With the start of a new administration and change in power in the Senate, we here at the Washington Walrus thought we’d take the time to recalibrate our takes on the key players of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Basically, a who’s who of the big cheeses; the ones pulling the strings, be it with their positions or influence in the media and political landscape. So without further ado.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, pictured (D)
The 80-year old Speaker looks like she owns a formidable hard candy collection and is known for keeping her party in check. She proved she still had it by taking on Donald Trump, upon retaking the majority in the House in 2019. Now, she is pursuing impeachment against the former President, despite initially holding out on the first one until they had a solid case with evidence. How old school of you, Nancy.
At present, she is navigating a tough transition for the Democratic Party. Despite keeping the majority last election, they lost a number of seats to Republicans. Is it because they’re perceived as moving in too liberal a direction or holding onto old cronies like her? It’s hard to say but most seem glad to have her steady-hand and salon-tempered hair at the wheel in these uncertain times.
Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Lead (R)
What if a bullfrog wished he could be transformed into human form? Now, what if that bullfrog was also kind of a dick? Well, then you’ve got Mitch McConnell. Also ancient in age, he’s proved himself to be one of the least likeable Republicans in American history, by hawkishly prioritising politics over the good of the country at almost every turn; one of the key figures responsible for the gridlock of Washington during the Obama administration. If he had a chance to redeem himself, he sure squandered it during the Trump era, again mindful of what anything but appeasement would cost him (even if he truly abhorred him).
The Senate is roughly 50-50 at present (with Kamala Harris coming in as the deciding vote) but McConnell’s influence unfortunately doesn’t look like it’s going to wane any time soon. To an extent, I suspect he’s glad to be the minority leader because he gets to still effectively oppose new legislation without feeling the burden to present any of his own (or indeed any solutions, as evidenced when both parties’ leaders were brought together in late 2008 to discuss the financial crash).
Ted Cruz, Senator (R)
The Senator’s electability apparently hasn’t suffered despite the fact he is one of the least liked members of the Senate, even in his own party. Like McConnell, he’s all about politics but he’s just that bit more weasel-like to the point he resembles some sort of rat or otter.
Cruz’ immediate test is moving beyond his association with Donald Trump, who once called him a “sleaze” who nobody liked. Cruz helped goad the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol last month without taking any responsibility for his part. If I might liken him to a Harry Potter character, I’d have to choose Wormtail.
Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Lead (D)
He’s a key player in that he’s the Senate majority lead but there’s not much to say about him. Decent, I guess. Where Nancy’s a bit more collected and elegant, he’s a bit more rough and ready with the odd controversial remark on Gaza or immigration. The bulldog of the Senate, why not?
“The Squad”, House Members (D)
Netflix’s casting dream consists of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush. The former four were elected to the House in 2018 and the latter two in 2020. They’re generally painted as the progressive wing or “future” of the party to some and can’t be criticised, lest you face the wrath of Twitter. So let’s just leave it at they’re excellent and brave and speak your truth and stay true to yourself, cause they are “fire” and move on. Quite quickly.
Elizabeth Warren, Senator (D)
But you don’t have to be young and hip to be progressive, just ask 71-year old Elizabeth Warren who ran the 2nd-most progressive presidential campaign after Bernie Sanders. While undoubtedly impressive, she probably lacked the charisma necessary to ever mount a notable bid. Still, we need someone who’s economically minded like her and just doesn’t speak in platitudes or empty gestures.
Bernie Sanders, Senator (Independent)
Bernie Sanders is both no nonsense and a master of memes; something that should be paradoxical but just works. In a sense, it’s a shame he didn’t get the nomination in either of his bids but with the might of the Democratic Party at hand, it’s hard to move that last boulder. Still, the energy of America’s youth was behind him and there’s no one else who’s been so consistent in his or her values. Thankfully, he’s stayed on long enough that his ideas have become more mainstream and even though he’s not a part of Biden’s administration, it looks at least as if he’ll have some influence.
Amy Klobuchar, Senator (D)
Honestly, I kind of find her annoying. Anyone else? Well, apparently not Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, since she introduced the inaugural proceedings last month.
Lindsey Graham, Senator (R)
Joe Biden admitted his old friend’s allegiances had been something of a “personal disappointment” in an interview with Stephen Colbert. Once described as pretty amiable, even by former Democratic Senator Al Franken, Lindsey Graham’s lowered his standing by association and defence of Trump.
Mitt Romney, Senator (R)
There’s something quite likeable about Mitt Romney, although it may just be a desire to see a Republican act anything other than reprehensible. The 2012 nominee is something of a new McCain, in a sense. He’s conservative in his principles but entirely anti-Trump and willing to to go outside what one would consider regular party behaviour, marching in solidarity with BLM last summer. If there’s a way to restore some dignity to the morally compromised GOP and toe a more centrist line, perhaps Mitt Romney could be looked on as a potential future candidate (again).
With just over a week to go until the official start of a new administration, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the accomplishments of the incumbent, as we fondly did for Barrack Obama four years ago. Now, Donald J. Trump hasn’t exactly been everyone’s cup of tea for various reason including political bribery, racism, sexism, and an innate ineptness but in the tradition of a dignified transition, it’s only fair that we give him his dues.
Of course, upon completion of the above paragraph, we immediately remembered just how terrible a president and person this man was (and still is). So in the more appropriate spirit of actually qualifying the times we live in, we thought we’d instead list the ten worst things he’s done or affected in his tenure. There’s a lot so apologies if we missed out on anything. And while these are indeed numbered, we’re not necessarily ranking them.
1. The Muslim Ban
Trump ordered a ban on flights from seven Islamic majority nations straight away upon taking office. Having touted on the campaign trail that the Obama administration hadn’t called out “radical Islam” for what it was, he wanted to make an impression quickly on this issue. He faced backlash for this decision but handled it in good grace, firing the Attorney General Sally Yates, when she refused to uphold it on some vague, liberal human rights’ basis.
2. Withdrawal From The Paris Climate Agreement
Nobody was exactly surprised when this came to pass in June 2017 but it is worth reminding ourselves that Climate Change is still very much the most serious threat our species face. So, this wasn’t a step in the right direction.
3. Law & Order Rhetoric
Trump was endorsed by the KKK in 2016. This was something he really should have disassociated himself from but instead following Charlottesville in 2017, he remarked that there were “very fine people” on both sides. This ultimately made Joe Biden run for president, which thankfully worked out.
Trump’s rhetoric has, without a doubt, seriously enflamed the racial divide in America. Following the George Floyd protests of last year, he perhaps could have taken a stand and tried to heal a broken nation, as leaders should do. Instead, he resolved to run for re-election on a law and order basis, firmly signalling where he stood on civil rights.
4. Separation Of Migrant Children From Parents
Trump’s Great Wall agenda never took off in the way he promised, despite this being the centrepiece of his campaign in 2016. Nevertheless, keeping with his “no BS” image, he still managed to preside over the shameful separation of children from their parents at the border. The image of cages and lives permanently affected by the deluded sense of paranoia associated with immigration will remain intangible with his legacy.
5. Russia/Ukraine & General Undermining of Democracy
Although the Mueller Report didn’t result in the firework display we all hoped it would, it still proved what we knew all along; that there was a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Whether he was personally aware of it or not, Trump made every effort to contain this story, belittling the dignity of the investigative process at every step, even going so far as to fire the FBI director, James Comey.
Seeking to consolidate his preposterous image, he went too far in 2019, by trying to get Ukraine in on a deal to dig up dirt on Biden. Anyways, upon that leaking, the Democrats (who took power of the House in 2018) finally had the concrete case they needed to pursue impeachment. It may not have removed Trump from office but it gave him the black mark previously only posted on two other presidents’ folders.
6. Nepotism & Other Terrible Hires
Has an administration ever had so much turnover? From Sean Spicer to Anthony Scaramucci, nobody was able to keep their job in this White House. Even Steve Bannon, one of the “brilliant” architects of his 2016 campaign was cast aside. Trump has put the blame on their own individual incompetences and loyalty but really the common denominator is the boss who appointed them.
These people were also dumped for running afoul the special counsels, that are Trump’s family members (particularly Ivanka and Jared Kushner). One of the most obvious signs your democracy’s in the toilet is when your president starts appointing family members to privileged positions.
7. The Longest Shutdown
Upon retaking the House in the midterm elections, one of the first things in order was for the Democrats and the Trump Administration to agree on a budget. What resulted was a prolonged he-said, she-said situation with both sides refusing to budge, a slurry of Trump tweets, and the longest shutdown in US history, affecting pay checks for many from December 2018 trough January 2019. Again, in light of Trump’s need to appear mighty and triumphant, others had to suffer.
8. Appointments To The Supreme Court
Trump had the privilege of appointing three separate judges to the Supreme Court and on an ironic basis too. The first was Neil Gorsuch, who came about because the Republicans felt it was unfair for Obama to appoint a new judge in an election year. The third was Amy Coney Barrett, who was quickly shoehorned in a few weeks out from election.
The second was Brett Kavanaugh, who was trialled over accusations of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey Ford in 2018. After a (frankly) crazy testimony in which he defended himself, he was sworn in, but with no end to ridicule over his temperament. Trump’s picks have come under fire for just how extremely right-wing they are and although he will leave office, the impact of his decisions on the Supreme Court will unfortunately reside for decades to come.
9. Handling of Corona
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama recognised the potential threat of a pandemic in their time. Obama had the framework in place to deal with one should it occur. It’s a good thing Trump kept it in place, right?
Perhaps the worst thing Trump has done in mishandling the Coronavirus is in making the restrictions a matter of political allegiance. His followers don’t wear masks and they congregate in large crowds. The other side do the opposite because they don’t respect freedom or something to that stupid effect.
In case that’s not enough to disqualify him as a medical expert however, let’s remember that he withdrew the US from the World Health Organisation, advised people to drink bleach, and got the virus, himself.
10. Inciting A Riot
It should be clear by now that Trump really isn’t all that keen on law and order but if it isn’t, just last week he decided to go out with a flare, by suggesting his minions march on the Capitol. In what amounted to the most bizarre, atrocious, and frightening moment in his presidency, the historic building and symbol of democracy in America was basically besieged, resulting in the death of four people.
Since then, he’s finally been suspended from social media, members of his cabinet have resigned, and Nancy Pelosi has called for Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment or in lieu, a second impeachment. With so little time left, I suspect neither will happen but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
It was pretty clear upon taking office that Trump would become the worst US president of all time. We have qualms with others but never has a president been so inept on so many levels, with so much disdain for democracy. These have been just a few selections of his worst moments and tendencies however. Feel free to comment your own, as weprovide a few more dishonourable additions:
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.
In just over a week, Americans will cast their ballots and decide once and for all who has the grit and guts to lead their nation into the mid 2020s- Fat Don or Sleepy Joe. As well as that, they will also be voting on 1/3 of the Senate, all of Congress, district attorneys, and more. Basically, a lot is up for grabs. Now, I don’t want to simply state that this is the most important election of all time because people say that every election. But I do want to highlight what lies in the balance when Joe Biden says “the soul of the nation” is in question this year because he’s absolutely right on that count.
First of all, with regards the Senate and House of Representatives, plus other lower-scale governmental jobs, there is an ongoing tug of war between cultural liberalism and conservatism. This applies to policy, how forces such as the police are dispensed (i.e. Black Lives Matter), and even the attitudes propelled into the zeitgeist. Will they ratify the President’s assertion that law and order has never been more important or challenge the systemic models by which racism thrives? Will a calm tone be struck that attempts to offer compromise on these counts or will the flames of vitriol be stoked? Remember Trump is as much a symptom of the divisiveness of politics and increasingly entrenched cultural welfare as he is a perpetuator of it. Defeating him alone won’t restore faith in government. Many souls folded in his backing last election across the GOP.
Second of all, there’s the question of the Supreme Court. With Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett at the forefront now, it may already be too late for the Democrats to do anything. Even in the case of a Blue sweep in November, a change in power wouldn’t occur until late January. On the other hand, perhaps there will be a chance to delay this and vindicate the process proposed by Republicans when Obama had a chance to nominate six months out from election (as opposed to a mere six weeks). You know, play fair?
Thirdly, there’s the honour of the electoral process at hand. With Trump already lambasting mail-in voting, a sinister suggestion hangs in the air that he may not accept the results of the election or perhaps will declare victory before some votes are accounted for. Indeed, the suspense could last a lot longer than a single night. We could be seeing the next Gore v. Bush and if it comes to the Supreme Court as it did in December 2000, God help us all.
To those who say, well he will have to leave if he loses, I would extend a message of warning. What exactly has this man done by the books so far? How many times should he have been foiled but managed to slip by? Do you even remember this year started with an impeachment? With Republicans gerrymandering districts for congressional advantage, I simply wouldn’t be surprised if the whole electoral process becomes mired in deceit and controversy. Even the Carter Centre is monitoring the US election now and usually, they keep an eye on the most corrupt governments in Africa. So, where exactly are the standards? Let’s stop being surprised all the time.
Lastly and most obviously- yes, the person in charge really does make a difference. In the past, I used to think speeches and rhetoric were not actually all that important to a president’s legacy; that that was fluff for the media and history books. I don’t feel that way anymore. Trump has changed America in many ways but the damage begun before he was even elected, when he descended that escalator in the summer of 2015 and made a speech referring to Mexicans as “rapists” pillaging the good nature of the US.
This is a president who’s refused to criticise white supremacy; whose campaign staff has colluded with Russia; who’s basically followed the 2nd act of The Interview, failing to finish the movie and realise he’s being groomed by the North Korean dictator; and who’s enflamed anti-Asian sentiment with his use of terms like “Kung Flu”. And of course, “grab them by the pussy”. All that, without even touching on his Twitter.
For all his faults and stammers, Joe Biden is a compassionate human being. He’s made mistakes with regards his support of Iraq and his handling of the Anita Hill trial in the early 90s, but I honestly believe he’s learned from them. And even if he doesn’t pass a single credible bill during his tenure as president, his election would mark a notable shift from an aggressive leadership to an empathic one. He’s lost close family members, including his first wife, in tragic circumstances and has learned lessons in life Trump can’t possibly relate to.
For those who would defend the President on the basis that nice men don’t necessarily get the job done, consider exactly what job this man has done and what job it is he should be doing. Leadership used to involve, whether you liked the leader or not, at least some measure of respect or dignity. It wasn’t all about postulating and being stubborn for the sake of strength of appearance. Compromise, whether you like it or not (and this applies to liberals as much as it does conservatives), has always been key to politics. It’s very rare that a great leader has been born out of iron-clad or extremist ideology. Tact and strategy is a far more valuable asset in a president than a hilarious Twitter account.
I can’t argue Joe Biden will be a great president but if elected, he will strike a conciliatory tone where it matters, take foreign policy seriously, put public health above “freedom” with the Coronavirus, and yes (cheesy as it may sound) “restore the soul of America”. For now, that’s more than enough.
History is always being rewritten. The heroes of yesterday become the villains of today. We’ve seen this with the toppling of statues recently and the scathing rebukes of once-beloved or admired figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, After all, our values change and once ignored facts (inconveniences), such as Churchill’s white supremacy , come into greater light with new appreciation (or lack thereof). This revisionism is natural and no historical evaluation is without fault.
But something’s changed as of late. Our fervent grasps for social justice have left us empty-handed too often when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of certain historical figures. We fail to see these figures as a whole because one nibbling, doubtful, pernicious defect often overrides all common sense. In this case, I’m referring to the scandals that detract from the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States (1993-2001).
Speculation and Scandals
Now, don’t get me wrong. The man is problematic, if we must indulge that favored millennial word. Some of the decisions made under his administration have had negative consequences, ranging from the short-sighted (crime bills, economic impairments linked to the 2008 crash) to the devastating (initial inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda). But really, what people focus on, in their retribution, is the man’s personal life. How many affairs has he had? Is his marriage an arranged partnership? What exactly was the nature of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? At the very least, the latter one should be investigated because of the differences in accounts being brought forward (it’s said he may have taken up to 26 flights on Epstein’s private jet and visited the island, although no affairs with any of the girls have been exposed). As for the other questions, one could defend him and say he has the right to a private life and that it’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things but instead of doing that, I will touch on the nature of speculation that surrounds the Clintons.
Speculation has hindered both Bill and Hillary’s public image more than any other figure in American politics. There’s always been this pervasive feeling that they’ve been up to something, be it through business connections or the Clinton Global Initiative, which arouses suspicion in the form of a lingering, shadowy question mark. The more questions that arise, the darker that shadow gets, even if there’s no substance or merit behind the question. What was Whitewater? I don’t know, man, but there’s something there. What were in Hillary’s emails? Shrug. And why did Vince Foster kill himself? Did he know something the Clintons wanted kept secret?
Indeed, the latter episode was a most shameful one in American history given the man’s longtime friendship to Bill. But when the Deputy White House Counsel committed suicide, Bill wasn’t even afforded a common level of decency in his grief. Ken Starr and the Republicans spent all their energy trying to discredit the man with a new, nasty kind of politics that involved personal injury at whatever cost. When the Whitewater investigation, which began looking into the real estate dealings of the Clintons, proved unfruitful, they simply kept the heat going. The Paula Jones’ sexual harassment allegations also persevered, though the Republicans were quite ready to redirect their focus when the “gift” of Monica Lewinsky came around.
In this regard, Bill deservedly brought some of the wrath upon himself. In a deposition, he was blind sighted by Lewinsky’s name being brought up and denied any “sexual relations”, given the legal definition provided by the Starr counsel. It was a technically correct answer but an unwise and immoral move that reinforced his image as a dodgy, snake-like politician. For months, he would deny the nature of their relationship, even to his staff and Hillary, until it became too obvious he was lying, or in his words “misleading” the nation. It was a personal embarrassment and a horrible thing to do to both Hillary and Monica, whose life would be greatly affected as a result (although, this enters the realm of cyber bullying for which many millions more than Bill also deserve a portion of blame).
Many people today, in light of the #metoo movement, point to this scandal as a demonstrable abuse of power. A couple of years back, Clinton’s attempts to salvage himself and take on an interviewer who brought it up, only served to convey a seeming lack of empathy on his part. Lewinksy, too, has been critical of the president, who never apologized directly to her.
That’s something he really should have done, straight away. He should have apologized to Monica and her family because they were given an unwarranted amount of press, that was relentless and downright mean. That’s not necessarily his fault but he could’ve stepped in and said “enough is enough, we’ve all made mistakes, leave her alone.” I think that would’ve helped but I also believe nothing he could have said or done would ever have been enough. Remember, this scandal came about, not because the people were concerned with Clinton’s supposed weakness for women but because the Republicans were attempting to destroy his presidency.
The impeachment which resulted was largely a joke, made in a last-ditch effort to humiliate Bill. Already, the Democrats had won back the House while his and Hillary’s approval ratings shot up. Back then, people had a better understanding of what was actually going on and in a universal middle-finger to the GOP, took to the polls. Ordinary people and leaders of other nations, including Neslon Mandela and Tony Blair, would stand by Clinton with the belief that he was a decent man who had done a bad thing. Today, I can’t imagine the same thing would play out and that’s not an effort to outright dismiss our morals. Integrity is important and we should expect it in our world leaders but let’s face it, there are more important things at play in shaping that integrity than personal scandals and failings.
The Record: A Moderate Democrat
Another interesting nugget you might hear about Bill Clinton was that he was not all that progressive or liberal. Correct. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party weren’t exactly on their A-game. Following the largely besmirched Carter Presidency (and for the record, he’s my favorite president), which was plagued by a struggle between moderacy and liberalism in the 1980 primaries, they had a hard time finding their footing. Eventually, the party’s liberals acquiesced to the more pragmatic middle-ground ideologies of the likes of Clinton, which gave way to a presidential victory after three consecutive Republican terms bolstered by the Reagan revolution and a strong but faltering economy. Reaganomics was good politics but very much the “voodoo economics” George HW Bush had called it when up against Reagan in 1980. By 1990, Bush had to rescind his “no new taxes” pledge for the good of the nation. It was a bold but noble move that damaged him in the 1992 election.
The first baby-boomer president made the economy one of his top priorities and actually left the country with a surplus, three years in a row at the end of his tenure. This had not been achieved since the post-war years under Harry Truman. Given Bush’s concession to the Democrats in 1990 and some of the negative consequences that resulted in 2008 (although that can be attributed to several administrations), this achievement has appropriately been lessened but it still remains a positive in most historians’ eyes. In the following years that would see major tax cuts and costly wars, people would naturally look back on the Clinton Presidency, in this regard, with nostalgia. It was a relatively prosperous time, helped by the rise of the Internet but also by a set of steady hands.
Social unrest was also another major concern which helped Clinton get elected. He pledged to invest in more police forces to keep the streets safe. This was a popular stance to take and received bi-partisanship support, resulting in the lowest crime rate America had in decades. Unfortunately however, this also led to a rise in mass-incarceration with arrests of minorities and low-grade drug offenders. Undoubtedly this has tainted his legacy and deservedly so, with both Bill and Hillary admitting that aspects of the crime bill needing to be revisited. Part of the problem, as most people now see it however, also lies with pervasive racism in certain areas and unaccountable police officers; a common trend that stretches back way before this crime bill passed.
The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of 1993 was another controversial measure. Bill had pledged in his campaign that gays could serve in the military. Many opposed this. So, quite quickly, they compromised. Basically, gays could serve but couldn’t come out as gay. Better than nothing? Possibly but ultimately, a pretty feeble gesture, which Bill was quite happy to get rid of, given the controversy surrounding such a topic at the time.
What’s interesting about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, along with some of Clinton’s other compromises is that they demonstrated a strategic tactfulness to his administration. Elected as essentially a moderate, he was willing to settle for what he could get, aware that the Republicans (who swept into power in the 1994 midterms) would accept only certain things. Another example: Hillary’s health-care led initiative essentially stalled that same year with fervent opposition. Aware of this, they worked to at least provide health care to children with CHIP (Children Healthcare Insurance Program).
Compromise is often seen as a dirty word. The Clintons were largely pragmatic though, aware of the political game and very much willing to play it. Even in his memoir, My Life, Bill Clinton can’t help but admire the strategy Newt Gingrich employed to lead his party to victory in 1994. The problem arises when people perceive their party as moving away from their traditional values and causes. The Republicans’ success and move to the right in the 1980s didn’t result in the Democrats following suit towards their side. Rather, they also moved to the right. This meant, for many, that a moderate Democrat was essentially an old-style conservative. Of course, now that the Democratic Party has actually started to move to the left, we’re in a whole different scenario, which lends credence to the liberal critics of the Clinton administration.
Political pragmatism is important though, even if perceived as selling out. Had Ted Kennedy been more willing to work with Jimmy Carter’s more pragmatic approach to health care, then they might have actually gotten something achieved instead of nothing. The Clintons failed to get health care too, as so many before had, but at least they tried and got something done. After all, millions of children as a result were given a safety net they otherwise would not have had.
This pragmatism became all the more crucial however in Clinton’s foreign affairs, which began on a rocky trajectory before steadily improving. First, there was Black Hawk Down, which cast doubt over whether Clinton could really manage a humanitarian crisis. Initially, the US had been successful in their Somalian dealings at the end of Bush’s presidency (Bush being, by most accounts, a masterful player on the world stage). Then Bosnia followed, which saw a massive ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. At first, the US were hesitant in their approach but by 1995, Clinton came into his own as commander-in-chief, sending in forces. Perhaps he had learned from the Rwandan genocide, which he always regretted inaction about. Part of the problem was public opposition to US intervention elsewhere, given the disaster of Somalia. It seemed navigating the morality of the US’ role in these conflicts was not always that black and white. You were damned if you acted and damned if you didn’t.
By the late 1990s however, Bill Clinton was very much a respected leader around the world. The intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was seen as a prudent step across the board, between Democrats and Republicans, and he had helped negotiate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the year before, which greatly helped the situation in Northern Ireland. While his efforts to formulate a lasting peace agreement between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David ultimately stalled in 2000, it was seen later as one of the better attempts made by a US president at resolving the problem.
Towards the end of his presidency, when asked about his legacy, Bill Clinton saw it in terms of navigating the shift from one American age (Industrial) to another (the Information Age) as had occurred a century before. He felt the historians would wonder whether he had succeeded in preparing America for the new century but he was realistic even in his thinking, realizing that if George W. was elected and the Republicans regained power, much of what he had achieved could be undone. Indeed, that became the case notably when the Brady Bill (which acquired some gun control legislation) wasn’t renewed.
It may not stand in the mercurial tide of politics as one of the most important presidencies of American history but in my opinion, it was a good one. Despite personal setbacks and a new norm of vitriolic partisanship, Clinton was able to hone in on what could be achieved and act accordingly. While negative consequences arose as tributaries to the main functions of certain bills (like the crime bill), the overall objectives were usually sound and reasoned. His foreign relations too were smart without recklessness (queue an analysis of the Bush II administration) and where he failed (e.g. Rwanda, Somalia), he at least had the decency to learn and make adjustments so he could help (queue an analysis of the Trump administration).
Of course, consensus and absolute certainty make for a dismal appreciation of any historical figure when discussing nuance. Most US presidents have been imperfect with wildly mixed legacies. It can’t be helped when you’re playing chess on such a massive scale. I decided to write this long piece and read his ridiculously long memoir (958 pages) because I felt we were in danger of simplifying this man’s legacy. In the years that have passed since his presidency, he’s gone from one of the most respected world leaders to a figure of disdain, even for many from his own party. I wouldn’t go so far as to point to Hillary’s loss in 2016 as a referendum on their legacy but in this new age of evaluation, I feel the constraints of examining history through a modern lens should be acknowledged.
Context is key to any historical understanding and we can learn from history. But just as the problems of today don’t necessarily require the attitudes and solutions of years before, so too did the problems of those years not necessarily requite the outlook we would hold now.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History… suggested that with the end of the Cold War, humanity had reached an end/block point to the ideological evolution of the 20th century resulting in a broad acceptance of Western liberal democratic values. It was a stupendously general claim to make and one that would be criticised as new problems rose to take the place of the old. But if you take a step back, you’ll see how it is sometimes crucial for our understanding of history to get a broad overview before splitting stones because back then the US had very much started a new chapter of its story.
Hindsight is key for any proper historical evaluation. This article will simply not be able to capture the essence, key themes and ideas of the last decade; at least, not in a lasting way- primarily because, we don’t know what’s going to be important six months from now, let alone in 20 years. New information always becomes available and our core values change with each generation. Obama may be considered left of centre today but for future generations, he could be positively right-wing. Heck, Richard Nixon (the most flabbergasted of Republican presidents) established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Enough dawdling though; this context is important for the purpose of humility but it does not advance the story of the 2010s. What was this decade all about? How did America get from point A to point B? From Hope to Trump.
A New Generation
The millennials came of age this decade. Cast in the shadow of global austerity measures and economic hardship following the Financial Collapse of 2008, theirs (I say theirs, ours really) was a generation fraught with a unique level of anxiety. Many degrees were becoming increasingly less advantageous as job opportunities dried up and the unpaid internship net widened. It’s no wonder why, in this context, a sea of resentment festered; particularly against Boomers who wreaked prosperous opportunities in less tech-automated times whilst ignoring the most pressing issues facing the youth of today. As such, we’ve seen more people living at home for longer, trying for MAs, and adapting to a range of career positions; fluidity and creativity all the more pertinent.
Did the Obama administration fail this generation then by following in Bush’s lead in bailing out the banks? Intentions are certainly important; Obama did save America from the brink of a depression but the seeds of discord were planted in 2009 and the early 2010s. If millennials were to be denied the opportunities of their fathers or grandfathers, they’d at least strive to make their voices heard- which they very much have; for better and worse.
With regards the better, they (and Generation Z) have called for increasingly liberal stances on issues such as student fees, climate change, and health care. Whilst not altogether effective yet, the knocking on the government’s door has been getting louder and louder in recent years. How else would one explain the sensation that is Bernie Sanders; a candidate who probably wouldn’t have prospered this way in the 2000s. In another area, they have been more effective; calling for increased diversity in workplaces, media, and arts. Today’s music, TV, and film scene is a lot less white than it was 20 years ago.
With regards the worse, millennials are often seen (seen, don’t cancel me) as petty and entitled by the older generations (who in turn, have seemingly forgotten their responsibility to rear and guide their children). Is there truth to this? It’s a wild stereotype that’s limited but keeping in mind, the general overview from the intro, I’m inclined to believe that for all the good done with social media justice, there is an equal and lamentable drive for over-reaction. It is far too easy to get a rise out of people on social media or to have their television or film contract reassessed due to some stupid but ultimately unimportant remarks made in the past. On college campuses, speakers are protested for merely holding non-liberal views and as a result, many fear the very idea of free speech is under threat (especially when the term “hate speech” gets added to the mix). Outrage is an industry in and of itself.
Millennials can be said to be tolerant of anything but intolerance. Again, generally. At first glance, this may seem amicable and perfectly reasonable. Look at the strides made by the LGBTQ community this decade; today, people assess sexuality and gender in a far broader context than ten years ago. On the other hand, judgment has become popular and forgiveness is in short supply. This is not meant to advocate some false equivalency of opinion between liberals and conservatives but rather to point out that to effect change among certain groups, it is sometimes wise to speak rather than shout, listen so as to at least be cordial. This is as much a question of generational divide as it is political ideology; a great gulf has split people on subjects ranging from health care to gender neutral bathrooms. I believe we should let decency prevail where political correctness fails because there are numbers to be gained from the other side, especially in 2020.
With all that in mind, I don’t think millennials can be faulted for their intentions. Climate change does need to be addressed and for this reason alone, there is more hope to be found with 20- to 30-somethings than with our elders. The question looming over the 2020s on this issue, among others (like gun control) will be did they manage to tackle the problem effectively as well as righteously.
The Culture Wars (On Steroids)
To explore this generational/ideological gulf further, we must assess why and how everything became so political. What do I mean? What talk show today doesn’t feature a joke about Trump? What books or movies or genres of music do well with one camp or with another? This isn’t exactly a new idea- the culture wars have long been prevalent in American society but nowadays, even a movie like Star Wars: The Last Jedi is read by some as a feminist assault on traditional cinema. The reactions to divisive projects like this are often downright ridiculous but they do have origins tales of their own; for just as diversity promised to enrich America’ cultural experience, there were those who felt the pendulum was moving a little too fast and in places with a little too much force (e.g. female reboots, politically correct re-workings). With the recent reaction to John Legend’s version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, it’s fair to say that “woke culture” (to broaden this horizon) was given a bit of a slap in the face. The condemning of past opinions too (like John Wayne’s on race relations), while right, also seem trivial and petty. Will it be a case that liberals have to learn to pick their battles or will a dignified if self-righteous sense of morality prevail?
Of course, the culture wars don’t matter to most people and outrage (built on Twitter feeds) has never truly reflected the actuality of common opinion. Clickbait journalism and not-even-trying-to-be-objective-anymore news stations have amplified once barely prevalent tensions. Controversy sells and as long as people relinquish their sacred duty for critical thinking (on the left and right), the battleground will continue to get muddier.
It’s also become harder to blend opposing facets of oneself. You vote Blue so you must adhere to every liberal constitution, right? Your favourite movie is Moonlight andyou drive a hybrid? Where the divide between Democrats and Republicans has intensified on the actual issues, so too have the values associated with social liberals and conservatives. It may not come across on your social media field but there have been gay republicans and fervently religious but vegan democrats. Contradictions may arise if you take everything literally but people aren’t just what they wear, what they vote, or what they listen to. The idea of groupthink and identity politics may be useful for our understanding of certain privileges and economic disadvantages but it is fundamentally important to remember the individuals (sometimes) trapped within.
From Hope to Trump
So far, we have largely explored the emerging tide of liberal values among millennials as well as their shortcomings. While their voices may be heard across social media and campuses however, the real power now lies with a bizarre authoritarian right wing. Is this a reaction to political correctness? A reaction to an America older white people don’t recognise? To the failure and stalling of democracy? Obama? It’s hard to pin it down to one reason but most people would agree it is indeed a reaction.
Let’s go back to 2010. The economy is poor and health care legislation has been passed. The Republicans have amped up their objection to an 11. Will they undo Obama’s key piece of legislation? No. But they will use it as bait to take back both the House and Senate later that year and for the next six, make Obama’s presidency as much of a struggle as possible. Every time, a shooting occurs, they will keep focused and ensure protection of the NRA… I mean, the 2nd Amendment. Every time, a liberal piece of legislation comes forward from Obama, they will block it because they understand it to be good politics; the attack strategies of the last twenty years have worked, so why not? Thus, Obama is confined to foreign policy measures and acting where he can. To many, he appears weak.
Obama’s team is not willing to give up that easily however. There are cards to play and victories do emerge, even if they take time. One such victory was the assassination of Bin Laden in 2011, which undoubtedly helped push the re-election campaign along nicely. Beating Romney the following year also cemented his popularity, meaning he could argue his case to the public more frequently. The Iran Nuclear Deal and Gay Marriage followed in 2015 and all things considered, Obama had done a pretty good job with what he was given. So why was there such a fundamental shift in 2016?
For one, people underestimated just how important the appeal of Obama, himself, was. Hillarys politics may not have been miles off his but she simply couldn’t inspire the loyalty he did; he was one of the greatest orators of all time. As well as that however, Obama was unable to translate his messages across as those of the Democratic establishment. After all, they lost handily in 2014, even before Trump entered the picture. Perhaps because, for all their gesticulation, they couldn’t advertise themselves half as well as the GOP. Confidence it seems can be as toxic as it is appealing. That’s where Trump comes in.
Trump won, not because of the substance of his arguments but because of the way he projected them and himself. The Republican field toppled in the debates of late 2015 and all the while, throughout the primaries, we fooled ourselves into thinking this was some kind of joke. Brexit should’ve rang alarm bells. Trump getting the nomination should have too. But like an age-old tragedy, we followed the path blindly and suffered as a result.
If Trump wasn’t a traditional conservative, it didn’t matter at all. As stated earlier, Nixon established the EPA; so clearly this party’s open to whatever. And just like that, they all relinquished honesty and their duty for the sake of power (… Paul Ryan). The Democrats, on the other hand, may not have exactly appeased their camp but they did little to persuade voters, who could be turned, why theirs was a better one to join. Many liberals simply took to labelling Trump supporters stupid, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and so on. This continues to be a mistake, in my view, and a crucial one differentiating many working class people struggling with every day economic opportunities from the elitist self-righteous liberals who know nothing of them.
Trump’s impeachment may get rid of the man but it won’t get rid of the problem because he’s as much a symptom of the ills dominating the bi-polarity of politics this decade as obtuse NRA support or further tax breaks for the 1% are. In a strange way, it’s odd that it’s taken so long for a clown to ascend to the throne considering the acrobatics and pantomime politicians perform but if anything should be clear to the Democrats now, it is that their battle will not end in 2020. Complacency has always been their problem.
A New Left
There is a spark of hope to be found in the Democratic Party however as we end the 2010s. For just as the right has moved beyond any nuance of centrism, the left has recognised its need to stake its own ground too. The campaign of Bernie in 2016 mobilised a movement the corporate Democrats simply didn’t understand; one that has already flourished with the election of candidates like Alexandria Occasion Cortes last year and the adoption of more liberal stances in the election field this year. The party is undergoing a period of transformation, having essentially spent the last 30 years meeting their adversaries in a compromised middle. Whether this will prove wise remains to be seen. Two schools of thought are currently battling it out to see who can take back those Trump voters; the more centrist likes of Joe Biden and the others like Bernie/Warren. Again, we see the political and the cultural dominoes of America falling in tandem.
As I’ve often stated in pieces on this site, I believe the issues should remain central to Bernie’s and other’s campaigns, not the bait Republicans masquerade as issues (e.g. patriotism) nor the scandals that get blown out of proportion (e.g. Hillary’s emails). So far, they seem to be on track but as the other elections of the 2010s have shown, the Republicans aren’t bad at winning.
How strange the Clinton-Blair years now seem to us in a world turned upside down. Forests are burning, debts are rising, automation threatens millions of jobs, racism appears more openly acceptable, and James Corden has a chat show. The 2010s have been a scary time and they’ve only gotten more so; the fresh fruit of the Obama years now rotten to its core. Were we misguided by hope as we may be now? Possibly. I think, more likely however, voter apathy and perennial compromise by liberals beset on preaching without acting led to desperation.
In times of economic upheaval and vulnerability, radical ideologies become all the more appealing. That is not to say we will face a direct parallel with the 1930s and devolve into a fight between fascism, democracy, and communism but this sharp split is somewhat reminiscent. It will play out dramatically in next year’s election, which will be about much more than electing a new president; it’ll be about ratifying the course American culture will head in under the auspices of ideological, generational, and human values (or as Joe Biden put it, the “soul of America”).
The 2010s are yet foggy and there was a great deal more I could have explored (e.g. foreign policy, keyboard warriors, police brutality, #metoo, etc.) but a feint trajectory permeates this hew nonetheless; one linking our apathy and disinterest to upheaval and renewed activism. The people of today speak of politics far more than they did ten years ago. This is both a good and bad thing.
It’s no secret that we here at the Washington Walrus hold Speaker Paul Ryan in low regard. It’s not that he’s as knuckle drawn and villainous as his contemporary right wingers, but rather that he’s so spineless and tepid in his approaches within this political sphere that he appears lame and useless as a result. In fact, we even covered this last year in a piece on just how pathetic he is, in case you want to read that.
Still, that word feels almost a little too cruel for this boy among beasts. Despite the level of authority and respect his position should merit, he has never really shined the way he should have- that is within the confines of a Republican snowglobe. No, he’s just been there somehow, haunting the halls of Congress like a a specter of mediocrity or Wormtongue-like essence- waiting for justification to leave; a legacy on which he can stand.
Has he achieved any sort of legacy therein? Not really. He may posit that his conservative agenda, with the likes of tax reform, has seen great strides in recent months but this has only haphazardly come to proposal under the tumultuous reigns of a man who pays porn stars to keep their mouths shut. He may argue that he never really wanted the position of Speaker and merely stood in to keep the reigns on the severing factions of the GOP. Even within that framework, he has largely failed- as evidenced by the election of a man he refused to even support one month out from voting. In fact, he has largely traipsed a line of abandoning any so called principles we thought he had in favor of appeasing a president who’s put him down more flagrantly than most political commentators. He may say he’s leaving to be more than a “weekend dad”, but does his family really want him at home?
Okay, so admittedly these musings are a little slanted. Let’s take a shot at assessing a more objective truth:
He may very well miss some quality family time. Republicans are all about the family unit and Ryan, compared to many of his cohorts, does seem like more of a traditional Republican.
Perhaps he needs some time to lay low and relax. The Trump Presidency has been an exhausting experience and Ryan hardly needs the stress of the job.
Strategically, this doesn’t seem to be a promising year for Republican candidates. They’ll all be held, to some extent, accountable for all the chaos that’s ensued the last two years. By taking the LBJ route and removing himself from the game altogether, Ryan need not get entangled in what will surely be a contentious and hard-fought race. (Even if his team were confident he would win, it seems likely that the Democrats are due a comeback of some kind this year).
Ryan doesn’t like ‘identity’ politics and that’s something you better get used to in 2018. Maybe the environment’s just become too toxic for a man like him. Maybe this party has just gotten too crazy for him.
Maybe he’ll return in some years for a Presidential run or some sort of other role. Hypothetically, if he was going for the top job, a bit of a break might do him some good. To follow up on point 3, it’d allow him to escape the embarrassment of a potential loss and to remove himself from the tendrils of the Trump campaign; give him some time to become his own man again. He could even write a book and earn a few bucks.
When one considers these five points, Ryan’s decision becomes all the more logical but truth be told, we can’t determine exactly why it’s time for him to step down. His overturning, like Boehner’s some years back, seems unlikely, given his stature and position within the GOP. Indeed, even his frothy relationship with Trump has stilled, probably owing to his decision to deal with the President increasingly in person, instead of in a public forum. One would hope, he finally came to the realization that ‘enough was enough’, but that seems a rather hapless and gullible approach to understanding this.
It may not matter- at least for now, our attention will turn to who will contest his seat on both sides come November and who, thereafter, will take the mantle of Speaker in January 2019. With many pundits already speculating about a Democratic takeover in the House, liberals will undoubtedly read this as a significant blow to their adversaries but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the GOP always have something up their sleeves (even if unintentionally).
As the Trump Administration stumbles its way out of its seventh month, one can only begin to wonder when exactly this vessel of chaos will finally crumble. Given the preponderance of Hurricane Harvey, one can of course be forgiven for forgetting that the Breitbart phantom, Steve Bannon, only left his position as Chief Strategist a mere two weeks ago. Indeed, it seems each scandal or road-bump along the way has been subsumed by another. This one shouldn’t be quickly skipped over, however, for it highlights what has already become crystal clear that Trump seems hell-bent on attaining a higher turnover rate than an unpaid McDonald’s internship.
On January 30, a mere ten days into the Age of Truly Fantastic Ratings, the attorney general Sally Yates was the first to go, after directing lawyers not to defend Trump’s Muslim ban. Michael Flynn soon after resigned as National Security Adviser, pressured by the ongoing scrutiny of the Russian hacks. James Comey, the unfortunate FBI director who clearly didn’t pay attention to Flynn’s resignation, was fired on May 9 in the course of his investigation into the same subject. On July 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned, after being found hiding in a bush and opposing the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci (the Communications Director) who would be gone ten days later and ten before his official start date. Even in that narrow gap however, we also lost Rince Priebus, the Chief of Staff, who just couldn’t whip the White House staff into shape. Then, as already mentioned, was the departure of Steve Bannon, who gradually fell out of favour somehow with the usually steadfast Commander-in-Chief. Of course, that’s not all the company Trump’s kept that has fallen by the wayside but it’s simply unrealistic to expect us to comment on every single one.
Naturally, turnovers occur and previous administrations have experienced their own tumultuous periods. In 1979, Carter fired five members of his cabinet in one foul sweep that backfired against his wishes to renew his administration’s credibility. In 1987, Reagan lost seven members of his cabinet when the Iran-Contra scandal came to light and threatened to take down his presidency. George W. Bush’s cabinet were hardly the bedrock of stability and even Obama’s, whilst relatively secure, was not the same in 2016 or 2012 as it was in 2009. Typically, according to a political science blog from Middlesbury College (2010), 75% of the president’s senior cabinet and advisers are retained through to the second year. Again however, Trump is only seven months in and he has already gone through a National Security Adviser, Press Secretary, and Chief of Staff. These are hardly the foyer decorators.
It is like jumping from a sinking ship that hit an iceberg November 8. Some analysts have opined that this turnover rate can be credited to the fact that Trump is a terrible leader. In conclusion, this fracture will undoubtedly plague any re-election hopes he might hold, for by 2020, it seems unlikely there’ll be any Republicans left to work for him.
Yes, you read that title correctly. Now, I know most of you will propose that Trump or one of his cabinet members deserves this title but even the top dog himself pursues his reckless course of world destruction with an unapologetic pantomime of confidence. Ryan, on the other hand, is more like a snake, slithering his way to the top of a tree, crossing any and all branches to pursue his ultimate goal of a government that’s… well, we’re not quite sure of that even. Unlike most snakes of course, he’s not that cunning, sneaky, or threatening. He does however try to be all these things and for that reason, we’ll stick with the metaphor.
Last week, former FBI Director James Comey testified against Trump, resulting in a ripple across the GOP’s collective nerve system. Paul Ryan, likely hoping to remind America that he exists (despite his significant position), responded to the allegations of corruptions in the White House by saying that the President was ‘just new to this.’ It was a pitiful display for the straight-laced gym-bound Speaker and one yet of mild disappointment for the people who might have thought him a voice of (some) reason in a party so lost in its way; for this man was not always a reliable source of support for the Trump administration…
It was in May 2016 when the Republican Primaries were effectively over that the Washington Post ran a story on the Speaker ’emerging’ as the party’s leading anti-Trump figure. Like many, he was astounded at the rhetoric being used during the great Orange Surge. After all, Ryan, ever the serpentine, was the archetypal Republican; all about family values, pro-NRA, a Climate Change skeptic, anti-Obamacare, anti-Same-Sex marriage, anti-abortion, and anti-reason. In 2014, he even wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, in which he divided the American people into ‘takers’ and ‘makers,’ which he would later flip-flop on- just like a true Republican. So what he saw before his eyes at the RNC last summer must have disquieted him and moderates subsequently hoped he would stand his own ground. Unfortunately however, he had a lackluster answer even then when he finally decided to support one of his own most vocal critics; ‘Hillary isn’t the answer.’
Ever since, Ryan has been lost in some sort of strange limbo where his agenda is being pushed but he seems all the more insignificant. He can’t keep up with the fresh slew of news being generated by the Trump administration on a daily basis. He’s constantly reacting, in off-beat time, to whatever the latest hurdle is. He denounces Trump every now and again and then stands by him steadfastly, as if to ensure the safety nets stay on a trampoline shot into outer space. He is the stalwart of a party whose principles are as expendable as his own time, for all the people care. Even his haircut betrays the possibility that this man might at all be genuine or interesting.
So why do we pay so much credence to this shadow of a man? The fact of the matter is he is important, or will be again when Trump is impeached and the guy who looks like he’s from Thunderbirds takes over. It will be at that point or some other in the future when he releases his pulped autobiography when he will have to answer for all the hypocrisy he presided over during his tenure. With the likes of former Republican Representative Bob Inglis calling him out (‘You know that you would be inquiring into impeachment if this were a Democrat’), the Speaker has to determine the point of no-return, when none of his party’s principles coalesce with the trajectory of the current administration. Only then, will he be able to justify a non-microwaveable dinner.
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.