Thanks Obama is a phrase with a few different meanings:
- Sarcastic criticism, with the intention of tearing down Obama. As in, “You saved the banks and the auto industry, but I’m still upside down in my house. Thanks Obama.”
- Sarcastic counter-criticism, with the intention of deflating his critics. As in, “I tripped on my shoelace this morning. Thanks Obama.”
- Genuine gratitude, as in, “I am finally able to have insurance for my family. Thanks Obama.”
I am feeling all three meanings of the phrase right now. I feel like partisanship has vilified the President into a cartoon character who wants to do anything from take people’s guns to convening death panels that decide which defenseless retirees get to live and die. Recognizing this, I’ve dropped my own sarcastic counter-criticism “Thanks Obama” on occasion.
I also feel genuine gratitude. For the last eight years we’ve had a man in the White House who has been able to avoid personal scandals that bring shame to his office. By all accounts, Barack Obama seems to be a good man, a thoughtful husband, and a loving father. I used to think this wasn’t a very high bar to expect from the President of our nation, but this latest election has proven me naive. As a father who is worried about the effect and influence that public officials have on children, I am very grateful for the Obama Presidency. In addition, President Obama has done much for America’s reputation around the world. I lived abroad for two years of the Bush presidency, this is a huge relief. Deserved or not, America had a reputation as a greedy oppressor, willing to kill anybody, and violate any sovereignty to get what it wanted. There are definitely still things to criticize, but at least Americans did not feel the need to claim Canada when traveling as often under Obama.
This brings me to the last, and most disappointing “Thanks Obama.” It is not uncommon for Presidents to push the limits of their office. However, starting with 9/11 the Bush administration began a startling consolidation of power within the Executive Branch. The ‘limits‘ to the President‘s power would now be defined by executive legal interpretations, not the legal system or Congress. Despite running on a platform of Bush criticism, Obama continued the same trend of taking more and more authority for the executive branch and undermining governmental checks and balances to his own power. He has continued the long, sad trajectory of making the President the center of American political life. Although it is the Congress that passes laws and oversees the budget, nothing seems to get done anymore if it doesn’t start with the President.
When faced with public outcry over Constitution-violating state surveillance, he has patronizingly told us we need to have balance in our technological security, as he holds all the cards. Every acronymed institution in our government answers to the head of the Executive Branch, the President. Under his watch, we have seen the American military greatly increase its use of drones resulting in untold collateral damage and civilian deaths and the targeted execution of at least one American citizen without trial. The NSA has acted with impunity in violating the privacy of citizens at the same time that the Obama administration has harshly targeted whistleblowers. The judicial department has refused to defend certain laws that were deemed unpopular. For each skirting of Constitutional standards Obama was ready with a justification, many of which would be widely supported. For all his rhetorical powers, each justification comes down to this, “in general it is bad to subvert civic norms, however I’ve thought really hard about this and it is the most pragmatic way to achieve my goals, which most of us agree are good. I welcome a healthy debate on these complicated issues.” We’re free to debate, in the meantime he’s going to do what seems best.
Here’s the biggest problem. You may trust Obama’s goals and intentions. He seems to be an honorable man. However, he is not the President forever, and every precedent he set will be used as a jumping-off point for his successors. Once institutional power is gained, it is almost never relinquished voluntarily. Just 8 days away from the inauguration, President Obama’s administration has made it easier for the NSA to share the results of its unsupervised dragnet with any government agency who wants access. The implications of what could happen with this data under the new and future presidents are chilling. Obama has not only unlocked the White House’s gun safe. He’s loaded the chamber and left the gun on the coffee table, just as a three year old is about to take charge of the place.
As you can see, my feelings are complicated. President Obama is a good man who has been treated unfairly, but his real legacy may be as the man who set us up for ruin.