Visions

The 10 Obama Policies and Failures That Make Us Angriest

In his 5th State of the Union speech, Obama needs to address these topics—then actually follow through, for a change.

US President Barack Obama speaks in Washington, DC on January 17, 2014

President Barack Obama is getting ready for his 5th State of the Union Address tomorrow night. Typically, presidents use the occasion to sketch out their agenda and vision for the next year while subtly putting tons of positive spin on their accomplishments. Here, as a good talker, Obama has been is in his element.  But now, Obama's sweet talk has begun to turn sour—he has a long pattern of soaring rhetoric and empty promises followed by some fundamental failures to deliver.  It is the lack of action, the hypocrisy, the talking the talk without walking the walk, that have made many progressives and liberals frustrated and angry.
 
This is not a bright moment for Mr. Obama. His popularity is in the dumpster—currently at a measly 46 percent from an all-time low of 42 percent in November, it is certainly no help for the Democrats in the 2014 Congressional races.  Some of Obama's low popularity is due to the relentless, often irrational attacks by the conservatives on the Affordable Care Act, which—while having many positive elements—is still fraught with many problems that frustrate people across the spectrum.
 
In fact, Obama's popularity has dropped among liberals and independents. And there are plenty of reasons why, as you'll see below.  

So, on the eve of his SOTU, the editorial staff at AlterNet brings you a list of Obama "bads"— a list of 10 areas where Mr. Obama has made us most mad, frustrated and disgusted. We wish he would both address these topics head on in his SOTU, and then do everything in his power to mobilize people to get things done. There is still time for our 44th president to show some mettle. There is time to get beyond the talk, stop catering to the corporate interests who still believe in cutting budgets, stop shrinking Social Security,  and stop screwing the large majority of Americans in the name of dividends and profits—and become  a true populist.
 
Mr. President, how about following up your recent stirring rhetoric on the question of inequality with a fierce determination that will inspire many millions. How about crack some eggs, kick some butts and make a bunch of billionaires and bankers unhappy with you. That is a legacy to which you should be aspiring. Don't worry, you will make plenty of millions after you leave the White House.

1. Obama's caver-in-chief leadership style

When Obama ran for president in 2008, some thought a refreshing aspect of his candidacy was his potential management style. Unlike the Bush administration, which ruled by dictates—like its war of choice in Iraq—Obama was a mediator who would bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. Obama offered a mediator's promise. It was not, "We won, we rule." Instead it was a pledge to find common ground. 

Sadly, this management style has mostly failed in Washington. During Obama's first five years, many of his biggest domestic disappointments have come from negotiating with Republicans and with private interests who never had any intention of compromising or working in good faith. Perhaps the only memorable thing that former Sen. John Edwards said in his 2008 campaign was his critique of Obama’s  style: "You cannot negotiate with political thugs."

But Obama's inclination to try to satisfy all factions has lead to the key disasters of his presidency. The budget battles with the House GOP—and the tactical error he made about GOP thinking—lead to the cruel federal sequester and subsequent government shutdown. His decision not to push for a public option in Obamacare and his failure to insist on cost controls for private health plans are two others. It’s sad that being a reasonable person in today’s Washington often doesn’t work. A less charitable interpretation is that Obama just wimped out. The hard truth is that a president has to be feared and respected by his opponents, not seen as a person who is more willing to compromise than draw lines. 

2. Obama's deportation of nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants
 
During his 2013 inaugural speech, Obama addressed immigration reform specifically, saying: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
 
However, Obama has deported nearly two million undocumented immigrants — more than any president in history. And a 2013 report found that Immigrations Custom Enforcement detained nearly 90 percent of undocumented immigrants in 2012 and the beginning of 2013 for non-serious offenses. Deportations have become so rampant that 61 percent of immigrant Hispanics said that deportation relief is more important than a pathway to citizenship. This past year alone, in an attempt to resist the craze, undocumented activists have chained themselves to the White House demanding “Not One More." They've blocked deportation buses, interrupted Obama’s speeches and 30 even crossed the border, which resulted in five of them getting deported. Last month, 29 House Democrats sent a letter to Obama, urging him to halt deportations. And five of these lawmakers will bring immigration activists as their guests to the SOTU address.
  
3. Obama's coziness with, and failure to regulate or punish, the big banks
 
The devastating financial crisis of 2007-08 was an opportunity for a transformative leader to take on the out-of-control banking industry, which has become a dangerous oligopoly that threatens the economy and preys upon American citizens. FDR did this during the Great Depression, ensuring a thorough investigation of wrongdoing and setting up rules and regulations that kept banks in line for many decades until the deregulatory fever of the 1980s once again unleashed them. 

Unfortunately, rather than bringing change, Obama has consistently surrounded himself with bank-friendly policy advisors who tend to believe that what is good for the banks is good for everyone. He has not made bringing criminal bankers to justice a priority, and his administration is clearly a revolving door for Wall Street. The biggest and most dangerous banks—JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—are even bigger than they were before the crisis. Scarcely a week passes without news of some new abuse committed by these institutions. Obama has failed to support obvious measures to rein in Wall Street, such as the financial transaction tax, and Dodd-Frank has been mostly defanged. Banks have enjoyed special treatment and record-breaking profits during Obama’s tenure, while ordinary Americans have struggled.

4. Obama's education "reformers" are corporate privatizers 
 
Looking for further proof of Obama’s neoliberal, anti-progressive bona fides? Then look no further than how his administration has approached public education over these past five years. 
 
From the moment the president chose Arne Duncan—who famously closed dozens of public schools and pushed privatization of the rest during his tenure as Chicago schools CEO—to head the Department of Education, it was clear that corporate interests would play a central role in the shaping of education policy. The administration’s signature education initiative, unveiled in late 2009, was nothing less than a chip off the old, failed policy block that defined George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” agenda. 
 
The Obama/Duncan “Race to the Top” initiative uses both carrots and sticks to lure schools to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funding; required is a willingness to commit to increasingly controversial testing and assessment—linking teacher evaluation to student performance—and an enthusiasm for shuttering low-performing schools and turning them over to charter operators to spur private investments wherever possible. 
 
These are not small concerns. As education historian Diane Ravitch noted in 2010, with Race to the Top, 
 
“[President Obama and Secretary Duncan] are heading in the wrong direction. On their present course, they will end up demoralizing teachers, closing schools that are struggling to improve, dismantling the teaching profession, destabilizing communities, and harming public education.” 
 
Who pays the price for these policies, none of which have actually been proven to work? The children and families of America. The neediest among us, of course, most of all.
 
5. Obama's call to ramp-up and embrace of our now pervasive surveillance state

In his first run for president, Obama repeatedly criticized George Bush for using post-9/11 programs to spy on American citizens. But after entering office, Obama has done nothing but ramp up all forms of surveillance, from metadata capture to wiretapping to recording phone log information of American citizens. Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's surveillance programs and capabilities shoot deep into the territory of science fiction and George Orwell's 1984. Obama's speech on the NSA and surveillance this January provided little in the way of peace of mind for any citizen concerned with maintaining a shred of privacy.  Robert Scheer got to the heart of the matter:

"Barack Obama’s speech on surveillance was his worst performance... in its stark betrayal of his oft-proclaimed respect for constitutional safeguards and civil liberty. His unbridled defense of the surveillance state opened the door to the new McCarthyism of Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein, the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who on Sunday talk shows were branding Edward Snowden as a possible Russian spy. 

"Somewhere in law school, Obama must have learned that the whole point of our Bill of Rights, inspired by American revolutionaries like Sam Adams, a Sons of Liberty co-conspirator, was to curtail government power as the main threat to freedom. Thus was Adams’ insistence on the Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment, banning the warrantless searches that Obama now seeks to justify."

6. Obama's dedication to secrecy and his hypocrisy about drones
 
Barack Obama owes a chunk of his election success to anti-war voters who turned out during the Democratic primaries in 2008, disgusted by Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize force on Iraq. But the man who became president has sorely disappointed many of the same anti-war voters with his expansion of the deadly drone war.

Since he was elected, President Obama has launched more 390 drone strikes—eight times the number George W. Bush oversaw. Obama has escalated the drone war in Pakistan—where the majority of attacks take place—and in Somalia and Yemen. The drone strikes, meant to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban, have killed scores of civilians, disrupted tribal life, brought about huge suffering and trauma and inflamed anger at the U.S. Four Americans have been killed in drone attacks, and the whole program remains shrouded in secrecy.

In response to a growing wave of criticism, Obama gave a landmark speech last year where he vowed that transparency would increase and that drone strikes would only occur when there was a “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed. Those promises have gone unfulfilled. The U.S. has yet to release a count of the civilians and militants it has killed or offer up the full legal rationale to Congress justifying these missile strikes. Meanwhile, civilians continue to die in Pakistan and Yemen, “collateral damage” from these drone attacks. The latest example came on December 12, 2013, when a drone attack in Yemen, said to be aimed at an Al Qaeda leader, killed 12 civilians driving as part of a wedding convoy.

7. Obama's attempt to ram through the corporation-loving, people-harming Trans-Pacific Partnership in secret

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a super-secret multinational corporate scheme sometimes described as "NAFTA on steroids," is one of Obama's worst initiatives. As secretive as it is, information about the TPP has been leaking out, and the more people hear about it, the worse it sounds. Fortunately, the light of day may also help to scuttle the deal. 

Wikileaks leaked the TPP Environmental Chapter [in mid-January]. The bottom line—there is no enforcement to protect the environment. The TPP is worse than President George W. Bush’s trade deals. Mainstream environmental groups are saying the TPP is unacceptable. Similarly, the leak of the Intellectual Property Chapter revealed that it created a path to patent everything imaginable, including plants and animals, to turn everything into a commodity for profit. The Obama administration was pushing it way beyond normal intellectual property law in order to increase profits for everything from pharmaceuticals to textbooks.

As Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese recently wrote for AlterNet: "After four years of secret negotiations with more than 600 corporate advisers, the once seemingly invincible largest trade bill in history, covering 40% of the world’s economy, looks very much like it can be defeated."
 
Why is the TPP looking like it can be stopped? According to Flowers and Zeese: 
 
"One reason is its secrecy. Leaks are sinking the TPP like the Titanic. ... The refrain is always the same: profits come first. The necessities of the people and protection of the planet come last."

Ron Kirk, the former U.S. trade rep, said they were keeping it secret because the more people knew, the less they would like the TPP and it would become so unpopular it could never become law. Each leak has proven him right.
 
8. Obama's failure to do much about the racist drug war and discriminatory sentencing

President Obama, a former heavy pot smoker in his youth, has very slowly and finally admitted a few painful realities about the drug war, which were just as true 5 years ago when he took office as now.

Obama recently told the New Yorker he thinks marijuana isn't any more harmful than alcohol (actually, it’s proven that cannabis is far less harmful the booze...but this is what we call progress).  He also said it is important for the new cannabis laws in Colorado and Washington to go forward "because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

But here, hypocrisy reigns supreme. Obama does not walk the walk of his talk. In 2011, drug offenders accounted for 48 percent of the federal prisoner population and 16 percent of the state prisoner population—and half of all of those people are incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, according to the Sentencing Project.

Last year the U.S. Department of Justice revised the law so that mandatory minimum sentences no longer applied to the majority of nonviolent drug offenders. However, Obama has only granted clemency to 8 of the more than 100,000 prisoners still serving time for drug related crimes in the country. And he still holds the record for granting the fewest pardons of any U.S. president.

And in a truly shocking move, according to Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times, Obama's Justice Department fought a Court recommendation to release thousands of federal inmates still serving time under the racist crack standards of pre-2010. So the full court overruled its panel, and those thousands continue to rot in jail with a law that in essence, due to its discriminatory effect, was illegal. Obama's words are empty until he actually takes the actions that are well within his power, to end the corrupt and racist war on drugs, and curb its devastating effects.

 9. Obama's counter productive energy policy

Calling someone “anti-science” is usually an epithet reserved for those clinging to creationism and climate denialism, and yet Obama’s embrace of an energy strategy using “all of the above” flies in the face of everything the world’s top scientists have been saying about the threats we face as a result of climate change. The scale of the accelerating climate catastrophe requires an energy policy grounded in the best science, prioritizing clean energy, and severely limiting the use and extraction of fossil fuels—not a namby-pamby “all of the above.” Not even close.

Inexcusable are the Obama administration’s embrace of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and the continual propping up of a dying coal industry that’s killing us along with itself. A great example, as Jeff Biggers outlines on AlterNet recently, was Obama’s Department of Energy gifting Big Coal $1 billion for a ‘clean coal’ boondoggle.

Also baffling and unacceptable is Obama’s green-lighting of the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, while hypocritically calling for more review of climate change impacts of the northern section. In light of the best science from the international community, the Obama administration should be figuring out how to move us away from dependence on tar sands, coal, oil and fracked gas as quickly as possible – not making them the centerpiece of his energy policy.

“An ‘all of the above’ strategy is a compromise that future generations can’t afford,” read a letter to Obamasigned by a coalition of the country’s major environmental organizations. “It fails to prioritize clean energy … it locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future. It threatens our health, our homes, our most sensitive public lands, our oceans and our most precious wild places.”

10. Obama's huge expansion of the number of countries where we are fighting secret wars with Special Ops

Bush was a real war monger, with his “Shock and Awe,”  “Mission Accomplished,” and wars of choice. But Obama, once seen as the anti-war candidate, has him soundly beat in the number of  secret wars with unconventional forces spread across the globe. After a thorough investigation, Nick Turse of Tom Dispatch recently reported the staggering fact that there are currently U.S. Special Ops in 70% of the world’s nations. “All over the planet, the Obama administration is waging a secret war whose full extent has never been fully revealed,” Turse wrote.

Turse  then offers an accounting of the exponential growth in Special Ops, which include Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos, specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, and civil affairs personnel, and much more.

“In the waning days of the Bush presidency, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world . . . In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe . . . This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.”  Like 9/11. That’s an example of blowback.