This response to a GQ article was written in August of 2016 and saved for President Obama’s farewell speech for maximum effect.
Sadly, due to the current state of journalism in today's media market, what with the oversaturation of vapid political commentary, it is becoming less and less uncommon to stumble upon pieces severely lacking in astute observation and penetrating analysis. While much of this phenomena can undoubtedly be attributed to the increasingly divisive nature of the American political landscape and the concomitant desire held by many Americans to surround themselves in echo chambers consonant with their own deeply held beliefs, it is alarming nonetheless to see so many journalists willing to offer these ill-conceived banalities as fodder for those willing to listen. Most recently I had the displeasure of reading a fawning piece of vacuous adulation authored by GQ's Jim Nelson entitled "Why Obama Will Go Down as One of the Greatest Presidents of All Time" which left a lot to be desired in laying out a coherent case for the astounding measure of greatness our outgoing Commander in Chief reputedly attained during his incumbency. Given the track record of the current administration and it's contentious reception across large swaths of the American public, I would submit that proving the argument laid out in the short title premise stands as an incredibly tall order, to say the least, and one for which Mr. Nelson did not seem up to the task.
Despite this astonishingly presumptuous initial contention, at the outset of his unctuous paean, Mr. Nelson proceeds to embolden his claim with even more sonorous proclamations of President Obama's preeminence. He begins:
"Something is dawning on us—it’s almost too soon for us to admit, but it’s there, a half-considered thought only now blooming in our brains. Maybe we dismiss it with one of those quick cognitive fly swats. Nah, too early to say or I hate that guy. But the truth is coming, and it sounds like this: Barack Obama will be inducted into the league of Great Presidents.
Wait. One of the Greatest? you ask, your thumb emoticon poised to turn up or down on me. The guy haters love to hate with their very best hate game? Like 20-Dollar Bill great? Like Mount Rushmore great?
Yep. (We just won’t build Mount Rushmores anymore.) In so many ways, Obama was better than we imagined, better than the body politic deserved, and far, far better than his enemies will ever concede, but the great thing about being great is that the verdict of enemies doesn’t matter.
In fact, and I say this as a Bill Clinton fan, I now feel certain that, in the coming decades, Obama’s star will rise higher than Clinton’s, and he’ll replace Bill in the public mind as the Greatest Democrat since FDR."
Needless to say, this is high praise of the sort one might expect to see supported by a bevy of clearly articulated, indisputable findings pertinent to the author's assertion. Instead, we readers are treated to a mishmash of questionable observations buttressed by a surprising deficiency of substantiated impartial facts as well as the mostly unobjective musings of the author's own dubious purport. He continues with:
"This has to do with the nature of Obama’s leadership, which is to play to legacy (and Clinton’s impulse, which is to play to the room). Bill Clinton will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the presidency. He’s simply bigger than Bill.
More to the point, Obama’s legacy is the sort that gets canonized. Because the first rule of Hall of Fame-dom: The times have to suck for the president not to. Civil wars, World Wars, depressions and recessions. You got to have ’em if you wanna be great. That’s why we rate the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts over That Fat Guy with the Walrus Mustache. Like Obama, these Great Men were dealt sucky hands, won big, and left the country better off than it was before.
But it’s also why we downgrade the Jimmy Carters and Herbert Hoovers. Were they as bad in real time as we remember them in history? Probably not. But they were dealt sucky hands, only played one round, and left the country feeling worse off. Legacy Game over. (Hoover reminds me more and more of Donald Trump! Elected with little political experience, Hoover was a rich bastard whose central theme was that government was wasteful. His answer to the Great Depression was to start a trade war and build a massive project called the Hoover Dam. The dam turned out to be a giant wall that did not stop or solve larger problems. Déjà vu, thy name is Trump Wall!)"
Witty allusions to one of Donald Trump’s more delusional campaign promises aside, the postulation here that President Obama was dealt a “sucky” hand then “left the country better off than it was before” is a subjectively indolent averment which the author lets stand on its own questionable merits, bereft of any supporting evidence whatsoever. A contradictory argument can easily be mounted, painting a far less sanguine picture than the writer’s hopelessly myopic revelry assumes. For example, yes, the US economy is in a significantly better place than it was when Mr. Obama took the oath of office. However, this conveniently ignores the fact that his administration presided over the most tepid and lethargic economic recovery in modern times (since WWII in fact). This sluggish growth, a paltry 1.55% average thus far during his tenure, can be directly attributed to the President’s onerously burdensome regulatory and spending policies which simultaneously act to stifle and crowd out productive private sector expansion. By comparison, President Reagan’s administration engineered a set of propitious economic circumstances that led to a salubrious 3.5% annual GDP growth rate following the recession he inherited from Jimmy Carter.
By this point in his encomium it is readily apparent that Mr. Nelson is willing to completely disregard any countervailing arguments that might be construed as indicating a less than stellar economic record for the outgoing Commander in Chief. And there are plenty of arguments to be had, from the precipitous decline in workforce participation (65.7% down to 62.8%, lowest since 1978), to meager job creation numbers, to the increased number of Americans living below the poverty line (up 3.5%), to the retrenchment of real median household income (down 2.3%), as well as the 39.5% increase in the number of Americans relying on food stamps. None of these statistics presage the rosy image of a triumphant leader whose inimitable ability to vanquish our country’s economic woes is unparalleled in modern times. Instead, they betray the image of a middling governor simply struggling to get by. Of course, to be fair, Mr. Nelson may be referring to public impressions instead of economic realities, however, when nearly 65% of the US population thinks the country is going in the wrong direction, there is clearly an element of dissatisfaction that is impossible to ignore (unless of course you are writing a biased article for GQ). While I will concede that the President’s job approval numbers have hovered around 50% for much of his time in office, at some point voter discontent and dwindling confidence in the outcomes of policies must be taken into account. Perhaps the disparity between voter sentiments toward the man, the myth , the legend and his actual policy results can be explained by his eloquence as an orator or the magnanimous quality of his comport, on which Mr. Nelson expounds:
"Obama has a few other edges in the long haul of history, beyond specific hurrah moments like Obamacare, rescuing the economy, and making America way more bi-curious. Being the first black president of course secures a certain legacy. But what now feels distinctly possible is that, just as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, over time he may be judged less for the color of his skin than for the content of his character. That character came across every time haters or Trumpers or birthers tried to pull him down into the mud or question his American-ness. He just flew above it all. And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule. At a time when we became more polarized, our discourse pettier and more poisoned, Obama always came across as the Adult in the Room, the one we wanted to be and follow.
Ironically, one of the lock-ins to his Hall of Fame Greatness was originally supposed to be his Achilles’ heel, the shallow thing critics loved to smear him with: his eloquence, his “reliance” on speeches and teleprompters (Sarah Palin once famously screeched, “Mr. President…step away from the teleprompter and do your job!” while herself reading from a teleprompter), as if addressing the country as a whole, trying to unify or inspire people, were a superficial thing. But pivotal words at pivotal moments are not only how we come to admire great leaders, it’s the primary way we remember them. The first thing most people can recall about Lincoln? The Gettysburg Address. FDR? Fireside chats. George Washington? His amazing Snapchats. (George was first with everything.)
With Obama, each thoughtful step of the way, from his soaring acceptance speech (“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep…”) to his epic speeches on race and religion, his responses to the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of Cuba (“Todos somos Americanos!”), and countless other momentous occasions, he knew how to speak to our better angels at a time when it was hard to locate any angels."
I’m sorry but being a magnificent elocutionist does not, a great leader, make (nor does happening to be the “first” of whatever race, creed, sex or any other social identity groups that politicians so thoroughly enjoy dividing us into in furtherance of their own selfish ambitions). While the President’s ability to articulate ideas with finesse and mental acuity is no doubt impressive, the façade of his sincerity is at times betrayed by his use of loaded phrases like “common sense” which display a sententious arrogance utilized in assiduous fashion to undermine and delegitimize very real and valid opposition to the ideas and policies that Mr. Obama espouses; in short, dismissing out of hand any demurral towards his positions as unworthy of consideration. Additionally, it’s all well and good to wax eloquently about the unifying effect of language deployed in a felicitous manner, but at a time when America is more divided than ever, it would appear that the President’s rhetoric was often interpreted as more divisive than conciliatory. And this is one of the few areas in which Americans of all stripes can find agreement. Polls show that disfavorable views held by various ethnic, religious, racial, political and even age groups towards their relations with “others” have soared to heights not seen in decades. This is hardly an indication of harmonious solidarity being engendered across our heterogeneous nation by its leader’s lofty magniloquence as the author of this piece describes. But, alas, Mr. Nelson goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t expect too much from our elected officials these days anyway, given the polarized climate in which they are forced to operate:
"Lastly, there’s the arc of history, bound to bend downward. As our unity becomes more frayed, more tenuous, and the ability for any politician to get anything done more unlikely, the job of president will become less LBJ tactical and less FDR big-dealer. The job will largely be to preside. To unify where and however we can. In this way, too, Obama pointed the way forward."
This is an obvious hedge against the notion that someone, such as myself, could potentially be left feeling underwhelmed by the totality of President Obama’s so-called “accomplishments” (not to mention, quite the clever disguise for our fearless leader's own intransigence regarding many an issue dear to his heart). Lowering the bar of achievement is a proven way to ensure favorable recognition for those you support, regardless of their actual performance. Here the author offers us no satisfactory reasoning for his fallacious postulation that the “arc of history” is “bound to bend downwards”. And that’s because there is absolutely no logical rationale as to why that would be the case. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Just look at any momentous effort that faced long odds and vehement resistance throughout the history of our species. I’ve got to imagine there were more than a few cave people utterly skeptical of the invention of fire to the point of being willing to kill over its usage, until of course there weren’t anymore. Societal turbulence has never existed in perpetuity, nor has it ever been entirely eradicated. Our history shows that the perceived quality of life and times are almost always cyclical and contingent upon ever changing externalities whose effects ripple across civilizations in ways that are nearly impossible to predict or sometimes even properly discern. What is not up for debate is the general concept that mankind is constantly improving its quality of life over time, creating hordes independent free thinkers who would happily stand united against the status quo of ever increasing government necessity, making this tendentious endorsement of centralized, yet ineffectual leadership an incredibly naïve and puerile observation indeed. Actually, I find it quite disappointing and somewhat demoralizing to see a high minded intellectual like Mr. Nelson resigned to such a dismal fate. To him, it seems, Obama’s Presidency will be the last bright spot in an otherwise steadily declining world, as the darkened pall of different opinions tears at the fabric of humanity until the point at which we all become paralyzed by government’s inability to perform its “duties”. Thankfully I predict we will have disabused ourselves of our fanciful convictions which lead us to believe that obedience and reliance upon government, to at least some degree, is imperative to a salutary human existence. Unfortunately Mr. Nelson does not share my optimism:
"It may be hard to imagine now, but in the face of rising chaos, we’ll crave unity all the more, and in future years whoever can speak most convincingly of unity will rise to the top. (It’s also hard to imagine many beating Obama at the game.) This year’s carnival election, with Trump as a kind of debauched circus barker, only makes the distinction clearer. The absurdity and car-crash spectacle of it all have already lent Obama an out-of-time quality, as if he were a creature from another, loftier century. Whatever happens next, I feel this in my bones: We’ll look back at history, hopefully when we’re zooming down the Barack Obama Hyperloop Transport System, and think: That man was rare. And we were damn lucky to have him."
Given what we’ve read, it would be foolish to expect anything other than this saccharine denouement complete with an evocative narrative detailing Mr. Nelson’s prematurely wistful anguish at the thought of President Obama leaving the oval office at the end of his term. Still, even here he manages to make brazenly reductive predictions about how things will forever and always be from here on out, despite the fact that his prognostication of “whoever can speak most convincingly of unity will rise to the top” literally flies in the face of what we are all witnessing right now throughout the Hillary and Trump campaigns. Politics are a reflection of the times, and as of right now, it seems no one is pining for the unity of which Mr. Nelson speaks. However, my repudiation of Mr. Nelson’s extravagant homage to President Obama only addresses the shallow insights he has offered in defense of his glorified idol. What about the aspects Mr. Nelson has not addressed?
To get a complete picture of the colossal failures of the Obama Presidency, we must delve deeper beyond his flowing elegance and grandeur or the vague perception that he had anything at all to do with the economic recovery other than to impede its progress. Take, for example, his crowning achievement: the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). As of right now, this program is an abject disaster. Insurance agencies are closing their doors in droves as arduous mandates for coverage drive these businesses towards insolvency. The lack of competition is leading to skyrocketing prices for medical treatment as the process of adverse selection continues to create a death spiral effect on insurance markets in which there aren’t enough healthy people enrolling to offset the costs of the infirmed. Taxpayers are on the hook for exponentially expanding government guarantees associated with the program and premiums for those who do buy insurance on the exchanges have been sharply elevated. At the moment, it appears the President’s biggest exploit while in office will be the total decimation of the private insurance industry, paving the way for someone else to come in and implement a single payer system that will wreak havoc on our country’s finances. And that’s just his most prominent “accomplishment”. We also have his dramatic expansion and full-throated defense of the security state to consider. Remember the Edward Snowden revelations? And what about his administration’s total lack of transparency despite one of his campaign promise to deliver the most transparent presidency in US history? We also must consider his record of deporting more illegal immigrants and killing more innocent civilians (and some not so innocent combatants) in the name of an abstract War on Terror than any other president. That he will likely become the first president in US history to spend every single day of his eight year presidency at war is a reality that must not be forgotten. Yet probably his most pernicious feat attained while in office was his proliferation of a mind numbing quantity of new regulations, each with its own unique compliance costs imposed on the public. The Federal Register is expected to approach more than 90,000 pages of regulations, a new record for US bureaucratic infrastructure, exceeding the President's previous high water mark set just a year ago. And then there are the things he didn’t do, like failing to take action in reducing the deleterious effects of the war on drugs, combating our nation’s habitual over-incarceration in any meaningful way as well as coming up short in instituting a comprehensive or even consequential tax reform. Even as he worked to reduce our budget deficits, he still wasn’t able to stop the federal debt from ballooning from $10.63 trillion with a “T” to a whopping $19.19 trillion. All facts blithely forgotten by our beloved author in his attempt to make a case for President Obama’s incomparable greatness. All reasons why President Obama cannot and will NOT go down as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
Link to GQ Article: http://www.gq.com/story/obama-greatest-president-legacy