I was disturbed by the worshipful reverence implied in the smaller news item inserted into the story of President Biden’s inauguration on January 20 of this year.
Sure, most Americans were happy to see the end of the chaotic, disastrous and disgraceful presidency of Donald Trump and happy to usher in what we all hoped would be a much more deliberate, thoughtful, honest and transparent presidency. Although Joe Biden’s tenure has yet to be judged, the end of Trump’s certainly has caused a national sigh of relief.
And I assume to help make that point we were treated to a dramatically posed and videoed meeting among three of our ex-presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, where we could hear them reminisce and ruminate about the “peaceful transfer of power” in which they all participated and position themselves as contrasts to the last four years. For many viewers and observers perhaps it worked. I mean, who wouldn’t look good next to Donald Trump. Whose administration would not shine when compared to the destructive wrecking crew of ne’er-do-wells who populated Trump’s cabinet – from Betsy DeVos to Scott Pruitt – all bent on destroying that which they were appointed to protect.
But I had a problem with this video – not with the sentiment expressed by these ex presidents about the peaceful transition of power, which was quite appropriate, but with being reminded as I looked at each one and remembered their respective eight-year presidencies, of how flawed our recent presidents and their legacies have been. The reflective gathering of these three should have been not a celebration but a commiseration. All three have huge black marks on their respective administrations that will define them forever and that history will not erase.
In order – Bill Clinton and his “triangulation” strategy caused no end of misfortune for America. His “middle ground” abandonment of principles of the Democratic Party that got him elected and embrace of right wing policies to ingratiate him with the Republican Party resulted in some disastrous legislation. His crime bill, in the words of NYTimes columnist Charles Blow, “…flooded the streets with police officers and contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts Black men and their families. It helped to drain Black communities of fathers, uncles, husbands, partners and sons….”.
And then there was Clinton’s welfare reform bill which would “end welfare as we know it”, when he took another page from the Republican playbook by changing welfare to a block grant program for each state, inadequate to begin with, and which assured significant disparity among more and less generous states. His program also dictated onerous work requirements which presented impossible transportation burdens for poor families and, worst of all, ran out at an established point, depositing many one parent and struggling families right back into the gutter of despair and hopelessness from which they were trying to escape and where they remained.
Then there were Clinton’s clumsy foreign policy forays, which included “Operation Infinite Reach” – the bombing of purported terrorist havens in Afghanistan and a western built pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, claimed to be manufacturing nerve gas. These attacks were violations of international law and failed to achieve anything except enhancing Osama bin Laden’s reputation and strengthening the terrorist resolve that resulted in the disaster of 9/11. Along with his ill-conceived assault in Somalia culminating in the infamous Mogadishu firefight of October 1993, our friend Bill should be forever contrite and repentant.
Another signature bill of Clinton’s presidency was the oft-touted North American Free Trade Agreement, known better as NAFTA, which accelerated the departure of manufacturing from America to low wage countries like Mexico. Why the hollowed-out cities of Michigan and Ohio with boarded up factory buildings? NAFTA is the reason. The loss of well paid, unionized manufacturing jobs was a huge contributor to destroying the middle class and making the United States the most unequal country among OECD nations. With NAFTA the corporations, their CEO’s and their stockholders got richer and their former employees got poorer.
The corporate takeover of Medicare also began with Bill Clinton. It was during his administration that private healthcare corporations were first allowed to administer Medicare programs to seniors. First called Medicare “Choice” programs, they eventually morphed into the myriad “Medicare Advantage” programs of today, which offer “enhanced” medicare providing additional benefits like dental care, hearing and drug coverage and so on at great taxpayer cost through requiring Medicare to pay a hefty annual coverage cost to private companies, who then profit by limiting coverage (See my upcoming article on this subject).
And then, of course, Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern forever blemished the US presidency. Yes, one might argue that other presidents had their weak moments too, certainly FDR, Eisenhower and Kennedy come to mind. But Clinton’s were not tastefully hidden but blazoned in the headlines for all of us to see and feel.
So perhaps President Clinton, standing so dramatically with those two other ex presidents, should have been apologizing to his colleagues and to the American people instead of discussing the “peaceful transition of power”.
Then there was George W. Bush, the biggest failure of all, standing in the twilight with Bill and Barack. He manipulated intelligence and initiated a catastrophic war of choice with Iraq which should be described with terms like “illegal. war crime, deception, lies, immoral, mass murder” that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while making the world a more dangerous place. In addition to the money, now calculated by Brown University’s Cost of War project at $1.922 trillion (averaging about $8000 for every US taxpayer) and the lives lost, estimated to be more than 300,000, we left a dreadfully unstable and still struggling Iraq. Plus our friend Mr. Bush gave the ok for “black sites” and legalization of torture, leaving a most shameful and permanent blemish on the character of our nation. Actually, the costs of Bush’s entire “War on Terror”, which would include not only Iraq, but also Afghanistan and military actions in more than 80 other countries all over the globe, and which accomplished little but further deterioration of our reputation, have tallied an astonishing cost of $6.4 trillion and 601,000 precious lives lost. Thank you, George W. Bush.
And of course, we remember “W”’s disastrous reaction to Hurricane Katrina. It’s really hard to imagine a more detached, uncaring posture in the face of such a huge disaster, but there he was, after interrupting an already disgracefully long 27 day vacation on his Texas ranch, disdainfully viewing the deadly catastrophe from the distance and safety of Air Force One. Then, eventually on the ground and finally trying to lead, he comes out with his immortal statement to inept FEMA director Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”. This dismal performance as president in the face of terrible disaster will long be remembered.
And guess who privatized and deregulated the Texas power grid, severed it from those in adjacent states to prevent any federal oversight, and placed it under the control of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)? Yes, George W. Bush did all this while serving as governor of Texas, calling it “The nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation” – an extraordinarily expensive and deadly experiment, with Texas residential consumers paying ten of billions more for their power than state’s traditional utilities, most of it going into the pockets of investors, power company CEOs, and the campaign coffers of Texas Republican politicians. And we all know what happened when the changing climate sent a huge cold wave to Texas this past winter – approximately 800 people died and the the state sustained billions in property damage. Thank you for that too, George W. Bush.
So Bush, as detailed in a superb New York Magazine article the “painter”, the “artist”, is trying to launder his reputation and sanitize his legacy with his vapid portraiture. Oh yes, “inspired by Churchill”, he is painting portraits of immigrants, including fellow war criminal Henry Kissinger and marketing a book celebrating his “artistry” with all the power he can. Why? Does he need the money? Hardly – he’s been a multimillionaire for decades for whom politics and now art have been a hobby. He’s just doing everything he can to make us forget his disastrous presidency and unfortunately we’re mostly going along with him. And George W. Bush, war criminal, had the gall to appear on BookTV being interviewed by none other than his own daughter and expounding on his new career and book.
Oh, and let’s not forget that like every good Republican president, “W” also cut taxes for the wealthy in 2001 and 2003 under the guise of “tax relief”, a Frank Luntz term that I illustrated in another article. So George W., paint and pontificate all you want. You will never live down the legacy of being one of the worst, most disastrous of all US presidents.
And good old President Barack Obama, now basking in the riches obtained by he and Michelle’s movie production deal with Netflix and the considerable royalties from the first volume of his presidential memoirs, should be sadly looking back at a failed presidency. Oh sure, he was a distinguished leader on the world stage, might be the most eloquent of all of our presidents, and indisputably was our first black president, but he could have done so much more, were he not locked in the embrace of neoliberal orthodoxy. His vaunted “hope and change” never materialized – we all hoped but nothing much changed.
Surrounded by advisors recruited from the ranks of Goldman Sachs he chose Wall Street over Main Street, bailing out the very same big banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008 instead of prosecuting them and failed to help the millions who lost their sole store of wealth – their homes. Yes, President Obama refused to prosecute those who caused the crash of 2008, in contrast to the thousands of prosecutions following the savings and loan debacle of the ’80’s and ’90’s and chose instead to bail out the big banks, the real culprits, instead of common people who were losing their homes. And the stimulus finally passed to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and livelihoods was far too small, causing the recovery to drag on for much too long. Furthermore and very important, this choice fueled an era of populist rage and resentment that infected the country and paved the way for the election of Donald Trump.
And while all of us hoped for something better, President Obama forever doomed American medical care to be a for-profit corporate “product” by allowing the Affordable Care Act to be virtually written by the health care and pharmaceutical industries. True, it extended “affordable” healthcare to additional millions of people but at the huge cost of government subsidies to healthcare corporations. “Obamacare” – ostensibly a compromise between liberals and moderates, was in reality a giveaway to the already corporatized healthcare industry. And Biden’s much touted “enhancement” of Obamacare and the aforementioned Medicare Advantage programs have tightened corporate America’s grip on American healthcare and have made transition to a much less expensive and far more efficient single payer government run program which would cover every single person in the country from birth to death increasingly difficult and now maybe impossible.
Also, it was President Obama who, perhaps unwittingly, signed the deceptively named Ensuring Patient Access and Drug Enforcement Act, which stripped the DEA of power to staunch the flow of opioid pills outside of normal avenues of prescription and distribution, protecting drug manufacturers and their distributors and making it easier for them to get away with exacerbating the epidemic of overdoses and death. And it’s interesting to note that the bill’s most passionate advocate, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, was later nominated by Donald Trump to be his “drug czar”.
Plus while president our friend Barack Obama embarked on a series of ill advised and illegal executions, an example of which certainly was the much ballyhooed “capture” of Osama bin Laden, who actually was murdered extrajudicially instead of being brought back to the US to face justice. Yes, our “constitutional scholar and professor” president who campaigned against the death penalty, actually kept a “kill list” and was only too happy to execute any number of Muslims without charges or trials, some of whom were US citizens, along with dozens of innocent bystanders, who likely were deemed mere “collateral damage”.
Another shameful feature of the Obama presidency was his treatment of whistleblowers. Of course, Mr. Obama, boasted of his administration’s “transparency”, promising “a new era of open government”, but betrayed that pledge time and time again, spearheading eight Espionage Act prosecutions, more than all US administrations combined. The Obama administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Donald Sachtleben, Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and the very latest, Daniel Hale, whose prosecution began under Obama, continued through Trump and will conclude under Biden, was shameful and contrasts shockingly with the preferential treatment of David Petraeus, guilty of the same sharing of government secrets.
When considering the aforementioned, why President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize remains a mystery. Conjecture suggests that this award was perhaps a veiled repudiation of the previous administration, or perhaps some “hope” based on Obama’s overtures to Muslim countries. But it is amazing that so many of his administration’s actions violated the honor of this recognition. Quite contradictory also, especially in view of his promises to work toward a “nuclear-free world”, which probably helped him win the Prize, was his authorization of a trillion dollar program to “modernize” the US atomic arsenal with its 5800 warheads already capable of destroying the world and everyone in it several times over. And, like presidents before him, he continued the coverup of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In 2009, when a journalist asked him if he knew of “any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama responded, “I don’t want to speculate”, making his efforts to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons to maintain a “nuclear free middle east” disingenuous at best.
I should add that President Obama and his pompous blowhard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, repeatedly betrayed and damaged my precious chosen profession, public education. Obama and Duncan, both private school products, demonstrated little knowledge of public education and its important role in American democracy and displayed little awareness of the causes of its problems. They continued the detached and useless tenets of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” involving standards, test scores, competition, and school reward and punishment, simply using different names – “School Improvement Grants” and “Race to the Top”. And both presented charter schools and “choice” as solutions to public school struggles, sucking away precious public school resources and depositing them in private pockets.
And one more thing – as a dedicated Democrat, I was terribly upset to see President Obama, the leader of my Party, and his dedicated supporters, throw virtually all of their effort and resources into his 2012 reelection, to the detriment of national Democratic concerns. During President Obama’s eight years in office, when Democrats like me could feel some pride in a Democratic presidency, the Party lost more House, Senate, state legislative and governor seats, a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats than under any other president. Among the states lost by Democrats were Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa and West Virginia, all key to the victory of Donald Trump in 2016.
And finally, the great humanitarian, President Obama, who so sensitively and eloquently reflected the grief and concern of the nation at at mass shootings in schools and churches, even singing “Amazing Grace” when he “ran out of words”, did absolutely nothing to impede Israeli land theft, settlement expansion and human rights abuses, all violations of international law, during his presidency and worse, sat by while the US funded Israeli war machine killed thousands of Palestinians during the Gaza “war” in 2014 including 551 children and 299 women, while injuring over ten thousand and orphaning more than fifteen hundred children, all the while mouthing the same tired platitude, “Israel has the right to defend itself”. Instead Mr. Obama rewarded this criminal nation by signing a 10 year, $38 billion aid MOU with Israel. This $11 million per day “tribute” to Israel has recently ballooned to $20 million per day as our politicians stumble over each other in their eagerness to “help Israel”. “
So President Obama, enough with your well honed speeches and sanctimonious and thoughtful demeanor and enough with your “presidential memoirs” which gloss over your mistakes and failures. If you really want us to forget, why not impress us by trying your hand at building homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity like President Carter did, or maybe join Stacey Abrams knocking on doors to expand voting opportunities for poor people of color. Oh, and one more thing – it was Obama’s EPA that approved toxic chemicals for the fracking industry, that break down into deadly “forever” poisonous compounds called PFAS which threaten people and wildlife through soil and water contamination.
Before publishing this bleak assessment of our last three presidents’ legacies, it might be only fair to consider a few of the best things to emerge from their respective administrations. Hey, it wasn’t all bad. However, what most consider to be Bill Clinton’s major achievements – NAFTA, his crime bill and welfare reform, I have asserted to be major failures. Yet he can be proud of the first balanced Federal budget in many years. George W. Bush has been lauded for PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs relief), a successful humanitarian effort to combat AIDS in twelve African countries. And ironically, what’s commonly viewed as Barack Obama’s greatest achievement, the Affordable Care Act, I include above as a major failure. But he should be recognized for the DACA program, his Consumer Protection Bureau, joining the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran Nuclear deal, reaching out to Cuba and for his active support for LGBTQ rights. But, all considered, in my view the achievements of these three remarkably flawed presidents were far outweighed by their errors, mistakes and failures.