I used to be a conservative. Over a decade or so, I became a moderate who saw much more value and effectiveness in a position that embraced the best of libertarian, conservative and liberal perspectives and policies. Dedicated advocates of those three rich streams in American political culture and philosophy will benefit considerably by recognizing the insights, contributions and disagreements in each other and choose to cooperate and negotiate. Extreme conservatism has been dominating a lot of political decisions in America since President Reagan’s term (whom I agree and disagree with on various points). It’s gone much too far. Extreme libertarianism is an idealistic mythology of unending freedom disconnected from the real limits regarding how basic human psychology, economics, natural resource management and sociology can actually function. Extreme liberalism can create the kinds of communist societies that Fox News tells us every day are encroaching or have already ingrained themselves into American life. The word “fearmongering” may get thrown around too often for particular people’s tastes, but some or a lot of it *is* going on here.
I have a hard time empathizing with the apparent hatred and worry that a large portion of conservatives have toward socialism (even though they almost always want to keep their medicare, social security, business subsidies, etc.). Among a wide range of degrees, all modern industrialized nations utilize both socialist and capitalist economic models (including countries with a communist history like Vietnam, China, Russia, Laos, Cuba and North Korea). This combination can work very well as long as both systems are arranged to hold each other in check and allowed to contribute their multiple strengths toward the overall health and productivity of the society. Socialism ought not to be a threatening and suspicious word in the minds of conservatives just as capitalism doesn’t have to feel like a guaranteed symbol of oppression and abuse to liberals. We should be wary of extreme forms of either method and practice diligence in developing the best socioeconomic systems. Otherwise, we can feel reasonably safe to freely engage the opportunities available without dramatic apprehension.
With all of that said, I think that most people can recognize that there have been significantly positive and negative aspects of Barack Obama’s time in office, as goes with all presidents – with some clearly being more successful than others. Unfortunately, so much fearful and distortive propaganda has been distributed regarding this president that very few people know what he has actually said and done during his administration. As is often common in politics, two very partisan narratives about Obama’s performance in office are prevalent in America and they provide a somewhat balanced or at least polarized look at this topic. One presents accomplishments and the other brings up failures. Of course, each action or event described might be effectively re-interpreted in a remarkably different way with additional evidence and commentary that either side might not be willing to include. The animosity against Obama, however, seems to be at least as high as any other president in the past half century or more. This distaste for the man and his viewpoints, arguably not understood well in the populace, was in place long before he had a chance to make mistakes or produce great results as president. An outside observer could easily assume that his opponents would not give him credit for an achievement even if it was something they had long advocated for. Nothing he could do would be acceptable to them. As many Republicans said during his first term, their hope was for the administration to shipwreck – the president’s political agenda was so heinous and disastrous that only all-out rejection of his intentions would be acceptable – absolutely no compromise. Long gone was the Reagan era and preceding times when Republicans were willing to make deals in which they didn’t get everything to line up with their philosophy. Famously, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” When that is the main target of their efforts, one could logically wonder how much energy and willpower they would have left for governing the country and negotiating with Democrats to pass new laws as needed. They went so far as to shut down the government instead of compromise with him on policy. Is it really true, as some liberals assert, that Republicans want Obama to fail more than they want America to succeed? I don’t have a definitive answer for that, but they do appear excessively committed to undermining Obama on virtually everything he attempts. They have a perception that he is a radical left-wing aspiring monarch and the rest of the world largely sees him and his actions as being moderate by international standards. A 2014 Pew Research Center global public-opinion poll showed that outside Middle Eastern countries, where resentment of decades of U.S. intervention is high, nearly all surveyed like President Obama. In response to this study, The Economist pointed out, “The hope that having Mr Obama in the White House would transform America’s image has largely come true.” The Pew document explained:
“The election of Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. president in 2008 was widely approved around the world, leading to high expectations for the new American leader. His election also coincided with a dramatic jump in favorability of the United States, promising an end to the anti-Americanism that had plagued much of Washington’s relations with the rest of the world for several years….Today, Obama remains largely popular in much of the world, except the Middle East. Half or more of the public in 28 of 44 countries surveyed has confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs. And his median positive rating is 56%. In most nations the public’s assessment of Obama’s performance is largely unchanged since 2013. His image has dropped by double-digits in five nations – Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Russia and Japan. But it has risen appreciably in Israel and China….Western Europeans’ views of Obama remain fairly positive.”
“President George W. Bush’s popularity in the United States has sunk to the level of Richard Nixon’s just before he resigned from office. The president’s standing abroad is still worse….In 2008, the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked citizens of 24 countries whether they could count on Bush to do the right thing regarding foreign affairs. Majorities in only three (India, Nigeria, and Tanzania) said they had a lot or some confidence….On the other side of the ledger, majorities in 19 of the 24 countries had little or no confidence in the American president. In the four Western European countries surveyed, majorities without much confidence ranged from 81% in Britain to 88% in Spain. In the Middle East, majorities rose as high as 89% in Turkey and Jordan. Since 2003, confidence in Bush has fallen in eight of the 14 foreign countries where trend data are available. In the remaining six countries confidence has remained relatively low.”
A large portion of the international community views the Republican Party as being more on the fringe than ever before, inviting their conservative impulses to reach the maximum setting. Developing a fair-minded evaluation in this context can be very difficult, but it’s worth pursuing.
In Washington Monthly magazine’s March/April 2012 issue, three researchers produced a list of what they saw as Obama’s top 50 accomplishments:
Passed healthcare reform, passed the stimulus, passed Wall Street reform, ended the war in Iraq, began drawdown of war in Afghanistan, eliminated Osama bin Laden, turned around U.S. auto industry, recapitalized banks, repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, toppled Moammar Gaddafi, told Mubarak to go, reversed Bush torture policies, improved America’s image abroad, kicked banks out of federal student loan program and expanded pell grant spending, created Race to the Top, boosted fuel efficiency standards, coordinated international response to financial crisis, passed mini stimuli, began “Asia” Pivot, increased support for veterans, tightened sanctions on Iran, created conditions to begin closing dirtiest power plants, passed credit card reforms, eliminated catch-22 in pay equity laws, protected two liberal seats on the U.S. Supreme Court, improved food safety system, achieved new START treaty, expanded national service, expanded wilderness and watershed protection, gave the FDA power to regulate tobacco, pushed federal agencies to be green leaders, passed fair sentencing act, trimmed and reoriented missile defense, began post-post-9/11 builddown, let Space Shuttle die and killed planned moon mission, invested heavily in renewable technology, crafting next-generation school tests, cracked down on bad for-profit colleges, improved school nutrition, expanded hate crimes protections, avoided scandal, brokered agreement for speedy compensation to victims of Gulf Oil Spill, created recovery.org, pushed broadband coverage, expanded health coverage for children, recognized the dangers of carbon dioxide, expanded stem cell research, provided payment to wronged minority farmers, helped South Sudan declare independence, killed the F-22.
And for a super in-depth list, see “A List of 400 Accomplishments by President Obama so far…With Citations”.
The meant to be scary warnings of America’s “soon coming demise” put forward by many far right-wing leaders did not come true, although many policies were enacted that they found abhorrent. In Obama’s first term he inherited the worst financial crisis and unemployment fiasco since the Great Depression of the late 1920s-1930s. The subsequent economic recovery has been so substantial that not only is Obama’s second term already encompassing private sector job creation more than five times that of his first term, but overall it’s on pace to exceed that of Ronald Reagan’s sizable achievement in the face of another recession, although it was much less devastating than the 2007-2008 debacle.
In the first few months of 2009, Obama implemented policies that helped to stop the rise of unemployment by October 2009 and then kept stabilizing and lowering it. The stats revealed by mid-2014 that more than 6 times as many non-governmental jobs were created under Obama than Bush, 7.7 million versus 1.3 million. Obama oversaw private sector job creation for more than 70 consecutive months, the longest in U.S. history. In a startling announcement, given how devastating the 2007-2008 crash had been, news outlets reported in December 2014 that the unemployment rate was the lowest since the late 1990s.
This ought not to be surprising, given the historical trend – during Democratic presidencies since Truman, the average job creation rate has consistently been significantly higher than in Republican administrations. The last three Democratic presidents, Carter, Clinton, and Obama presided over the generation of more jobs (37.3 million) in 16 years than last six republicans, including Reagan, did altogether in 40 years (33.6 million). By itself, the Clinton administration outperformed our last five Republican presidents. The big data gathering able to make these points clear is the net job gain between 1932 and 2012, revealing a massive gulf in performance between red and blue American leadership and policy – 73.4 million for Democrats and just 34.8 for Republicans. Given all of this evidence, it’s remarkable that Democrats and the media don’t present these types of statistics adamantly and perpetually in a critique and challenge to the Republicans as they continue their endless propaganda saying they’re the party of job creation.
In contrast to his critics’ charge that he was weak on foreign policy, he actually exercised great aggressiveness against terror groups worldwide, ordered many attacks in five countries beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, promoted the increased use of drone strikes against enemies to a controversial degree and, opposite of assertions by some military supporters that Obama has been recklessly defunding and dangerously weakening our defense network, he has regularly kept expenditures very high. Regarding drone strikes, as of September 1st, 2015, Obama had ordered 370 attacks which killed approximately 3,000 people. Many terrorists along with civilians lost their lives. This must be kept in perspective, however, as journalist William Saletan of Slate Magazine commented, “For civilians, drones are the safest form of war in modern history.”
By President Nixon’s secret order during the Vietnam War, the military flew large scale B-52 carpet bombing missions (1969-1973) into Cambodia and Laos that caused 100,000-200,000+ deaths. Overall, Obama and Bush have led the country during a time of more calculated and careful (though still fierce and often brutal) American military engagement. General evidence of this can be recognized since the losses in the Vietnam War (1965-1975) for both major sides were at least ten times that of the Second Iraq War (2003-2011), in conflicts that lasted close to the same number of years. In the earlier war, North and South Vietnamese together lost 1-3 million people and 58,000 Americans were killed. In the recent war, 100,000-300,000 Iraqis died and nearly 4,500 American lives were lost. The War in Afghanistan (2001-2014) took almost 2,400 American lives, about 26,000 from the Afghan government forces and 25,000-40,000 of the Taliban army. ISIS has lost more than 45,000 members through U.S.-led coalition attacks since 2014 and they’ve killed less than 100 Americans (including 4 soldiers and 50 civilians in the Orlando mass shooting in June 2016, in which the terrorist had no contact with their organization).
In contradiction to accusations continually made by Obama’s political opponents that he has been feckless and wimpy against militant Islamic extremists, consider:
1) the large number of Al-Qaeda leaders that have been eliminated under his direction, including Osama bin Laden (on whom the macho swaggering Bush spent a much smaller portion of his administration’s combat efforts)
2) the massive amount of military resources used to attack ISIS (through Operation Inherent Resolve, June 2014-present)
The Pentagon reported that 6,471 airstrikes were carried out against ISIS as of November 19, 2015. Compare that to the total attacks completed by all other coalition countries combined: 1,818 (Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). Through December 2015, less than two years after operations began, 20,000 bombs and missiles had been launched at ISIS targets. Jeffrey Goldberg, a prominent journalist and former Israeli soldier who strongly supported the 2003 Iraq invasion and is known to be very much of a military hawk, said in an article examining this topic, “Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency.”
Stephen Van Evera, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains, “Obama has put higher priority on killing the leadership and cadres of the most dangerous global terrorist organizations, and has in fact killed considerably more of these leaders and operatives.” Senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, says that Obama utilizes targeted attacks, especially through drone strikes, to a much greater degree than Bush did. For example, around 60 strikes were ordered by Bush in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan which killed 400 enemy combatants at most. Obama sent over 500 attacks in those countries and this led to 2,700-4,000 dead soldiers of the opposing forces. See this animation illustrating the dramatic increase for drone strikes and death tolls provided by Pitch Interactive:
Politifact remarked on just how much larger are the amounts of carnage that inherently result when leaders choose carpet bombing, as opposed to the radically smaller drone statistics mentioned above:
“A single B-52 bomber could carry up to 108 bombs, each with 500 pounds of explosives. Hundreds of bombers flew thousands of missions over Cambodia. Based on data from the U.S. Air Force, history professor Ben Kiernan at Yale University reported that from 1969 to 1973, the United States dropped more than 470,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia. Other official estimates put the figure at over 500,000 tons.”
The statistics above can serve as an example of differing military strategy, partly due to improved technological options, but also because of an increased desire to protect human life anywhere and everywhere. Carpet bombing jungles and entire cities and villages, especially when the enemy is only a small portion of the population is inhumane and ineffective. And, just as the methods of bombing needed to change to meet higher ethical standards and new types of threats, our budget for the Armed Forces must be flexible and able to maneuver when it becomes apparent that our current choice in strategy, structure or inventory is misguided.
The Marine Corps has instituted an impressive “Ethical Warrior” training program that combines strength and compassion at a remarkable level. After describing how terrorists demonstrate a total lack of concern for the value of human life, one of founders of this Marine system of thinking and behavior, Jack Hoban, explained the best comprehensive response to this threat:
“American forces must, and will, close with and kill insurgent combatants. Yet, the role of the Ethical Warrior is not only to kill, but also to protect and defend life. Whose life? Self and others’. Which others? All others, even our enemies (as the U.S. forces are often called upon to do), if we can.”
Hoban said during an interview for psychologist Steven Pinker’s book on the millennia-long global decline in violence that the Ethical Warrior approach would have been unthinkable in military life during his years serving in the Vietnam War (pg. 266):
“When I first joined the Marines in the 1970s it was ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ The probability that there would have been an honor code that trained marines to be ‘protectors of all others—including the enemy, if possible’ would have been 0 percent.”
Obama continued and increased many aspects of Bush’s spending on national security and covert military operations, though in recent years he’s pushed for general decreases in defense spending back to levels in effect before 9/11. If government waste and excess are to be evaluated and rooted out, military expenditures must be under consideration alongside the other departments. The terrorist threats today don’t require the same kind of combat infrastructure as needed during the Cold War. In 2014, Military.com noted, “The new defense spending bill includes $120 million for tanks that the Army has repeatedly said it doesn’t want.” Unfortunately, this kind of waste happens a lot with military spending. Business Insider explained in 2011 that even through the harsh financial hardships American taxpayers experienced in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial disaster, during “the past 13 years U.S. military spending has increased 114 percent. That’s 8 percent higher than at the height of Reagan’s presidency and the Cold War.”
In examination of the claims from many 2016 Republican presidential candidates that Obama had “gutted” the military and kept it in a weak state, PBS summarized their findings:
“Money spent on weapons modernization is on par with the George W. Bush administration. The military cuts that GOP contenders are complaining about were approved by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. The military budget is being squeezed by the insistence of lawmakers in both parties that money be spent on bases and equipment that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need.”
The 2016 defense budget coordinated with the Pentagon was at a level close to, if not above (depending on how it’s calculated) that of 2007, when the country was fighting two large scale wars. After all, our defense budgets are consistently not only the largest in the world by a very large measure, but beyond the size of the next half or full dozen countries combined (bigger than the next 13 in 2011 and outstretching the following 7 in 2014). Are the global threats really that extensive and necessarily so costly? Enough to justify the $70-100 billion spent annually to maintain over 700 bases in over 100 foreign nations? All other major nations have a combined total of 30 bases outside their borders.
There must be ways to make the operations of our Armed Forces more efficient and lean, while being sure that they remain the most effective and powerful fighting unit on Earth. I served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 5 years and can attest to the potential there for mismanagement, redundancy and gridlock just as within the various corporations, universities and charitable organizations that have employed me during my civilian career. That would seem to be an obvious insight, to say that human nature is universal no matter what the environment may be like. Yet, many Americans keep close to their hearts a deep intoxication and enamorment toward both adventurous soldiering and unfettered capitalism at such a profound level that it prevents them from seeing clearly the limitations and handicaps inherent in those fields (as is common in different ways to all endeavors and professions). The positives are easy for them to acknowledge, but their intense devotion to these objects won’t allow a thorough reflection. An alternative path is to apply the idea that we can be warriors when truly needed, competitive (but not cutthroat) in business and courageous enough to study methods from many other societies with a willingness to learn from them. By being more open to criticism and re-evaluation, we might find improved ways to better defend the nation and make a living. On one hand, the United States is well liked and admired for many reasons in many parts of the world – innovative, adventurous, diverse, humanitarian, productive. Otherwise, in spite of the negative characteristics that much of the world notices in our people – stubborn, cocky, violent, condescending, wasteful – let us not be so prideful and hardheaded that we are not able to use wisdom in correcting excesses and redirecting our social and financial resources wherever actually needed.
At the same time, his administration’s diplomatic and economic interactions with the global community were received far more favorably than during the Bush presidency. Even though Republicans claim that Obama has no serious concern for the removal of government excess, he streamlined many segments of our national bureaucracy funded by America’s tax payers. For example, local, state and federal staffs were shrunk by 638,000 jobs by June 2015 (non-military). Compare that with the 1.7 million employees added to our public finance burden by his predecessor.
After all the heated talk about how Democrats and Obama specifically are exploding government in size and spending, it’s important evaluate that claim. Consider these results that the Pew Research Center released in January 2015, “Job shifts under Obama: Fewer government workers, more caregivers, servers and temps”.
They mention some very positive changes during Obama’s term regarding the economy and job creation:
“All of that growth came from the private sector, while the public sector shrunk: Private payrolls have added 7 million jobs over Obama’s presidency, while government payrolls (federal, state and local) have contracted by a combined 634,000 jobs.”
“Government payrolls at nearly all levels also have been cut. Local governments have shed 446,000 jobs, about 3% of their total workforce; state governments have cut a net 121,000 jobs, with small growth in education more than offset by cuts elsewhere. And while the federal government has added 62,700 non-postal jobs, the Postal Service has reduced its workforce nearly 18%, or 129,400 jobs. The Postal Service now employs fewer than 600,000 people, its smallest payroll since 1964.”
“With the unemployment rate down to 5.6% as of December (the lowest since mid-2008), Americans are at long last feeling better about the economy. According to a new Pew Research Center report, 27% of U.S. adults say economic conditions are excellent or good, about twice the percentage who said that at the beginning of 2014. 31% expect the economy to be better a year from now, versus 17% who expect it to be worse, and for the first time in five years, more Americans say President Obama’s economic policies have made conditions better (38%) than worse (28%).”
In the next post, I will explore the idea from many on the far-right that Obama is an extreme liberal who is destroying the American way of life. In fact, many researchers have concluded that he’s much more like what used to be called a moderate Republican – before the 1980s saw the party begin moving a long distance away from the middle. The Democrats then followed that general trend and largely ended up in the center.