Domestic Policies, Continued:
5 – The Environment
Obama quoted environmental writers such as Michael Pollan and visibly countered the lunatic Republican denial of global warming. But soon it was clear that he was subtly supporting much of the agenda of the oil and petrochemical industries. In 2010 the administration began an ambitious antitrust initiative against Big Food but soon tabled the motion. “Whenever the Obamas seriously poked at Big Food,” writes Pollan, “they were quickly outlobbied and outgunned.” In 2013 Obama signed the corporate giveaway derisively known as the “Monsanto Protection Act” and the FDA decided to offer only voluntary guidelines for reducing antibiotic use by the meat industry.
From 2010 to 2014 (literally during the Deepwater Horizon disaster), his administration approved more than 1,500 permit applications for offshore drilling plans that included fracking at hundreds of wells across the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators issued more than 300 “categorical exclusions” to exempt such plans from environmental reviews, and backed away from challenging greenhouse emissions by Big Agriculture. And his administration poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster. Through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, it spent $34 billion supporting 70 fossil fuel projects around the world.
In 2016 he rolled over completely. In July he signed a law overturning state laws that labeled GMO foods. In September the administration quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million more acres for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and weakened the Endangered Species Act. In October he publicly made the ludicrous claim that fracking will lower green house gas emissions.
And in a little-known but potentially significant Children’s Lawsuit over Climate Change, his Justice Department argued in federal court alongside attorneys from the fossil fuel industry that the children had no legally defensible harm on which to base their claims. Regardless, in November, the judge allowed the case to proceed.
6 – The Supreme Court
Granted, Obama did the right thing – that is, he satisfied his feminist supporters – by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the court. But when he finally had the chance to establish the legacy of a liberal majority in 2016, his choice to replace the Neanderthal Antonin Scalia was the Republican “centrist” Merrick Garland.
7 – Veteran Affairs
Obama inherited another huge problem and did increase funding for veterans’ healthcare. But in 2013, when over 300,000 claims to the VA were still pending for 125 days or more, the VA stopped publishing casualty statistics. Furthermore, when taking into consideration all VA claims, including those in which veterans died waiting for a decision, those stuck in appeals and award adjustment, the VA’s inventory of claims is about 1.3 million.
8 – Education
Arne Duncan, Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Education, drew praise, tellingly, from Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and David Brooks because he was an advocate of privatization. Here we have a topic where we can focus on Mark Twain’s question: policies generated out of ignorance, or deliberately destructive? From the first perspective, “Common Core”, “Race to the Top” (which pitted states against each other in a competition for desperately needed money and encouraged administrators to privatize their schools) and the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” were simply wrong, if naïve, reformulations of Bush’s “No child Left Behind.”
Race to the Top funds favored districts that fired the most teachers, closed the most schools, and opened the most charters. These funds, more often than not, went directly into the hands of operators running charter schools that, with no governmental oversight, often turned out to be for-profit education scams. Meanwhile, the number of Black teachers in cities like Chicago declined dramatically.
Concerned teachers describe all of this as aspects of the “Education Industrial Complex,” with its standardized tests, expensive consultants, con artists and for-profit schooling. Why, they ask, do we still run schools as if they were factories? Why do we have charter schools? Bruce Dixon writes:
The Obama administration spent $4 billion in federal stimulus money…to incentivize the closing of thousands of so-called “underperforming public schools” mostly in black and poor communities. The near-complete absence of public accountability on the part of charter schools predictably ushered in a nationwide white collar crime wave, as charter school operators, their officers, contractors and their sugar daddy investors scrambled for shares of the cash that used to go to public education.
This question brings us to the second option – deliberately destructive – and ultimately into the world of myth. In this case, the stories are the toxic mimic of initiation, which I described in Chapter Five of my book, and the sacrifice of the children, which I wrote about in Chapters Six and Ten.
We still run schools as if they were factories because capitalism intends the vast majority of children to work in factories – if any factories still exist – and to be compliant consumers of the products those factories produce. American public education has had that intention for 140 years, and Obama’s tinkering simply condemned another generation of children to be dumbed down out of any sense of being citizens, out of any sense of self-worth, out of any sense of trust in their elders.
9 – Poverty, Jobs and the Safety Net
American theology is very clear on this issue: the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor, because as individuals they lack moral standards; and systemic deficiencies have nothing to do with their condition. Helping them simply reinforces their dependency on government, and disciplining them with only the barest of assistance (relative to all European nations) is the only way to make them take responsibility for themselves. And to judge by the policies of recent presidents, liberals subscribe to this theology of misery nearly as fully as conservatives do.
Obama inherited an economic mess from Bush and poverty was rising quickly. But he merely tinkered with an essentially conservative pattern of welfare reform that had actually begun under Clinton: handing welfare over to the states, limiting the time people could receive assistance and forcing them to work for their welfare in an economy that had no new jobs to offer them other than dead-end “McJobs.”
In 2014 he signed a bill that cut food stamps by $9 billion. Despite his stimulus plan, by the end of his second term, 43 million Americans (23 million households) were still on food stamps and 14.5 % were officially in poverty. The real number, of course, is far higher. Consider that a two-adult, two-child household making $25,000 per year (or with four children, making $33,000/year) is above that official threshold, and that some researchers claim that well over 50% of the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less.
The simple fact is that Welfare reform reduced the numbers by kicking people off the rolls, not by employing them. Now, more and more have neither welfare nor work. Jordan Weissman writes:
Old-school welfare used to assist the vast majority of impoverished families. Workfare (or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) reaches just about a quarter of them…we have a half-functioning economy, and one of our safety-net programs for the poorest families has been designed in order to keep as many of them out as possible.
Just before the 2016 election, Obama claimed, “We turned a recession into a record streak of job growth.” In December he bragged that his policies had “added more than 15 million new jobs… We cut unemployment in half, years before a lot of economists thought we would.” Actually, ten million jobs were created – only two-thirds of his claim, and an astonishingly 94% of them were temporary or part-time. According to Investing.com,
Female workers suffered most heavily…as work in traditionally feminine fields, like education and medicine, declined…the proportion of workers throughout the U.S., during the Obama era, who were working in these kinds of temporary jobs, increased from 10.7% of the population to 15.8%…The disappearance of conventional full-time work, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work, has hit every demographic…Under Obama, 1 million fewer workers, overall, are working than before the beginning of the Great Recession.
The palpably mendacious, official unemployment figures that do include those “McJobs” do not include those who went on Social Security early because they couldn’t find work after the recession, the 2.2 million people in prison, or the vast numbers of “permanently discouraged” who’ve given up looking for work.
The actual rate of US unemployment is close to 25%. A record 95 million adults are not in the labor force, up from 80 million when Obama took office. No one really knows how many have full-time, well paid, secure – not to mention meaningful or satisfying – jobs. But clearly the lack of them was a major factor in the rise of Trump. A survey cited by Forbes Magazine at the beginning of 2016 indicated that over half of Americans had less then $1,000 to their name.
10 – Race
The final aspect of Obama’s domestic policies is race. Certainly, he must at least have addressed the condition of his most basic constituency, people who had suffered terribly under Bush (and equally under Clinton). Of course, the rise of Trump and his ilk is partially a reaction to the presence of an African-American president. In this sense, it certainly isn’t Obama’s fault. But it also reflects mass disillusionment and anger at an economy that Obama’s financial backers helped destroy. And it certainly reflects a broad disengagement from politics and/or search for right-wing heroes that stems from the Democratic Party’s turn to the right, something set into motion twenty-five years ago by the Clintons and furthered by Obama.
The economic downturn affected people of color far more than it did whites, and the feeble recovery did little to change this situation. Blacks with college degrees still have unemployment rates nearly as high as white high school graduates. Blacks with some college education still have higher rates than white high school dropouts. At each level of education, the black unemployment rate remains twice as high as the white rate. Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than unemployed whites.
Indeed, their relative economic position on virtually all indicators has not improved since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2013 black households had one-thirteenth of the median wealth of median white households. Forty percent of black children are growing up in poverty. One of every eight prisoners in the world is an African-American.
One could, of course, argue that Obama could do little to affect the broader conditions of last-stage capitalism, especially with Republicans constantly obstructing him. But Obama repeatedly made it clear that he shared their basic “blame the victim” philosophy. This perspective, writes William A. Darity Jr., argues that
…an important factor explaining racial economic disparities is self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks themselves. And Barack Obama continuously has trafficked in…the tropes of black dysfunction. Either he is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the evidence that undercuts the black behavioral deficiency narrative…And it has been damaging to have Barack Obama, a black man speaking from the authoritative platform of the presidency, reinforce the widely held belief that racial inequality in the United States is, in large measure, the direct responsibility of black folk.
This prejudice underlay Obama’s lack of interest in universal, systemic dysfunction or in bold policies that might have confronted the fundamental causes of racial disparity, such as a public-sector employment guarantee for all Americans, or significant investment in job-rich alternative energies. By contrast, one of the functions the gatekeepers vetted Obama to perform was, in Glen Ford’s words, “the biggest escalation in the history of the one-sided war against Black America:”
Obama is the biggest domestic war hawk in the history of the United States – bigger than Bush, Clinton and all his predecessors…What separates the current era of mass Black incarceration, and all of its attendant police atrocities, from the period before the 1960s, is that the “New Jim Crow” has been financed and directed by the federal government. In previous eras, mass incarceration was a state affair. However, since passage of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1968, the feds have made suppression of Black people a national priority, directing, coordinating and financing a vast expansion and militarization of local police, as well as a seven-fold increase in per-capital prison capacity…a war (Obama) escalated before the emergence of a new Black movement, rather than in response to it.
The value of military weapons, gear and equipment transferred to local police never exceeded $34 million annually until 2010, Obama’s second year, when it leaped to $91 million. By 2014, the year that Michael Brown was killed, Obama was sending $787 million a year in battlefield weaponry to local cops. He oversaw a 24-fold increase in the militarization of the police between 2008 and 2014. Even with the scale-back announced in 2015, Obama still managed to transfer $459 million – 14 times as much as Bush had gifted to the local police at his high point year of 2008. They proceeded to kill approximately 10,000 people, most of them black and Latino.
In February 2016 Black Lives Matter founder Aislinn Pulley declined an invitation to the White House:
I was under the impression that a meeting was being organized to facilitate a genuine exchange on the matters facing millions of Black and Brown people in the United States. Instead, (it) was basically a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president. I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it.
As cops were killing thousands of Blacks – 1134 of them in 2015 alone – Obama granted them immunity from federal prosecution. His second Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the she would not require police to keep statistics of their murder victims.
That same year the administration successfully opposed full voting rights for Samoans, citing the 1901 Insular Acts. As a result, four million Americans living in Puerto Rico (with a greater population than 21 U.S. states), Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands – almost all of them people of color – were prevented from voting for President.
Don’t let this last fact pass by without considering the implications. Had an African-American, Democratic President not taken this position, not only would Trump have lost but Clinton, regardless of the widespread computer fraud, would certainly have won in a major landslide. The most generous explanation is that the Democratic power elite did not want to empower a large number of progressive voters and assumed that she would win without them. The least generous is that they – Barack Obama – preferred to lose the Presidency (and the Congress and the Supreme Court) rather than empower people of color.
After the election, Obama announced that the main focus of his political activity after leaving office would be to support a campaign headed by Eric Holder. It would focus on reforming the gerrymandering that had resulted in Republican control at the local level (and, they might have added, the mass voter suppression that, rather than Russian hacking, actually had elected Trump). This news was particularly galling to black activists. Since the reactionary 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting the enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Democrats had not introduced a single bill in Congress that might have mitigated the impact of the decision.
Read Part Seven here.