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The Evolutionary: Barack Obama’s First Term in the White House

By (November 1, 2012) No Comment

Would-be Presidents always claim they want to change Washington. Change could mean anything: a simple desire to dominate as others have not, a plan to attack corruption, a desire for genuine bipartisanship, or all of the above. But whatever the case, most candidates are sincere. How could it be otherwise? It takes hubris to believe you’ll be able to break the beast and accomplish great things in Washington, but no more than it does to believe you’re fit to occupy the most powerful office in the world.

It’s clear that for all his pragmatism – and perhaps, in part, because of it – Barack Obama’s talk of change was sincere, even if his rhetoric was nothing new; that signature red and blue state refrain echoes words spoken by Ann Richards and Bill Clinton just decades before. But the man speaking those words was different. Biracial, post-Boomer, intellectual – Obama seemed to embody the change he spoke of. He made it tangible. That is why it was inevitable that no matter what he did, his supporters would be disappointed. And it is also the reason he was destined to be so hated by the right.

As James Fallows wisely pointed out earlier this year, no person is truly ready to assume the presidency. Obama was no exception. He faced a confluence of economic and foreign policy challenges unlike anything the country had seen since the 1930s. Those challenges, combined with his caution, Washington’s institutional resistance to reform, and a fanatical, disciplined opposition, made a hash of his aspirations and resulted, with some very important exceptions, in three years of largely defensive governing – a Presidency of adjustments.

At this stage it is impossible to say what Barack Obama’s legacy will be. If he is re-elected, his signal achievements and small adjustments will likely endure. Shaky now, they could become a sturdy platform to build upon. If he is defeated they will probably fall. But besides universal health care, foreign policy, environmental regulations, drone strikes and economic iniquity, there is something else at stake. The election of Barack Obama was the result of massive demographic and social change – trends bitterly resented by a large number Americans – and also a reaction to thirty years of misguided Republican policy. There is nothing America’s so-called conservatives can do to halt demographic momentum, but on policy they can make an ugly fight of it if they have enough political power.

Institutions and bureaucracies have their own momentum. It took a long time for Obama to realize how resistant Washington is to change, how effectively its old machinery could be used to crush new ideas. But a Republican President – through judicial appointments, regulatory decrees, executive orders, and new legislation – can do more damage than Republican congressmen ever could. If America drifts backward toward the social and economic policies of Reagan, Bush, and even Clinton, the problems America will be facing in the next century – income inequality, overreach abroad, global warming, racial strife, debt, a shrinking middle class – will grow more acute. Candidates always claim that the next election is about how the country deals with the future. 2012 fits that paradigm better than they know, better even than 2008, which was about escaping Bush as much as it was about embracing Obama. This election is about whether or not America will validate the hate and obstruction Obama faced in his first term, and whether or not America, not Washington, can come to terms with the fact that it is changing.

At Home
By the time Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009, gross domestic product was contracting at a rate not seen in fifty years, the economy was shedding three quarters of a million jobs a month, credit was frozen, foreclosures bit into every town, and several of the country’s largest financial institutions were nearing collapse, largely as a result of the risky investments and debt trading that bloomed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

For a half century after the Great Depression banks were relatively isolated from Wall Street, but the deregulation supply-side economics that came into vogue during the Reagan years, and reached an apogee during the Clinton and Bush presidencies, expanded the remit of the nation’s banks, allowing them to gamble increasingly large amounts of their depositors’ money. Banks and investment houses alike were leveraging more and more on their capital and investing in shadowy debt packages which made up large parts of their portfolios but did not exist on the open market. Oversight was lax, and the financial sector defended its interests well.

Coming into office, Obama had two major economic responsibilities: to make the economy grow again and to reform the system. As a candidate he seemed promising, if vague. The economic team he had assembled during the election was made up of outsiders, people who hadn’t been in Washington during the booming Clinton years, when many of the old laws, including the Glass-Steagall act, were done away with. Obama spoke often of the “dysfunctional financial system.”

But he was loathe to give up his dreams of health care reform, clean energy investments and modernized infrastructure. In speeches he correctly tied them to the long-term economic health of the country, but as the scope of the crisis became clear, Obama, who was a comfortable delegator, gradually shifted toward the idea of bringing in experienced people to run his economic shop. Most of them were veterans of the Clinton Administration, which had adopted and fine-tuned Reagan’s pro-business philosophy and work-hard rhetoric for Democratic voters.

The most important of Obama’s ex-Clintonites was his Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. Geithner began his public career in the Reagan’s Treasury Department in 1988, advancing to become the Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs ten years later, a job he held until 2001. In 2003 he became the President of the New York Fed, where he arranged the sale of Bear Sterns and supported the efforts of George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, to bail out other banks and investment houses. Geithner liked to brag that he’d never worked on Wall Street, but as Noam Schieber points out in The Escape Artists, his excellent account of the Obama Administration’s efforts to deal with the economic crisis, “Geithner cared deeply about the constituents he consulted with, be they Wall Street big shots, financial technocrats, or market pundits.” More importantly, he had come of age in a time when business enjoyed the benefits of a friendly consensus between academia, industry and government. The financial sector, these men believed (and they were almost all men), was the engine of the American economy, too important to fail, and too sensitive to seriously reform.

Some of Obama’s economists disagreed, particularly Christine Rohmer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers. She believed, as many economists are now coming to accept, that there should be no such thing as banks that are “too big to fail,” and that banks should no longer be allowed to behave like hedge funds unless strong regulation is enacted to minimize risk to the world financial system. Larry Summers, another Clinton alum and Geithner’s mentor, actually agreed, but as the head of the internal opposition he was blustery and disorganized; Rohmer, Summers and their allies didn’t have the resources Geithner could command at Treasury and found it difficult to fashion a coherent alternative. Meanwhile, Geithner and his allies, including Budget Director Peter Orszag (another Washington veteran), had already put their plan in motion, “stress-testing” the banks to determine whether they should be required to raise more capital. (The capital requirements they eventually set were weak.) Any approach Summers and Rohmer could come up with would require billions. Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff (and veteran of Clinton Administration), made it clear that Obama would not ask Congress for those billions; he had just passed a stimulus, wanted a health care bill, and faced a united opposition.

But Obama’s culpability should not be overestimated. The economy was truly a disaster; his priority had to be stability and growth. In such an atmosphere Geithner’s warnings about the financial sector’s sensitivity were difficult to ignore, and as mentioned, Obama faced a Republican opposition whose radicalism and uniformity had no parallel in the modern era. Perhaps his biggest mistake was that he took too long to realize it, allowing his opponents to take advantage of his moderation and desire for compromise and blunting the effectiveness of the stimulus.

The first hints of this new devilry surfaced before Obama took office. As president-elect and de facto leader of the Democratic Party, Obama led the negotiations for a new stimulus package. Most Republicans opposed any measure that didn’t include tax cuts (many opposed stimulus wholesale), and Obama’s political team was chary of asking for too much money. Christine Rohmer calculated that the stimulus should be well over a billion dollars, but that option was never seriously considered in top-level meetings because Larry Summers, who fancied himself a political guru as well as an economic advisor, considered it unattainable.

The Obama Administration caved to GOP demands for tax cuts. They made up fully one-third of the entire $800 billion package, but Republicans voted against it anyway. They only switched their votes because the stock market dove immediately afterwards. This pattern, wherein Obama’s desire for compromise and his political team’s timidity enabled a disciplined opposition, repeated itself several times in the coming years. The stimulus fight was the first time it played out, and the unfortunate result was a bill that was, despite the help it gave and the important investments it made, far smaller and less effective than it could have been. The stimulative effect of the tax cuts was negligible, and the employment rate continues to languish today, largely because the public sector never received the money it needed to prevent layoffs, a breach in decades of bipartisan consensus about how the nation responds to recessions and a loss Republicans shamelessly continue to blame on the president.

The GOP was actually rewarded for this behavior. In 2010 they won a landslide victory in the House of Representatives and chopped the Democratic majority in the Senate from 59 to 53. More than 80 freshman representatives flooded the House, and they had no mind for compromise: many owed their victory to the Tea Party, and the coming fights over the national spending would give them a chance to repay that debt.

Normally in American politics, when the two parties are negotiating over a budget, they pass interim measures so that negotiations can continue. “In order to keep the government running while Democrats and Republicans negotiated,” Noam Scheiber writes,

Congress needed to pass two more short-term funding measures over the next few weeks [early March 2011]. Such measures are usually routine affairs. But, in both cases, the Republicans demanded spending cuts as the price of approving the extension—the “toll road” approach, administration officials dubbed it. And yet even after Democrats paid the toll, fifty-four conservative House Republicans still refused to approve the second extension because they took a dim view of any deal Democrats might agree to.

Republican leaders insisted on $60 billion in cuts for the final 2011 budget (on top of those already made by the continuing resolutions), a number so extreme that the White House was only able to whittle it back to $38 billion, and then only when a provision eliminating funding for abortions in the District of Columbia was included. The provision may not have been germane to the question of government spending, but it was a clear indication of the cultural preoccupations of the Tea Party and the new Republicans, two groups who claimed that the deficit was their issue of choice. In any case, the right had succeeded in turning the conversation in Washington from jobs to debt.

The next battle was the debt limit. A vote to raise it is usually pro forma. It’s been raised 74 times in the last fifty years, and on few of those occasions was the country in any danger of default. In 2011 Republicans threatened to let that happen unless four trillion dollars was cut from the deficit, a plan authored by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, who now Mitt Romney’s running mate. Obama assumed that the economic catastrophe that would result from a default would force Republicans to compromise. The negotiations in the House dealt with spending cuts first, but the discussion froze when it reached the subject of raising revenue, something any responsible plan would do. The Republicans balked at the idea of any new revenue.

For months, as the stock market suffered and credit rating agencies threatened to downgrade America’s AAA credit rating, different avenues of negotiation formed and broke apart. The eleventh-hour agreement that finally appeared cut $1 trillion from the debt, created a committee with the power to make proposals that would get a simple up or down vote in Congress, and mandated an extra $1.5 trillion in across-the-board cuts in 2013 if the committee or Congress failed to pass a long-term deficit reduction plan. The credit downgrade happened anyway, the committee failed, and the mandatory cuts, which could push the country into another recession, are looming. The leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, assessed the debt limit fight this way: “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this – it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

The same pattern dogged but could not derail universal health care, without question Barack Obama’s greatest achievement. In 2009 the Democrats held 60 Senate seats – a supermajority, enough to overrule a filibuster – but a few Senators were from conservative states, which meant that they would have trouble at the polls if they voted “aye.” So the Obama Administration tried to pick off a few moderate Republicans, who by virtue of their presumed importance in passing such legislation were able to exert disproportionate influence over its final form. As it turned out, the GOP had become so extreme that the Affordable Care Act, which had its origins in conservative think tanks, didn’t get a single Republican vote. The bill passed in the Senate only after Nebraskan Democrat Ben Nelson was bribed with higher Medicare payments for his state. Obama signed universal health care into law on March 20, 2010.

Republicans, along with the people who voted for them, deserve most of the blame for Washington’s institutional paralysis. But Obama, as he has acknowledged, did a poor job of getting his message across. He took too long to realize that political combat, not negotiation, was the only way to bank victories against the kind of people he was facing. By the time that realization came, as the Obama team geared up for reelection and started to put real time and money into painting their opponents as radical obstructionists who favored the rich, it was too late: the GOP had made debt the number one issue; had prevented any further stimulus for the economy; had won drastic spending cuts and prompted a credit downgrade; and, as a final insult, had succeeded in laying the blame for all of this at Obama’s feet.

Their weapon of choice in the Senate was the unbelievably frequent threat of a filibuster. But they moved to prevent the implementation of laws that were already on the books, yet another strategy without precedent. Laws can be neutered by depriving the government of the funds necessary to carry them out, but they can also be stymied by denying the appointment of the officials who implement them. Senate Republicans have prevented a larger percentage of administrative appointments than at any time in the past, just as they have denied an unprecedented amount of judicial appointees. America is at a unique point in history when its legislation is under constant threat of filibuster, and when the laws that are passed can be denied the personnel necessary to carry them out and the judges necessary to determine their legality.

To compensate for this, the president has been forced to make policy through executive decrees and rules issued by his departments. Much of Obama’s thwarted domestic policy has found life this way. It’s a worrisome precedent, but after years of trying to compromise, it should have been expected. When he couldn’t pass the DREAM Act, which would grant permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who arrived in country as minors and graduated high school, he signed an executive order that did the same thing. Even a partial list of Obama’s orders and rules changes is impressive: increased fuel economy for cars and trucks, higher energy efficiency standards for home appliances, stricter pollution limits, stricter food safety rules, measures designed to prevent exploitation of students by for-profit colleges. In fact, Obama’s first act in office was an executive order banning torture, a statement of principles to the country and the world as well.

If in the domestic sphere a president gives orders as a last resort, in foreign policy orders are the default method of conducting business. Domestic opponents showed no compunction about smearing him with lies and calling him unpatriotic, but as president Obama enjoys more freedom to act internationally, which makes the line of responsibility is clearer abroad than at home, for his achievements and his failures.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Obama’s grim inheritance didn’t end at the nation’s shores. George Bush’s bloody adventure in Iraq was due to wind down, and though Obama briefly attempted to negotiate the presence of a small force for training and contingency, when the Iraqi government balked he wisely decided not to press the issue. The last troops departed in mid-2011, leaving diplomatic facilities and contractors dotted throughout the country, and one massive embassy, staffed by 17,000 personnel, in the still heavily-fortified Green Zone, an armored monument to old ideas about American hegemony.

The neoconservatives were gone, and Obama was determined to take foreign policy in a new direction. On his first day in office, along with the executive order banning torture, he signed two more, one that closed the CIA’s secret overseas prisons and another that began the process of shuttering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. He travelled to the Cairo to speak on behalf of democracy and acknowledge the mistakes America had made in the past, supporting dictators and underwriting wars. (He did not, however, apologize directly for any of this, though that hasn’t stopped Mitt Romney from accusing him of that. George Bush actually made many of the same admissions during his presidency, another fact Romney has conveniently forgotten.)

There were forces working against this change. Some were external. The Obama Administration endured frantic and demagogic opposition to the idea of closing Guantanamo, but met it with a feckless public relations effort. After a few years of trying, Obama, at the behest of his political advisors, gave up on closure, most civilian trials, and the release of non-jihadist prisoners.

But Obama was not by nature a dove. While his Cairo speech was winning plaudits and the country was regaining popularity around the world, he was sounding other notes about American power. When the Nobel Committee awarded him the peace prize, he coupled his new moderation with a vigorous defense of force. “I face the world as it is,” he told his audience as he accepted the award,

and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

To that end he kept his campaign promise to devote more resources to the war in Afghanistan, which had gone badly after US troops were diverted to Iraq. Not long after Obama took office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai won a second term in elections plagued by fraud and low voter turnout. Obama attempted to cultivate an alternative but that went nowhere, and he was stuck trying to prop up a weak government led by a paranoid, corrupt and erratic man. The Taliban were operating in relative safety from the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, just across the mountainous border, with the support, official or otherwise, of a significant portion of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service.

There was no way to achieve “victory” in any conventional sense of the term, so the Obama administration settled for the crippling of al-Qaeda, a weakened Taliban, and an Afghan government that could defend itself with minimal assistance. Into this morass Obama sent 17,000 more troops on February 18, 2009, less than a month after he took office. A full-scale review of the strategy came due in later in the year, at which point he agreed to another 30,000. All told, Obama nearly tripled the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan, from 34,000 when Bush retired to over 100,000 in the summer of 2011, and another 100,000 contractors besides.

Yet Afghanistan continued to deteriorate and the definition of victory sank downward again. Today the United States won’t even train its Afghan counterparts: a rash of attacks by Afghan recruits has made it unsafe to do so. Americans may soon be spared the loss of any more combat troops: forces are scheduled to withdraw by 2014, a timeline Obama put in place over the objections of his generals (and a decision he continues to misrepresent to the public, who love their generals). Afghanistan’s best hope seems to be a partial takeover by the Taliban, with a weak, quasi pro-American government huddled in Kabul, an end similar to one Afghanistan endured during the 90s, as the Soviet-backed government crumbled and American attention wandered elsewhere.

The most galling thing about Obama’s surge is that it’s not clear if he ever truly believed in it. It’s hard to credit the idea that he didn’t realize from the beginning that victory, however you define it, might not be possible. As David Sanger reports in Confront and Conceal, his fine book on Obama’s foreign policy,

Obama knew that to fulfill his campaign promise to focus on the Afghan War, he had little choice but to accede to the Pentagon’s longstanding requests for more troops. But despite his campaign pledges, he was growing skeptical about what could be accomplished by doubling the size of the force. “I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” one of his closest advisers told me early in 2012. “He understood why we needed to try, to knock back the Taliban. But the military was ‘all in,’ as they say. And Obama wasn’t.”

Maybe it’s naïve to expect any president, no matter how unconventional he seems, to be above these sorts of calculations, but it’s a testament to the uniqueness of the man, and the hope he deliberately fostered, that the violence Obama deployed is still shocking. A John McCain or a Mitt Romney would surely have gotten more people killed, but that’s small comfort for disenchanted citizens and cold comfort for the dead. Today Obama only mentions the country to trumpet the coming withdrawal to voters, and Mitt Romney, seeing no political upside in attaching his name to any relevant thoughts, doesn’t mention it at all. Afghanistan is a war nobody talks about.

There’s a similar pattern of calculation, brutality and silence in another war, the “war on drugs.” Here too it’s difficult to believe that Obama doesn’t comprehend the stupidity of the policies he enforces. States throughout the country are making the humane decision to decriminalize drugs and legalize marijuana for the sick, but Obama’s Justice Department insists on raiding dispensaries, ruining lives and being all-around “tough on crime.” This from a man who made liberal use of pot and cocaine in high school. There is a clear political argument for continuing this foolish “war,” which claims thousands at home and more abroad, where cartels commit mass murder for the privilege of supplying the West with drugs. No president could legalize or decriminalize drugs and get to a second term, but Obama went beyond hum-drum enforcement and actively persecuted people who grew or smoked pot with the blessing of their state governments. Obama could have left local policy to locals, allowing progress to spread under the cover of state’s rights. That’s exactly what he did with gay marriage, when he directed his Attorney General to cease enforcement of the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act, repealed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and belatedly endorsed full marriage equality – the act of a liberal with a conservative temperament.

There’s another sort of convenience at work in Obama’s massive expansion of drone strikes and special operations. The United States doesn’t have the will or resources to send ground troops into every land that shelters its enemies. Obama has quietly, finally called an end to the war on terror, and chosen instead to mostly target al-Qaeda and its offshoots – “the people who attacked us,” he often intones. That might reduce the possibility that America will invade another Middle Eastern country anytime soon (at least if he remains in office), but it’s not clear if it represents any significant decrease in what the military calls “kinetic operations.” Probably the opposite.

One of Obama’s first decisions as president was to authorize a drone strike in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s anarchic northwest. Daniel Klaidman, a Newsweek correspondent, has written in Kill or Capture a disturbing and tightly-focused account of Obama’s prosecution of the war formerly known as the war on terror. The machinery, he explains, was already in place, and the military defended its institutional prerogative:

During the transition and in the days after the inauguration, the CIA’s drone program had continued to operate, uninterrupted, under protocols established by the Bush administration. Most of the time, the drone strikes succeeded in killing terrorist targets. But as the pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot on that evening, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Instead of hitting the CIA’s intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of Malik Gulistan Khan, a prominent tribal elder and member of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed Khan and four members of his family, including two of his children.

There are two broad categories of drone strikes: “personality” or “high-value individual” strikes, in which a prominent terrorist is identified before attack, and “signature strikes,” where drone operators look for behaviors and hints which imply that the targets could be terrorists – detractors call it “crowd killing.” The FATA strike was crowd killing, and though Obama was initially repulsed, he continued the practice with minor modifications. “According to one of his advisers,” Klaidman reports,

Obama never seemed entirely comfortable with the CIA’s signature strikes. Intellectually, he appreciated the arguments for them, but he remained unsettled. “He would squirm,” recalled the source. “He didn’t like the idea of kill ‘em and sort it out later.” Still, Obama’s willingness to back the program represented an early inflection point in his war on terror. Over time, the program grew exponentially, far beyond anything that had been envisioned by the Bush administration.

In his eight years in office, George W. Bush authorized 52 drone strikes. So far, Obama has authorized 284, accelerating their use in Pakistan and expanding them to Yemen and Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere. They have unquestionably been effective in spying on and killing terrorists – a drone hovering over Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound helped establish the location’s importance and the patterns of life inside it – and they are very popular at home. But they are deeply resented abroad, and with some reason: some estimates put civilians as a quarter of all casualties, and those who don’t die must live in terror not only of the Taliban, but of the intermittent whirr of electronic predators levitating overhead, heard but too high to be seen.

The rest of Obama’s foreign policy shows potential, though it too is full of ambiguity. His response to the Arab Spring was halting in the early moments – the first autocrats to be challenged, in Tunisia and Egypt, were allies – but he eventually embraced the movement and tried to ease Ben Ali and Mubarak out. Those revolutions were largely non-violent, but when unrest in Libya turned to armed revolt, it forced Obama to choose between humanitarianism and the lighter international bootprint he’d promised. His approach was characteristic: morality argued against inaction, politics and resources against invasion. His generals proposed a no-fly zone, but when they told him that it wouldn’t stop Muammar Gaddafi’s advance on the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Obama took the huge risk of demanding something me, something that would work.

The air campaign that resulted was unique. Though the US committed more resources than any other country, Europe and even a few Arab allies were encouraged to take a leadership role. They didn’t acquit themselves particularly well, but a precedent had been set: America would no longer be the default leader of international intervention; it could “lead from behind,” as many put it. A humanitarian precedent, however slight and tenuous, was also created: in cases where there was little direct strategic influence, and where risk was not heavy, the international community would intervene to prevent mass murder. It’s no balm for the people suffering in Syria today, or those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, whose repression elicited only soft and ineffectual remarks from the president, but it is nevertheless a small step toward a more just and multipolar world order.

In the future, decades from now, we may look back and see that Obama’s most important foreign policy adjustment had nothing to do with the Middle East. On November 16, 2011 he announced the deployment of 2,500 marines to a base in Darwin, on the northern coast of Australia. It was the first new long-term increase in America’s Pacific forces since Vietnam, and an obvious message to China. Obama began his relationship with China the same way he began with Russia: by offering to “reset” relations to a friendlier baseline. But the US-Chinese relationship quickly grew acrimonious. David Sanger believes that “if there was a lesson in Obama’s early outreach to China, it was this: what Obama’s team viewed as extending a cooperative hand—welcoming them as equals in managing world affairs—was viewed by some factions in Beijing as weakness.”

Because the workings of its government are so opaque, Americans tend to think of China as a giant, single-celled organism, but as Sanger points out, “its leadership is at its weakest since the beginning of the revolution that swept in the Communists,” and it is rife with submerged factionalism. Many favor a more harmonious relationship with the United States, and others, who believe America is in inevitable decline, favor a more assertive approach. The result is often unpredictable. For instance, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing in early 2011, the Chinese military conducted a test flight of its new stealth fighter, an unambiguous provocation that President Hu Jintao may not have been aware of.

“For the United States,” Obama told the Australian Parliament, as he announced the new deployment,

this reflects a broader shift. After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region… With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress. As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future…

At the time this was taken as a largely symbolic move: 2,500 soldiers – a brigade – is small as deployments go. But the number betokens a massive shift in military spending, as the Pentagon looks to procure and refit equipment and weapons for work in the Pacific. East Asia will soon become the next frontier of unmanned spycraft and warfare, as the military moves more of its pilotless vehicles toward the Chinese seas. It is easy to argue that something must be done to balance China’s growing aspirations – it lays claim to many resource-rich island chains and shipping lanes, bullies its neighbors, and has not even America’s occasional compunction about doing business with the world’s most brutal regimes – but Obama’s moves, which seem prudent today, could trigger a more intense arms race. Instead of nuclear weapons the US and China would compete to build stealth navies, warplanes, and automated killing machines. Of all recent presidents, Obama by temperament seems uniquely qualified to maintain that balance, but it is a precarious one indeed.

The Election
Barack Obama isn’t blameless for the unrealistic expectations his candidacy kindled, but no one could have anticipated the wave of enthusiasm that greeted him, or the disappointment and hatred that have plagued his first four years in office. In one sense, it was ludicrous to expect miraculous things: with the United States facing disaster at home and abroad, repair, not reform, inevitably came first. Considering that Obama dealt with the most fanatical political opposition in modern history, the miracle is that the country isn’t still careening out of control.

Yet disaster can offer the best opportunity for change. Systems and institutions are most vulnerable to change when they’re weak, and the Obama Administration took too few of the opportunities it had make reforms, and was complacent about or supportive of some of Washington’s most dangerous forces.

The economy is now stable and growing, albeit slowly, but Wall Street is little changed, and the opportunity to remold it is largely gone, at least for now. Though civil rights groups and judges had chipped away at George W. Bush’s secretive spying program, it was left to Obama largely intact, and instead of reining it in, Obama defended it vigorously. His lawyers are now telling the Supreme Court that no one can sue the government for its illegal eavesdropping program because no one has the legal standing to do so; after all, how could anyone know they’re being spied upon?

Obama has rightly stopped using the presidential signing statements Bush would attach to new laws when he intended to ignore them, but he has carried on the general expansion of executive authority, using rules changes and executive orders to implement policy he could not get through the legislature.

He similarly maintained the growth of the presidency’s ability to command power abroad, expanding drone attacks and special operations while deploying forces to Libya without Congressional authorization (though that little maneuver has several modern precedents). The trend toward the accumulation of presidential power could recede when and if the country returns to less rancorous politics, but I doubt it: few people willingly give power away, especially those held responsible for everything wrong in their country every four years.

The apparent conniving Obama displayed in surging troops in Afghanistan and continuing the federal government’s persecution of drug users should not be condoned, but it should have been expected. Politicians can only fight so many battles, and there are some they cannot fight at all if they wish to remain in public service. The sad truth is that every politician, at base, operates by a simple calculus: some people are going to be hurt in the hope that more people are going to be saved. What would happen, they say to themselves, if the other side held the reins?

Obama decided, rightly or wrongly, that he could not press too far with economic change or stimulus if he wanted to achieve universal health care, a progressive dream almost a century old. He may have been wrong about that, but America, should Obama win a second term and see through the Affordable Care Act’s full implementation, will have its healthcare reform. People with pre-existing medical conditions will no longer have to worry about being eligible for a health plan, and people who are poor will no longer have to worry about being able to afford one. It is a moral triumph, another step toward the ideal of a country where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is guaranteed.

Barack Obama’s first term in office, like most others, has not yet left us a clear legacy. That ambiguity will fade in the next four years. Do Obama’s reforms and adjustments hold, or do they die young? Mitt Romney and the Republicans have committed themselves to killing universal health care before it can take root. They would dismantle the piecemeal environmental regulations and clean energy investments Obama has made, even though they could never by themselves be adequate to the task of addressing global warming. They would confront Iran with military strikes and pass an even more indulgent eye over Israel’s self-destructive hunger for Palestinian land. They would foreclose the option of raising revenue to address the nation’s debt, thereby paving the way for the dismantling of the nation’s entitlement programs. They would try to undo the recent achievements of the gay rights movement and they would get even “tougher” on crime. They would return to the deregulation of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years and further cut taxes on the rich (the heart of the economy for supply-siders and Ayn Randians), leaving America more vulnerable to economic disaster and further widening the disparity between the wealthy and everyone else – dangers that could turn the country into a very unstable place. They would attempt, in other words, to drag the country back into the twentieth century.

But these promises are symptoms of a larger malaise. As America has become a browner, more tolerant country, the Republican Party has become more extreme, hawking supply-side dogma, religious conviction, and mindless strength abroad as a way of getting back to a more ideal, more American place, a fantasy country that never truly existed. The Obama presidency was a fatal ledge.

The bile that greeted the new president in 2009 has drawn comparison to the red-baiting of the Cold War. There is truth in this, but as liberals go Obama is pretty moderate, so the answer can’t lie in policy. The reality is more depressing: when it comes to the Right, it is hard to underestimate the symbolic value of Barack Obama’s skin color. Newt Gingrich calls him the “food stamp president,” and so-called mainstream candidates like Mitt Romney joke about his birthplace, lie about his welfare policy, and claim his views are “un-American.” They know what they are doing.

Over the past thirty years conservatives have persuaded large swathes of the country to adopt their economic policy, but they haven’t built further on those victories, and they are slowly losing the so-called “culture war.” The Reagan era is dying, and it took a black president to make them see it.

So the election of 2012 is about whether or not America will stop careening toward massive inequality and whether or not the hate and obstruction of the last four years will be ratified by a Republican victory. It is about whether or not America can accept that the world is different and whether or not it will care for its sick and poor. It is, in sum, about whether or not America can finally understand that it is changing irrevocably, and whether or not it can finally grant that change a measure of acceptance.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.