It might seem like folly to try and summarize the events of a whole year in a single article, or even to surmise the prevalent themes which distinguished it. Nevertheless, we’re going to attempt to do just that because something needs to be gained from all this mayhem. (It’s also been awhile since we published anything.) So here’s a few thoughts:
Was it the residual hangover of 2016?
Yes, 2017 can in many ways be regarded as the dark sequel to its predecessor. This is the case with most inaugural years but of course, this year we had the Donald, whose presidency quickly bolstered sales of Orwell’s 1984. Everything we feared he might do came to fruition, although legislatively he was not successful. Rather he inspired fresh bouts of fear not felt since the early 1960s, from the Muslim Ban to unnecessary tensions with North Korea and everything in between. However, this is just the beginning of the hangover and it will not dissipate till at least late 2018, should the Democrats get their act together.
Was the “#metoo” movement a breakthrough?
At the Golden Globes next week, we will see many actresses dressed in black, in a sign of solidarity. Although, sexual harassment scandals can hardly be limited to Hollywood, the cases here have drawn so much attention because of the prolific figures involved (not to justify it.) They’ve also inspired a deep and intellectual, if highly sensitized debate, across the world. Can we merely dismiss the actions of men from another generation as of their time and thus tolerable? Can we separate their art from their character? Do we need to ensure perspective with relation to whats worse (from groping to raping) more readily? Can this then be seen as an attempt to undermine change by bracketing off areas, if less heinous, as forgivable?
There’s still much to suss out and I do not enter this foray lightly, for the level of media scrutiny and social media backlash can be detrimental even to those who have not themselves done anything wrong but who, in others’ opinions, miss the point and thereby contribute to the normalization of harassment (e.g. Matt Damon.) It seems to me, nonetheless, that this has overall been a watershed moment of positive change; one which must not be limited to being labelled as a 2017 talking point or more likely, a Hollywood scandal. In the coming years, it’ll thus be important to find balance between sensible, if insensitive opinions and a zero-tolerance approach.
Is “Fake News” just a thing now?
Has the word “lies” lost sustenance? The idea of “Fake News” grew during the 2016 election and was dismissed by most as a “stupid”. Unfortunately, like most Trump labels, it stuck and with it, an array of other baffling terms like “Alternative Facts”.
Yes, the media has been known to sensationalize the wrong things and some papers are more reputable than others but with Trump, fiction’s become redundant. You merely need to collect his quotes these days to form an article. It may be a coherent, slobbering mess but so is every Trump speech. So, in 2018, let’s stop paying into the idea of “Fake News” because you can’t hide the video footage of Sean Spicer hiding in the Rose Garden bushes, inauguration crowd sizes, or the words Trump spoke mere weeks ago. It’s out there, in the open.
Are people ready to accept the Left again?
Roy Moore was inexcusably awful but still, a Democratic Senator from Alabama is not something you hear about every day. Grouped with the #metoo movement (not exactly political, though women’s rights are generally sided with the Left), Trump’s low approval ratings, Obama topping Gallup’s most admired man poll, the Women’s March on Washington, and more however, it begins to paint a picture. In November 2018, we’ll of course see with the Mid-Terms but this time, we’ll need a United Left. Even though, we’re discussing 2017, the lesson of 2016 must not be forgotten.
Was The Last Jedi disappointing? (SPOILERS)
Yes, this is a political blog but we also love Star Wars. So did Rian Johnson deliver the goods? Ultimately yes- it was a beautiful and unusually thematic entry in the franchise. But come on! Is Snoke really just some nobody leader, dispensable to a larger purpose? He looks like a disfigured Goldmember, had a super cool throne room and guards, and obviously influenced Kylo Ren somehow. So, tell us who the Phantom Menace he is! And I don’t want to figure this out through some extended universe graphic novel bullshit or another needless stand-alone movie. He’s relevant to this trilogy! I also don’t care that we didn’t know who the Emperor was in the originals- his origin wasn’t important at that point and since Episode VII, we’ve been baited with questions. Rectify this please, J.J. Abrams. Otherwise, I enjoyed it a lot. Anyways, that’ all- have a happy new year!
In recent months, people could be forgiven for mistaking Trump as the greatest force for evil in America. After all, his Tweets, missteps, policy proposals, staff appointments,, attempts at consolation, and gaffes have given us immunity to the notion of a slow news’ day. And quite simply, he’s just an egotistical moron. Indeed, one could argue that the state of delusion and anxiety prevalent in every corner of American society, in issues such as immigration and education, can be attributed, at least on some level, to the manifest ignorance of the public sphere or concerted motive with weak justification of the political. It’s become clear, however, that the issue of gun control is just that extra bit twisted and demented- a disease ripping away at the moral fiber of American society.
Let’s start with the Second Amendment- a Supreme Court ruling from 1791, included in the Bill of Rights, which has since sparked endless debate for its openness: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” At the time, it was a relatively sound proposal. America’s founding fathers and those first legislators, after all, were regarded as being among the wisest men of their era. (Their era.) They were still working out the logistics of their country, however, placating fears that a single Federal army might be established to outdo all state militias. Also, they didn’t have semi-automatics. Or good home security. And there was probably a greater chance of being assaulted by a bear. Essentially, they weren’t designing a framework of law for 2017.
Gun Rights’ activists, without pause, will point to the Second Amendment as their scapegoat of justification whenever their ways come under attack. It’s so embedded in America’s culture that it can’t be undone. Indeed, its wisdom must not dare be questioned. It’s a part of the Constitution! What they systematically forget, of course, is that the Constitution isn’t perfect and that’s why amendments like this are made to it. And you know what? They can also be undone, as evidenced with the ending of prohibition in the 1930s. Tradition, unfortunately, is an illogical, if emotional, stranglehold.
And so we come to the NRA, the corporate embodiment of this way of thinking- the most sinister of lobbyists in America. Formed in 1871 for the improvement of rifle marksmanship (post Civil War), it has come to take on a much wider role in society since for its political and economic interests being held at stake (or as they’d argue, ‘defending freedom’). The organisation we recognize it as today, has basically existed for the past 40 years, since around the time when the nation began its dramatic rightward swing. In this time, they have been successful in passing pro-gun legislation such as the Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986) and opposing the renewal of less friendly legislation such as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994).
Every time, a mass shooting occurs, their organisation is naturally brought under scrutiny by some whilst zealously defended by others. With 5 million members, their might is of course daunting but their economic influence over Republicans makes the real difference. For example, their investment of $50 million in the 2016 election, backing Trump and six Senate candidates, saw them succeed boisterously, losing their bet on only one seat. Now, while most data points to a fairly equal confluence in the number of mass shootings spread over the last 40 years, it should also be acknowledged that the nature of these shootings has become much ‘deadlier’ (Politico, 2017.) Even in a post-Cold War era, weapons’ technology has improved and automatics and semi-autos are readily available, even to those with mental illnesses. People apparently need these upgrades the way someone else might change their phone. There’s also one other facet however that’s kept this industry churning out pure madness for a living- gun pride.
Possessing a firearm is arguably necessary for some professions. It is a form of defense. It’s also a symbol of authority and pride, however, seemingly linked to American identity. As a PEW research piece revealed earlier this year, 42% of Americans live in a household with a gun and 79% have shot a gun. These might not, at face value, seem like staggering statistics but they highlight, at least, the normalization of this way of life. And the NRA, to swing back to those malevolent, victim-playing hounds, are happy to take advantage of this culture and emblazon it with the flag.
Ultimately, we must accept that the NRA probably has good people and that they do, for the most part, teach safe practice and respect for the weapons they hold. This diatribe is not intended to infringe on their respective, individual personalities, professions, or moralities. As a whole however, their fostering of a gun-proud, traditionalist, politically motivated base, speaks volumes to their detachment from reality and their willingness to let any ounce of remaining morality slide through the gaps.
I imagine Trump is quite relieved that his 9-day stint in foreign policy is over. Most assuredly, his staff will be cajoling him with ‘true’ news reports that things went ‘just fabulously’ and that it won’t be necessary to head outside of the US any time soon. Now, some of the more cynical ‘thinkers’ of the World Wide Web might be positing that these trips were anything but great with either his hypocritical change of rhetoric being brought into question or else his general disinterest in world affairs. To be fair to the 70-year old year renegade however, he had to endure countless conversations with God-knows-how-many al-somethings in the Middle East whilst others sullied up the good name of Mar-a-Lago. Can’t we give him a break? Well, let’s look at how things went to begin with:
Stop One- Saudi Arabia
It’s not the friendliest neighborhood and most presidents usually don’t choose it as their first foreign destination but you know Trump- straight to the grit! Of course, even he needed a little context for this one as Saudi Arabia has had a long and complicated relationship with the US. They’re the kind of bad-boy BF you know you should give up but they’re always there when you need them and with the goods (oil). Yes, it’s one of the most disappointing alliances the US has ever pursued but it doesn’t look to change anytime soon, despite slight withdrawals in recent times, including a $400 million arms deal last year (when it became apparent that these airstrikes in Yemen weren’t all that popular).
Not only have over 10,000 people been killed in these assaults in the last two years, but 17 million people are now facing starvation, according to the UN. On top of that, they consistently rank low in the Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports on other matters like freedom of speech and women’s rights (though Ivanka did note they had made some progress, if you want to take her word for it). Even former US ambassador Robert Jordan (a Bush II appointee) remarked how the ‘humanitarian’ aspects of this conflict were being outright ‘ignored.’ Heck, even Trump himself has criticized both the regime for its ‘harboring’ of the 9/11 terrorists and Obama for bowing to the Saudi King in 2012.
So naturally, Trump brought in the reigns on his categorization of ‘Radical Islam’ (now ‘extremist ideology’), delivered an all-too diluted speech for his fervent supporters, accepted the Collar of Abdelaziz Saud from King Salmon, and capped it all off with a 10-year projected $350-billion arms agreement. In terms of his own campaign rhetoric, he therein delivered one of the most bamboozling if expected 180-degree turns in US history. On the other hand though, the Saudi press gave him and Melania glowing reviews. In the Trump book, this was therefore the best success ever achieved by a US president.
Stop Two- Israel
Not one to take a rest, Trump followed up his trip to the ‘Middle East’ with Israel, which is of course situated in the Middle East (although the President can’t be expected to know everything now, can he?) Unlike his previous foray however, which involved directly selling out any possible remaining US moral values, this was more of an exercise in tip-toeing delicate grounds- that is the whole Israel-Palestine thing. You see, it only became apparent to Trump in recent weeks that this decades-long tension wasn’t all that easy to solve (after a ten minute explanation). So this was going to prove a real test of diplomacy. Did he succeed? Let’s it put it this way- it was the least pugnacious part of his 9-day tour.
First, there was the media blitz that resulted when Melania swatted his hand away like some annoying fly- injecting life back into the widely held belief that she does not love him at all. We’ll just let that hang there…
Then it was off to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem- without recognizing it as the capital. Pretty slick, right? Of course, this was a historic part of his venture as he became the first US president to actually go to this wall (though frankly he may just have a fascination with walls in general). He then visited the Holocaust Remembrance Center and left a less than eloquent note, akin to something you might find at Disneyland or in a year book: ‘It’s a great honor to be here with all my friends. So amazing and will never forget.’ Obama had written something far more eloquent back in 2008 about the great suffering endured all those years ago but he’s a bit of nerd at the best of times. Trump, unjustly hounded by the press at every opportunity, was merely expressing how awesome it was to have Tillerson and crew along.
It was in his speech that US foreign policy came to the forefront most clearly however and by clearly, I mean ‘vaguely’, as picked up by reporters on site. While reiterating their commitment to regional peace, he managed to avoid the question of recognizing Palestinian statehood and the possibility of an embassy move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv (a campaign promise.) This meant that things, more or less, remained the same upon exit for his next stumbling block.
Stop Three- Europe
‘He’s something’ Trump said of the Pope, ever the linguist. Now, most of you have probably already determined that this meeting was exceptionally awkward. Exceptionally… Anyways, the two held a 30-minute 1-on-1 meeting in which issues such as Climate Change and terrorism were discussed. The former would haunt Trump the last few days of this sordid tour but the latter is perhaps one of his favorites. These two men naturally must have disagreed, given their polarizing alliances to God and the Devil, but they were nevertheless able to pose for a picture which speaks more words than any review ever could.
It was then on to the G7 Summit, the highlight of this entire trip. Again, there were the awkward faux pas- be it shoving aside other world leaders to get the front for a photo-op or engaging French President Macron in another one of those aggressive Smackdown handshakes. There was also the speech he delivered in which he chastised a majority of NATO countries for not investing enough of their GDP in defense, which he believed made them over-reliant on US military might. Where the real difficulty was always going to lie however was in Trump’s stance on the Paris Climate Accords, committed to under President Obama in December 2015. Long story short, he said he’d make up his mind sometime this coming week. The other world leaders were left in dubious doubt however, with German Chancellor Merkel eluding to the notion that Europe would have to endure on its own and that Germany could no longer ‘rely’ on Trump’s America. Upon departure, Trump told US naval sailors in Sicily that the 9-days been a ‘home run’.
The media largely focused their attention on what was ‘awkward’ during these visits but a few talking points arose between the many reports given: the downplay of his Islamophobic rhetoric; the ‘America First’ policy on display; the reaffirmation of Gulf alliances; the growing division in US-European alliances; and the fact that Trump is still finding his footing on the world stage. For some, it was a meager lightweight trip that amounted to very little we didn’t already know before. For others, it was a calming reminder that Trump can restrain himself at times. For most, it was a meme-centric carnival of diplomatic embarrassment, the likes of which we will never see again until his next foreign escapade or Twitter-bowel-movement-tirade.
The divide of cultural thinking in America is becoming more and more apparent with every passing day of the dystopian Trump administration. On one side, we have the so-called backwards’ thinking red-necks keeping Kid Rock clocking in the millions and on the other, we have high-minded intellectuals who will take down anything even approaching the shade of intolerance in the comments’ section of their Facebook newsfeed. A few months back, we discussed this latter conglomerate in relation to Clint Eastwood’s denouncement of the millennial generation. Today, we will delve into that ever-relevant subject in the context of the student body and protests at universities; not for any particular instance but because in this new environment, liberals (whose ideas such as health care are widely more popular with the public) must realize that not every little thing is worth losing their minds over.
Colleges should be bastions of free speech and open-mindedness. Third-level education is about exploring new ideas which not only intrigue but challenge you. You do not necessarily have to agree with someone’s line of thought (even the professor’s) but you should be exposed to it because intellectual thought gains credence when it is tested and critical thinking, as we have also discussed before, is pertinent to keeping power and established notions in check.
So how come in many cases, colleges have come to exhibit the exact opposite philosophy?
Well, let’s take a look first at how many students’ intolerance of perceived intolerance has manifested:
In 2014, Condoleeza Rice (US Secretary of State under Bush II) was supposed to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey but was protested over her administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Although the university’s president Robert L. Barchi defended their choice of speaker on the grounds of her being ‘one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years’, she decided to drop out, stating that the occasion should be a ‘joyous’ one and that her involvement might prove a distraction.
Later on that same year, comedian and political pundit Bill Maher was opposed by the students of Berkeley for criticizing Islam. In a viral debate with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck, he contested that as a set of ideas, Islam was a tough one to tackle because of the connotations associated with attacking a religion. In a change.org petition, signed by nearly 6,000 people, the student body objected to his ‘blatant [bigotry] and [racism]’, furthering that Maher’s kind of beliefs only served to conflate the ideas of extremists with the greater Islamic population. Maher went on to deliver the commencement address anyways but not before commenting that ‘liberals should own the First Amendment the way conservatives own the second’.
Women’s rights’ activist Ayaan Hiris Ali, meanwhile, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University until the throngs came out against her. The offer was rescinded owing to the fact that past statements of hers against Islam were not compatible with the ‘core values’ of the university. Her activism, of course, can be attributed to a more controversial nature than Bill Maher’s but the student body’s disavowal of her, in light of the other causes she has promoted, spoke volumes for the culture in which we live.
Richard Dawkins, the famed biologist and atheist, has posited that political correctness has been replaced by an ‘unofficial’ Orwellian Thought Police. With instances such as the ones mentioned above, he believes that we have seen a ‘betrayal’ of the free speech movement which grew out of Berkeley. This philosophy, for many, undermines the values of a true democracy and lends gravity to the arguments of conservatives who conjecture that the left are out of touch with the common man.
Not all liberals are ‘regressive leftists’ however (to borrow a phrase popularised by Sam Harris.) Many, like former President Obama, have espoused the need for students to balance their ideals with an open-mind. Militant political correctness, he stated in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, serves as nothing more than a ‘recipe for dogmatism’. Even the leadership of the Civil Rights’ movement, he furthered, ‘sought to understand the views… of the other side,’ no matter how appalling. Students have become ‘coddled’ in today’s world, he asserted; a view shared by the likes of Robert L. Shibley, the vice-president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a non-profit organisation), who stated: ‘Colleges and universities are teaching students to think like censors… [fueled by] overboard harassment policies, free speech zones that render most of campus a censorship zone, and a focus on civility and comfort at the expense of lively debate’.
On the flip-side to be fair, one can argue political correctness has been born out of necessity. After all, hateful or embittered rhetoric can be influential- just look at the effect it had in driving anti-semetic practice in the 1930s. Plus, the need for racism or any alternative forms of exclusiveness is about on-par with the need for two more season’s of The Big Bang Theory. (Seriously, cancel the f*#$ing thing already… not to make light of this…) Let’s face it however; universities err on the side of caution a stretch too far. It may be because they have always been havens of progressive thought; it may be because the media thrives off sensationalist stories; it may be the power of a group mentality; and it may be because even the slightest association of a racist, homophobic, or sexist thought is enough to ruin one’s social standing today, but such thinking does not always precipitate action.
Free speech is ‘indivisible’ for Mick Hume, the author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? When one makes it a ‘privilege’ and not a right, ‘who are you going to trust to make the decision about where to draw the line through [it]?’ That does not mean we should allow bigotry, sexism, or any other forms of discrimination to thrive but if their preachers or their ideas have gained enough momentum, why not give them a forum from which to be challenged? Why not ask Condoleeza Rice, herself, about Iraq? Because her answer will offend you? It’s high time we ditched the emotional baggage of our PC culture and adopt an idea so foreign to America today, that you would swear its visa had been suspended- reason.
We here at the Washington Walrus feel passionately about US presidents in a way that can only be described as ‘slightly obsessive.’ And while the Oval Office has been hijacked by a demented Sasquatch, we still felt it was worthwhile taking a look back at better times. Unlike C-SPAN however, we will only be ranking the leaders of the post-war years. Besides a list of 45 being exhaustive and frankly tedious to most (have you even heard of Rutherford B. Hayes? oh… you have?), the position as we know it today really began to take shape in the wake of the New Deal and with the Cold War.
How did we decide? Well, we evaluated each president against the others on an extensive range of factors including: economics; foreign policy; domestic policy; leadership qualities; the tone they set for their times; the context in which they led; bi-partisanship; lasting legacy within these factors; chat show appearances; and more. Some of our choices may raise eyebrows but we didn’t choose frivolously, there was a very definite consensus reached. So, without further ado, to celebrate Presidents’ Day- the United States Presidents from worst to best as ranked by Andrew Carolan (AC) and Matthew O’Brien (MOB):
13. Donald J. Trump (2017-hopefully 2017)
It hardly seems right to rank a president of one month but then nothing he’s done has been fair. Even if the current president (shudder) was ranked on the hilarity of memes alone, he would still lose to Obama and Biden. Also, his policies are over-rated. Sad. AC & MOB
12. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The affable younger Bush never ranks highly in these lists and… well, do we need to justify this one? The invasion of Iraq, notwithstanding, he had already turned a surplus into a defecit by the time of 9/11 and his slow, baffled response to Hurricane Katrina proved he was anything but fit for the job. America lost its stature of respect across the world where most people could not have imagined this man getting re-elected, much less, surviving another four years without impeachment. And yet, he hung on, leaving the US in the ‘mess’ Trump thinks Obama brought about. It’s easy to criticize Bush though, so for the sake of some balance, we should note that his Medicaid package has proved very popular and PEPFAR has made him nothing short of a hero to Africans, even if it was at the cost of the American taxpayer. AC
11. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
The ghosts of John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur welcomed a new member to their exclusive club on August 9, 1974, the equally unexceptional, equally un-elected, Gerald Ford. It’s hard to postulate as to whether Ford would have ever considered running for president but there is no doubt that he inherited a poisoned chalice. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame came at the beginning of his presidency as he granted Richard Nixon a presidential pardon for the trials and tribulations of Watergate. This would set the tone for the next three years. Yet, many historians have credited Ford with strengthening the frayed fibers of the country through projecting a positive outlook for the American future. His foreign policy was marked by the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which aimed to strengthen the relations between Europe and the Soviet Union. Domestically, Ford struggled to work bilaterally with Democratic majorities in Congress, which tested his parliamentarian ability. Ford, unlike so many of his predecessors, was never destined for the White House. MOB
10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
It pains me to put Jimmy Carter so far down the list. He’s my own personal favorite because I wrote my MA dissertation on him and he has the most moral fibre of any of these fellas (no shots fired during his time). He set a tone of restraint and fiscal conservatism for America, for energy conservation, and for the promotion of human rights internationally. While this may have seemed amicable on the surface; combined with his unfruitful relations with the Democratic base, it only served to corroborate the popular image of him as a weak leader. This, along with the Hostage Crisis, paved the way for a resurgence of the Right in 1980 and his eventual defeat. Carter’s batting average with Congress, on the otherhand, was not bad but many of his measures and examples for the country (including solar panels on the White House) were promptly abandoned in the following administration. Thankfully though, he has gone on to boast perhaps the finest post-presidency. AC
9. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
The iconography will never be dispelled but I’m sorry, the ‘what if he had survived…’ postulation is not enough to have him deemed a great president. Man landed on the moon by the close of that decade and yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved but Kennedy merely made an epic speech in the former’s case and with the latter, helped spark the fuse in the first place with the Bay of Pigs operation. I like him and the image of his presidency remains a great inspiration for many politicians today but I’m sorry, he’s over-rated. There’s no two ways about it. AC
9. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
For Richard Nixon, it was nearly a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He had served as Eisenhower’s VP for eight years, and lost out to JFK in the Presidential election of 1960. Yet, he emerged as perhaps one of the most misunderstood presidents in U.S. history. There is no doubt that if you remove Watergate from the equation, Nixon would rank higher. Tricky Dicky assumed control of a country that was deeply bifurcated. Nixon’s domestic record is chequered, yet while he is credited with the progressive initiatives of ‘New Federalism,’ such as Affirmative Action, he is criticized for his economic policy in which inflation drastically increased during his time in office. Unequivocally, his greatest achievement lay in his foreign diplomacy as he opened a previously moribund diplomatic channel with China, and simultaneously eased tensions with the Soviet Union through Détente. Nixon also had to deal with the national dilemma of Vietnam, exercising a policy of Vietnamization. While this was an admirable move, the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972 would set a morose tone for the remainder of his presidency. MOB
7. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
When Truman took over from FDR, he had only been vice-president for three months and had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. He had big shoes to fill and daunting decisions to make; perhaps the toughest of any US president. He’s often ranked highly in these lists for that reason as well as setting the tone for US morale and policy in the Cold War, with the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, and Domino Theory. From an outside perspective, these measures can be interpreted as a signs of an increasing American aggression however. The Atomic Bomb and Korean War too, while necessary to many, are hotly contended by others as sinful acts. In my opinion, the former may never have been needed to defeat Japan (they were on the verge of surrender) but Truman saw no need for further American loss (and a sneaky chance to show Russia what’s what). For that reason, he is a patriot but his values of leadership elsewhere are (let’s say) controversial. AC
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Dwight Eisenhower can be cast in the old American romanticism of a military hero turned Commander in Chief. A denizen of European battlefields, Eisenhower was a progressive Republican that continued the legacies of both the New Deal and the Fair Deal, which placated Congress. His domestic policy advanced the Social Security Program and increased the minimum wage while creating the Interstate Highway System. He brought an end to the Korean War and strengthened the mandate of NATO. Ike fostered a staunch anti-communist policy both at home and overseas with various counter-communist CIA operations. Through the ‘Red Scare’ anti-communist sentiment reached fever pitch, aided by the unchecked actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was only silenced when he targeted a sacred U.S. institution, the Army. Eisenhower also loses face for the apathetic national implementation of Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which found that segregated schools were unconstitutional. MOB
5. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s sexual forays remain much of what he is remembered for, unfortunately. The context in which his impeachment arose, however,sheds light on the environment of Washington at the time. Much like Obama, his was a presidency mired by what Hillary referred to as a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.’ Unlike Obama however, he managed to eventually hammer out a relationship with New Gingrich and the Republican-run Congress, leading to a productive if unintersting string of bills tackling issues like crime. In terms of foreign policy, he is remembered for early blunders in Somalia and failing to act more decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda, but he even found his footing there, leading a substantive effort in the late ’90s in Kosovo. Plus, the country was left with its first surplus since Truman and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a time of steady progress which brought America into the Globalized Information Age. AC
4. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
“You know there’s a ten-year delay in the Soviet Union on the delivery of an automobile…,” so went the intro to one of Ronald Reagan’s Soviet jokes. Known as the ‘Great Communicator,’ Reagan’s rhetoric resonated with the average American. Inheriting a rotten economy, Reagan went about his policy of supply-side fiscal reform, appeasing many while neglecting minorities. The detriment of ‘Reagenomics’ later manifest in swollen national debt that was bequeathed to H.W. Bush. Foreign policy under Reagan rapidly evolved to establish America as the only dominant global force. Military spending was increased in tandem with the Reagan Doctrine. The faux-pas of the Iran Contras damaged the reputation of the president and exposed the ugly, insidious actions of political back-channeling. However, through escalated efforts to tackle the de-escalation of tensions, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the ground-breaking INF Treaty, eliminating short and intermediate range missiles. A man who, even by his own admissions, was not the brightest, shone like a beacon for many Americans who believed that he had instilled a sense of pride and reignited the flames of patriotism. Just as with JFK, image was important to the successes of Reagan. His unique eloquence restored a nations confidence in an office that had lost all credibility. MOB
3. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
By 1992, the elder Bush’s image was one of a jaded veteran fazed by the economic troubles of the MTV generation. Perceptions change however. Historians now, have come to recognize the importance of a steady hand like his in a time of great international upheaval. When the Berlin Wall fell, he acted cautiously, mindful of the consequences this left for Gorbachev. When the more militant hearts called for an invasion of Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait, he thoughtfully withdrew, claiming the mission had been accomplished. When a recession encroached, he put the country ahead of his own political credit, abandoning his pledge to not raise taxes while working with Democrats. And while it may be hard to envisage such a policy with a Republican today, he actually passed a Clean Air Act. In a word- underrated. AC
2. Barrack Obama (2009-2017)
A popular sentiment that emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s historic election in November 2008, was that America had transitioned to post-racial era. This, of course, has not been the case. Elected on a wave of optimism and hope, Obama would face vicious partisanship with a Republican controlled Capitol. Obama initially took the pragmatic approach, but later was forced to use executive powers as he tried to implement his agenda. A historic stimulus package was signed within his first two months of his presidency, much to the chagrin of his friends in the emerging Tea Party. There can be no doubting that his Magnum Opus, the Affordable Health Care Act, is now deeply in jeopardy, and with it, a large portion of his presidential legacy. Obama has been criticized as being weak on foreign policy issues; Benghazi, Russia, Syria, and yet he excelled in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reaching agreements with China to substantially reduce carbon emissions. We at the Walrus are admirers of Obama, not quite in the same category as the doughy-eyed former VP, Joe Biden, though. Through his presidency, he exemplified integrity speaking to Americans as if they were adults rather than children – perhaps an error, retrospectively. MOB
1. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
There was almost immediate consensus in establishing LBJ as the number one on this list– particularly when we decided that FDR wouldn’t feature because it just simply wouldn’t be fair. In recent years, there has been a rekindling of LBJ’s presidency in television series, and films, namely relating to his landmark racial domestic policies. First the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the commensurate Voting Rights Act in 1965. While some historians are critical of Johnson’s motives, I believe that he was a moral man (at least in regards to civil rights), who had seen the perniciousness of segregation first hand as a school teacher in Texas. Johnson was a spectacular bully, who, unlike Ford when he inherited the White House in freak circumstances, could assert his dominance over just about anybody. The legacy of his domestic agenda was the herculean vision of the Great Society. This encompassed many socially progressive streams such as the War on Poverty, and a plethora of Welfare programs. Johnson’s vision was to provide Americans in need with a hand up, not a handout. The Vietnam War dominated Johnson’s foreign policy and rapidly escalated through his presidency. It remains the major black mark on his presidential record, and discouraged him from seeking re-election in 1968. MOB
When I was in fifth year, our History teacher asked us to write an essay on the importance of Obama’s election. This was puzzling to me as this was not history. This was the present. Still, I managed to churn out some vague ramblings on the hope he inspired with the rhetoric of his speeches. You have to remember that back in 2008, Obama was like a celestial being sent from the heavens to save us from eight years of horror. Even if you knew nothing about the man, his days as a Community Organiser on the Southside of Chicago, or his political accomplishments in the Senate, you still held the innate sense that this was a good man who really was capable of enacting change and ushering in a new period of American prosperity. Eight years later, he has done just that, though perhaps not in the ways many of us would have imagined. His ascension to the highest office in the land, despite any beliefs you may hold of what came after, remains an historic moment. So, without further ado, let’s foolhardily tackle a legacy that will take years (if not decades) to fully understand, and appreciate.
The Audacity of Hope
“Yes, we can” was always a banal and slightly cringe-inducing soundbite but its utterance at the Democratic National Convention last year and during Obama’s farewell address nevertheless made our hearts leap. I used to think that Obama’s great speeches weren’t that important- that what mattered were his actions. Looking back in history however, how can one simply dismiss the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the comfort FDR brought with his radio addresses, or the tone Kennedy set for the Space Race as mere populist fluff? The truth of the matter is that a president leads not only with bills and the military, but with their words. From the get-go, Obama was a breath of fresh air because he spoke and acted with optimism, ebullience, caution, and consideration, not with bravado, brashness, and all guns blazing. As Stephen Walt put it in an early New York Times’ assessment two years ago; “[Even} when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier.” This helped restore not only peoples’ faith in America across the world; it helped restore general morale in an era dominated by economic hardship and political division. Particularly in light of what is to come, this will matter.
New World Terrors
The US was engaged in two wars when Obama took office. Many would argue that his decision to withdraw the US from Iraq was premature and facilitated the rise of ISIS. His policy on Afghanistan was somewhat wistful, quixotic, and naïve, which resulted in the stark realisation that nation building was not a feasible option. Many would contend that his condonation of drone warfare was abject and distant. Many would also assert that Obama’s foreign policy was, for the better part, a mere extension of the Bush administration’s. It’s a difficult area to assess because any of the repercussions from his actions will take years to manifest. However, it is pudent to remember the context in which his decisions were made:
There was the Arab Spring in his first term; which sparked the fervent outcry for democracy violently across the Middle East, resulting in a cascade of falling governments along with the end of the Gaddafi reign. There was the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which closed the chapter on an event that was a cathartic moment for all Americans. There was Benghazi, which undermined the credibility of his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and set a stage for scathing Republican backlash. There was the Iran Nuclear Deal, which to most reasonable people, was a step forward but which nevertheless further divided the nation writ large. There was Syria – an avenue Obama wanted to pursue but was discouraged from doing so by Congress (his seeking authority to enter may yet be seen as an aberration in the attitude of previous presidential administrations). There was Cuba, a country shunned for 50 years, a status that Obama felt deserved to be reevaluated. There was Putin; a man emboldened by the supposed appearance of weakness on Obama’s part, who entered Crimea, alighting fears of a Second Cold War. Then there has been the proliferation of terrorist threats across the world from Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul, which have consolidated the last decade and a half as the “Age of Terror.”
Republicans consistently go too far with their half-formed criticisms of the President. What they have failed to grasp time and time again is that “diplomacy” is not a dirty word. Obama understood that. He tread these waters, possibly a little too carefully, but next to Bush and Trump, are we not glad that there was a president who was willing to consider compromise before warfare? Just what will happen when Trump, the capricious braggadocio, gets his tiny hands on the most powerful military in the world? Obama’s heuristic leadership will surely seem a distant and sought after memory.
A Nation Divided
Abraham Lincoln was a model of hope in an era of bitter division, preceded and succeeded by terrible leaders. Obama’s time draws similar parallels.
Political, economic, and social division have evidently dogged these past eight years however. To take the former case of division; we have seen from day one, the GOP’s effort to dismantle the President’s domestic efforts and undermine his legitimacy on a scale of determination even more reprehensible than during the Clinton years. The Affordable Health Care Act (arguably Obama’s magnum opus), may be a source of contention for many Americans, some see it as hyper-liberalism aiding a modern welfare state. The Republicans’ alternative however (still outstanding), simply cannot be taken seriously in this discussion; their opposition is based on nothing more than political gratification. Of course, the bill is not perfect but with 50 years’ efforts of trying to get some sort of coverage passed and 20 million more people insured, there’s something undeniably historic about this act.
In terms of economic division then, the wealth gap has only continued to grow. Dodd-Frank was an amiable step towards reform but Wall Street was never properly disciplined and for this, Obama should be criticised. The Occupy movement was propelled by such injustice in this climate and so was Bernie Sanders, whose message, resonated with the youth, far more than Obama’s or Clinton’s. This problem, which Obama has on some level recognised, will no doubt continue to fester over the course of the next four years (if Trump’s tax plans are to be taken seriously) and it will dominate the 2020 election. To his credit, as an aside, he has made a substantive effort to promote the minimum wage and saved the country from another Great Depression (this particularly shouldn’t be forgotten).
The rise of Social Media has meanwhile projected unto millions more the reality of racial, sexual, and gendered inequality. Despite having their first Black president, many members of the Black community felt disheartened by his seeming disinterest in tackling police brutality and discriminatory laws. Events like Ferguson have been a brutal reminder of the privilege afforded to White people over Blacks. With sexual equality then, Obama was not initially a champion of Gay Marriage but its passage into law in 2015 became a victory for his administration, as the culture wars took a massive swing to the left. Women’s rights, were seemingly thrown aside with the election of Trump, but Obama’s been a proponent of greater equity, particularly in the workforce.
The fight over the Second Amendment cannot solely be hallmarked as an issue of the Obama years but it has been spread increasingly across social media lately. In a recent interview, Obama said his meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims in 2012 was the most difficult moment he endured in all his eight years and he meant that genuinely. Who could forget last year’s emotional speech when through tears, he told us, “every time I think about [them] it gets me mad”? Although nothing significant has been accomplished in all this time, Obama’s empathy will be remembered poignantly.
Obama’s own popularity rose throughout 2015 and 2016 despite an all-time low at the start of those years. He has since acknowledged however that this popularity did not transfer over to the Democratic base. Was the party, in some ways, damaged during his Presidency? November’s results would attest to just that but the election was of course anything but logical. Still, it may be argued in years to come that Obama’s greatest failure as President was to mobilise his party effectively and prevent the election of the Donald. Bill Clinton hasn’t exactly borne the grudge of Bush’s election. Carter’s leadership, on the other hand, certainly caused friction with the more liberal sides of his party and helped propel Reagan to power.
A Frustrated Presidency?
There are many areas this article hasn’t covered, including Climate Change, Obama’s generational image, the Auto-Industry, Immigration, and Citizens United. The overriding image these issues convey however is that of a “frustrated” presidency. The promises were many and the hopes were high; too high to ever formally be realized. Set against the schism of a society at odds culturally and politically, there were in many respects, very few avenues for this President to pursue without controversy. At first, he seemed a tad hesitant, especially given the Democrats’ initial majority. He was building the blocks of his legacy however, as a man of the people, not the politicians. Obamacare, I would argue, needed to be sold to the public. Politically, it would always be burdened. Indeed, many of his programs needed popular support. (Perhaps this is why he made so many chat show appearances!) And while his approval ratings have ended on a relative high, in many ways, this man and his team must be heartbroken; for just as so many greater heights could have been reached, so too could the measures he’s taken be torn apart in years to come.
In the final reflection, one has to wonder if Obama had ceded to Clinton in 2008 and ran, in perhaps 2020, would he had been better positioned to enact his powerful rhetoric of real change and unbridled hope for America? We’ll never know. When the dust has settled on his presidency, and equipped with the glorious retrospective vehicle of historical analysis, I think the 44th President of the United States will stand out as a coruscating example of a man, who in the face of constant adversity, lead the nation with progressive, principled, resolve.
With the assessment of many analysts and key figures, including Obama, that fake news’ stories shared on social media played a role in the outcome of this election, it must be recognized that there has been a significant lapse in critical thinking in America. Think about it- when you scan your Facebook feed, do you stop to read each and every article shared or do you just scoop the headlines into the back of your mind. I’m guessing, like me, you do the latter because there’s only so much time in the day and most of these stories seem trite and annoying. What you don’t realize however, read or not, is that a general impression is formed in your subconscious, resulting in a predisposition that can’t often be accounted for personally. For example, in the election cycle, we heard from a lot of people that Hillary was “crooked,” but we rarely heard from most of them exactly why (at least, in detail.) This resulted in the mass insemination of a wild notion that while Trump was none too desirable, Hillary was “just as bad.” If only, we had questioned these people as well as ourselves…
The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas Fox was always an anomaly in rationale prognosis, the other major networks such as CNN and MSNBC could be relied on, for the most part, to provide us with important news (if a bit left-leaning). Now, with the social media age, there’s so much flotsam out there that it’s become difficult to distinguish the bullshit from the professional and even then, the professionals get it wrong. (Thanks for those national polls, guys!) Many people are quick to out the amateurs in the comments’ section but even there, the gulf between credibility and crazy is wide. Is Obama the hero so many have painted him to be or is he an Islamic fundamentalist determined to take America’s guns away and flush them down the toilet? At this point, the level 1 critical thinker might surmise that the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. It’s all about balance, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy either. Critical thinking does not mean delving a line in the center of a Republican and Democratic thought; it means examining the very fabrics and grounds on which arguments are created.
Let’s take a case in point to illustrate the importance of this evaluative method: the Iraq War. In 2003, America launched one of its most dodgy exploits to date with the invasion of the Kuwaitan neighbor. Most people will tell you it was a disastrous campaign that has brewed trouble for the world since and only a few less will further that the grounds on which it was built were dismally unfounded. To sharply dispel any immediate backlash, I am going to formally state first that I do not think this war was a good idea. What I am going to attempt to do however is add a wrinkle to the clear picture many people have of it.
It all started in 1991 when George Bush Sr. declared war on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, believing such acts of aggression could not be tolerated. The mission was simple; to restore Kuwait’s territory and drive Saddam’s forces out. After an extensive air campaign, the battle was short and sweet for America. The casualties were relatively low for them, victory was swift, and the president’s approval rating rose to 89%. For many however, Bush Sr. made a critical blunder in failing to follow on through to Baghdad and dispose the despot. He felt, in this scenario, there were no grounds for this course of action. And so order was restored seemingly though Saddam remained in power, violating UN sanctions placed over the course of the 1990s, with repeated reports of chemical weapons being used against his own citizens.
In 2001, the World Trade Centers fell and the Age of Terror took hold of America. Many argued at this point that Bush II set his sights on Saddam before Afghanistan (the Bin Laden problem) was even on the books. This is a leap for others. Here, I believe, the truth may actually lie in the middle as the Bush administration’s policy was clearly set after a ridiculously named “war on terror.” Iraq, W. argued, had to be seen in a different light in this new world context. Did it? Or had it merely become convenient for the Republicans to enact the invasion they had been plotting for years? It became very difficult for moderate thinkers to thread the line between a revived and fervent patriotism in the wake of 9/11 and the dissent of liberal caretakers, who opposed the idea of an American New World Order. Finally, of course, the date was set when W’s intel (a gut-wrenching use of the word) declared their belief that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction (or later, the “capacity” for such weapons). The rest of the story played out then quite clearly. The war began. The statue fell. Saddam was taken. The casualties mounted. They didn’t get out. A surge took place. An economy fell. Another man took office. They began to withdraw. Insurgencies rose. A new terror formed.
Iraq was no prime example of interventionist success but its significance was different to many people. Some believed it was the most unnecessary and immoral act America had committed its sights to since Vietnam. Some believed it was a necessary precaution to take in an era of heightened international tensions. It wasn’t right to let a man like Saddam lead a nation, in many people’s opinions. His absence created a void from which organisations such as ISIS would arise however. Hindsight is 20/20 as well. Great critical thinkers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who often rejected well-revered establishment figures such as Henry Kissinger and their philosophies, felt that America’s commitment to the sanctions placed in the 1990s meant they should have taken action much earlier. Others then, will always contend, that it is not America’s right to dictate the rights of another nation.
I chose Iraq as an example, not because I believe, it will mystify many who had blankly accepted it as a falsely premised war, but because it exemplifies the simplicity with which so many people view these matters. It’s important to question those who you have agreed with 99% of the time. It’s important to think on the other side once in awhile because while I reject the notion that sanity lies squarely in the center of the political aisle, I do believe that neither side has proven itself to always be on the right side of history. So with the dawn of a new dark era in America, let’s hope that people will begin to base their opinions on facts again and not just conjecture. 2016 marked a great lapse in logical and critical thinking for America, among other nations, because fear and anger fueled the fire. In 2017, let’s restore the approach (Nixon once noted) Eisenhower took to solving problems; through cold eyes.