her portrait everywhere and christens new destroyers, while the Prime Minister runs the government. In France the President is the symbol, and the Prime Minister runs the government. But almost uniquely, our nation unites the two roles in one.
Few presidents have done the first role well: Washington, Jefferson, arguably Lincoln (though half the nation disputed that), Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Reagan… and Barack Obama. He and his family conducted itself with extraordinary grace and class throughout his tenure. I thought Michelle Obama was an exquisite First Lady, and by focusing on the subject of food and family gardens, gave the country an illustration of how a model First Lady uses her position for good. His children also conducted themselves with class and dignity, and I wish them great futures (and am disgusted with the way some elements within the press search have sought to find fault with children going through the normal trials-and-errors of maturation into adulthood). I give President Obama (and his family) and A+ on the first role.
Regarding the second component of Obama’s presidency, my evaluation is decidedly mixed.
On the economy, a cardiac arrest was happening during the 2008 election season. Yet the heart was beating again by the time Obama took office, and the recession was over by two months into his term (q2 2009): I doubt even Barack Obama could take credit for that with a straight face. His decision to let Wall Street off the hook for 2008 (not a single person was prosecuted) was a terrible decision: nothing in his presidency shocked me more than his decision to give Goldman Sachs a hall pass (e.g., Holder told Congress that Goldman was “too big to jail”).
Switching metaphors, what Obama did regarding the economy was to provide Novacaine (fiscal profligacy and monetary QE’s) in a situation that needed a root canal. Novacaine is good when one needs a root canal, and I am glad the country got Novacaine, but as I believe Americans will understand soon, there are deep structural flaws in the economy that go back generations, and President Obama let “a crisis go to waste” by not addressing them. That may have been the last chance we had to avert what I am confident is on the horizon now.
We move from errors of omission to errors of commission when we note that a mere two months into his Presidency Obama tried to kill the DC school voucher program (“DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which enjoyed tremendous parental support), at the behest of the NEA who (I suspect ) feared the demonstration effect it was having. Secondly, not only did he try to “fix” the US medical system with a harebrained botched-up nationalization, he did it using a reconciliation loophole intended to make tiny adjustments to square two versions of a bill that had passed in the two wings of Congress: nationalizing 1/6 of the US economy was not a good way to solve the health care problem in any case, but doing so via a loophole rather than proper legislation was especially foolish. His declaration that he could govern with a pen and a phone (and extraordinarily wide executive interpretations of duly passed laws, for example, in the case of immigration laws) is not a good strategy for a President. The reason has been demonstrated by his successor, who early in his presidency undid with a pen and a phone everything Obama had done. These two examples (hijacking the 1/6 of the US economy via a reconciliation loophole, and governing through a pen a phone), are not illustrative of a man who respects the Constitution he once taught (which he did in a part-time, adjunct sort of way, as has been explained by Richard Epstein, the Dean of Chicago Law).
On national security, I think there is a fair bit to recommend President Obama at a tactical level, especially when it came to fighting anything Sunni. His preference for targeted actions by Special Operations forces against Sunni extremism shows an understanding of the effectiveness of such forces as opposed to large-scale commitments of US troops. Also, I share his (and the CIA’s) enthusiasm for Shia over Sunni in in the Middle East: in my humble experience the Shia and in particular the Persians (but not the mullahs, of course) are America’s natural allies in the Middle East. That does not mean we needed to abandon our Sunni “allies,” but we could put higher conditions on our friendship (such as, “Stop funding madrasas that promote extremism,” I write from Indonesia). Obama’s over-enthusiastic use of drones, and the news that he personally was managing the targeting, were both distressing.
At a strategic level, Obama’s decisions often led to disastrous results, such as his decision to abandon Iraq. President Obama’s offer to leave only 2,500 troops covered by a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) caused Prime Minister Maliki to reject it on the grounds that, We would take 25,000, but if you leave us 2,500 we will spend more time protecting them than any good they will do us. It was a fig-leaf to let President Obama withdraw on the grounds that the Iraqis would not commit to a SOFA (Michael Weiss has quoted a US General who served in the White House at the time, who claimed that the silly and execrable Ben Rhodes said of this words to this effect: If it works we will take credit, if it doesn’t we will blame it on Bush). Biden then visited Prime Minister Maliki and let him know that he could go gloves-off on the Sunni: soon every dawn in Baghdad was breaking on 50 new headless Sunni corpses in the streets, the Sunnis organized themselves into militias, out of which ISIS was born, against which a Shia Crescent solidified within a northern swathe across the Middle East, and a sectarian war in the Middle East such as has not been seen in 1,000 year was launched.
So in the Middle East, and in particular regarding Iraq (which was largely pacified and functioning when he took office), President Obama’s politicized decision-making snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Strategic blunders happen to us all. But the mechanisms behind Obama’s strategic blunders bear a disturbing common denominator. His management style was to concentrate power in the White House (hence his extraordinary expansion of the National Security Council), and within the White House, at his own desk (for example, in the drone targeting process). These decisions, along with his preference to centralize power in Washington on every policy decision imaginable, led me to see President Obama as the epigone of what Thomas Sowell (in A Conflict of Visions) calls “the Unconstrained Vision”. I am an adherent of the “Constrained Vision”, so in the end our fundamental visions of the world are so disparate that my judgement is clear: these mistakes of Obama are precisely what we of the Constrained Vision expect from our Unconstrained antagonists. They are the predicable errors of someone whose background has been intellectual rather than practical, for the things one learns when one deals not in words but in reality (and discovers the cost and difficulty of centralizing information, for example) is what makes one a holder of the Constrained Vision.
Like my criticism of President Trump, perhaps my deepest reservations about President Obama concern matters of race (though for different reasons). I expected more and better out of him. Certainly more and better was possible. The data on his disastrous impact on race relations is undeniable, per this Pew report (“How America Changed During Barack Obama’s Presidency”) published two weeks before the end of his presidency. As you can see, there was a swing of as much as 71% against healthy race relations during the Obama presidency (NB there have been police killings throughout this time period, and they have stayed remarkably stable: the thing that was different about the Obama presidency was the political response from the White House).
His actions regarding race remind me of something I experienced while employed by Warren Buffett. I found myself working with unions (which I should put on the list of “Things to write about someday”). In that period I learned that there were two types of unions: one was filled with guys who were often not much more than well-mannered thugs (e.g., Teamsters), but who were practical men with whom I could have productive relationships and do good business, and whom, when we were not threatening to kneecap each other in a parking lot, I liked (I even went to Vegas with some of the Hoffa crew once). The other kind of union was filled with men who wanted to talk about Foucault’s deconstruction of asymmetric power relationships: they were fools, and their knowledge of business amounted to trying to create as much antagonism between employees and the firm as they could so as to create a market for the product they were selling (antagonism-control).
On matters of race, President Obama was one of the latter types of union guys, and rather than healing the nation’s racial tension he antagonized it (again, the data above is incontrovertible). I believe he did so believing it would guarantee employment (i.e., office) for those like him selling a product called, “racial-tension-healer”.
So for his work as Chief Executive, I give him a “gentleman’s C+”. It would be lower if it were not for his constructive work calming the nation in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
So those are my reflections on President Obama. Setting aside the remarks made by him, his wife, and his Reverend, I like the man. Again, I give him an A+ on half his job. Once he became President I gave him a clean slate, and even when he advocated bad polices and did so poorly (e.g., his reluctance to get involved in the legislative process), I truly sought to confine my criticisms to his policy actions, but to respect him as our President.
I wrote both this and the earlier piece on President Trump because I imagine my own views on the two men may be a matter of interest to some eventually. And because I wanted to have this out and done with, for I suspect Barack H. Obama may have his own “teachable moment” someday soon.