Last week Thomas Frank wrote a piece in Salon in which he went all in on calling Barack Obama a weak and gutless leader and labeling his presidency an abject failure. The Hope and Change president promised so much and delivered so little, he didn’t stand up to the crazy Republicans when he could have and should have, and worst of all, there’s no pony with rainbow ribbons and no sprinkles on the ice cream.
Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
Because, to quote Elliot in E.T., this is reality. Governing in a democracy means working with other people, people who for some reason or another — I’ll let you fill in the blanks — have no interest in a president succeeding; people who in fact were plotting against his every move before the president had spent his first night in the White House. Add to that a well-oiled and well-funded noise machine of unprecedented lung power and a TV network that can take the smallest thing and turn it into a 24-hour breaking news blitz, and getting things done becomes a bit of a challenge.
But to Mr. Frank’s charges of failure after failure, let’s think about the ones he’s listed: How does a president persuade a college or university to lower their tuition and make it affordable? Someone’s gotta pay for it; it’s not like the alumni are going to pick up everything else after football. What about healthcare? Well, the “proper” way would have been a single payer plan with the government picking up the tab and raising taxes, much in the way a number of industrialized nations and Canadian provinces do it: Medicare for all. Yeah, try and pass that; I dare you.
The same could be said about the rest of Mr. Frank’s laments: the stimulus package that was passed was done in the first moments of the Obama presidency and while we were still under the weight of the crapfest left by the previous administration. What we got would not have passed three months later, and certainly not through a Senate that was barely under the control of the Democrats. Break up the big banks and agribusiness? Sure, if you don’t think anyone with any influence or money will object, go ahead.
We expect to hear this kind of whining and pearl-clutching from the Republicans; they’ve mastered the art of crocodile tears and fear-mongering even when they’re in control. In the last thirty years they have done a fine job of making the case that no one else but a true American conservative should be running the country and then providing us with laboratory-grade examples of exactly why they shouldn’t.
The biggest failure of the Obama presidency isn’t in what it didn’t accomplish or the “tepid” answers it gave to the problems at hand. It’s that Barack Obama believed — and probably still does — that he was facing opposition from a political party that shared his basic goal of running the country and making it better for all the citizens, not just the ones who voted for him or contributed to his campaign. He didn’t realize that their sole purpose in life was his personal destruction. But if a genius like Thomas Frank can’t figure that out, how could anyone else?