Living in a free society means many things, and I won’t pretend that the US is absolutely free, but a cornerstone of the democratic values we would like to think we hold dear is free speech. As such, the Democratic candidates have every right to criticize who they want, even if that means the party’s patron saint, Barack Obama. In this sense, we are different from the Republicans who act as if the sun rose and set on racist Ronald Reagan’s ass. While no one will say that those who are critical of some of Obama’s policies do not have a right to speak their mind, they advise it is politically stupid because Trump will use their words against the Democrats come the general election.
No question about it, Barack Obama was the best president in my lifetime. While I take issue with some of his policies – increased deportations, bailing out Wall Street instead of Main Street, installing a pro-charter school secretary of education – probably others but those are the main ones, I think he is a decent human being who tried his best. To paraphrase John Edwards, “Anyone who runs for president has a big ego,” but Obama seemed to be genuinely motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, not power.
I also think that when we look at Obama’s record or any other president, we have to look at the time in which they served. This is not an excuse. Slavery was wrong, and no president before Lincoln should get a pass for not doing everything in their power to end it. The same is true of denying LGBTQ+ equal rights and protection. Human rights are universal and anachronistic. Obama might have squandered the first two years of his presidency when the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, but after that, he was dealing with a GOP controlled congress lead by a Mitch McConnell who put white supremist goals above country. Still, my aforementioned problems were executive decisions and as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.”
If Obama were running for president today, he would probably be for Medicare for All, which is sort of what he envisioned when he wanted a public option (which many Democrats were against), a form of a Green New Deal, lowering the cost of higher education and criminal justice reform. But he’s already had his shot. If we look back at his presidency, there were a lot of good things: the imperfect but monumental Affordable Care Act, eventually championing LGBTQ+ equality, the Dream Act, appointing two brilliant female supreme court justices, modest criminal justice reform and taking small but meaningful steps to fight climate change. Should the Democratic candidates talk more about this, health care especially? Probably. Biden, who has cast himself as the heir apparent to Obama, has taken the mantle here, saying that the Democrats should build on what’s there, or what’s left of it after two and a half years of Trump and politically, it’s a wise move. So is being in favor of Medicare for all but allowing private insurance to continue. It’s not a position I agree with – the insurance companies are greedy fuckers who should be put out of business – but I am concerned that politically this stance could cost the Democrats.
The most aggressive criticism has come from Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, the two African-American candidates. Their main issues with Obama’s legacy, deportations and criminal justice, disproportionately impacted people of color. Other Democrats – white and people of color – have in return criticized them. Is it easier for them to call Obama out than it is for their white counterparts? People who belong to a marginalized group are allowed to be more critical of one another than outsiders. Some white candidates might have similar qualms but for a number of reasons, his popularity probably being the main one, are hesitant to publicly lambast or even casually lay blame on Obama for his shortcomings. Yet there is also a bit of political opportunism going on here. Both Booker and Harris know that Biden enjoys widespread support in the African-American community. Will discrediting the president he served win their support or, if Biden is the nominee, decrease voter turnout among people of color?
Given the moment we’re in, taking stock of Obama’s record is important so that if the Democrats take back the presidency in 2020 we don’t repeat the same mistakes that gave us Trump. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders haven’t named Obama, both point to a history of economic policies that favor the rich. Their criticisms are less personal as Obama was just one in a line of many since George Washington. And if Biden were not running, Harris and Booker might not have gone for the jugular.
Here’s the thing. The Republicans were much more of a clown car during the summer of 2015 than the Democrats are now. I don’t think criticizing Obama at this stage is going to make that much of a difference a year from now. People have short memories. Any criticisms that Harris or Booker level to weaken Biden will be used by Trump regardless. He will remind people that it was he who signed a criminal justice reform bill, nevermind everything else he’s done to put people of color at greater risk. Whether the nominee is Biden, Harris, Warren, Booker, Sanders or anyone else, Trump is going lie, manipulate and employ any and every possible weapon and the Democratic party and candidate better be thoroughly prepared and figure out how to strike back.
We can criticize Obama’s policies that are out of step with Democratic concerns in 2019 but should be careful about how we frame our gripes. Biden can say that the Obama administration planted the seeds for equitable health care and a fairer criminal justice system and propose progressive next steps. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren are gifted communicators. Neither one of them has taken a shot at Obama (that I know of), but they can still say that they will pick up where Obama left off when it comes to health care, the environment and immigration, realizing that the country, not just the Democratic base, has moved sharply to the left since 2016. Airing dirty laundry in public is a tricky business, but that’s politics. My guess is that no one is more aware of this than Barack Obama.
Flavelle, Christopher. (8/8/19). Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns. The New York Times.
Ransby, Barbara. (8/8/19). The Squad is the Future of the Democratic Party. The New York Times.
Solnit, Rebecca. (4/30/19). Unconscious Bias is Running for President. Literary Hub.