There are nearly 20 declared Democratic candidates for next year’s election and yet one key figure remains aloof and undecided. Yes, hanging out there, somewhere in the horizon with a winning smile but a shadow cast in a question mark is none other than Joe Biden. You know him best as Obama’s other half but he’s also served in the past as a Senator for 36 years with a host of positions including Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s got the best experience of any of these Democratic hopefuls, charisma, and something most politicians lack; a genuine personality. So why not declare? Well, let’s get straight to the first and most pertinent stumbling block and fair warning, it’s a touchy subject…. okay, sorry.
Joe Biden’s been caught in a whirlwind of controversy this last week over a number of women claiming his “personal touch” to be a little invasive and inappropriate. This is by no means an explosive or recent discovery. In the past, many commentators and comedians like Jon Stewart have squirmed at Biden’s holding of shoulders, heads, and hugs for prolonged periods. It’s never been described as sexual harassment as such but rather just uncomfortable and strange. In the context of the #metoo era, perceptions have of course shifted however and Biden is now being asked to account for these instances.
In a statement last Wednesday, he explained that any handshakes or hugs were always given as marks of “affection, support, and comfort”. He said he was not sorry for his “intentions” but acknowledged that “social norms are changing” while promising to be “more mindful” in the future. On Friday however, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Conference, after hugging the IBEW president, he joked that “he had permission” and then later made the same joke when others joined him on stage. (A bit sloppy, yes.) Well naturally, some people took this in jest and others with more affront, such as Tarana Burke (founder of #metoo movement) who said the jokes were “disrespectful and inexcusable” and that it was not enough for him to be “mindful,” he needed to make an effort to apologize properly.
Is this an overreaction? Part of me wants to say yes and defend Biden outright. After all, sensationalism in today’s media is driven by headlines rather than analysis. Most people who catch a whiff of these headlines, I hope, would delve deeper and read a bit into it. But words like “allegations,” “accusations”, and so forth have such a weight to them now that I fear Biden will be dragged into the company of far worse offenders. He certainly did himself no favors with his jokes but he did, at least, respond and yes, I do think “intentions” matter. I don’t think most people honestly consider this man to be a true creep like say, the President of the United States.
Biden’s of a different generation and age; a fact some commentators don’t think matters given the gravitas of this cultural change we’re experiencing but context is always crucial. Our backgrounds shape us, for better or worse. Biden, has suffered the loss of a wife, a daughter, and son in his tragic past and often made a connection with people in hard times through words or hugs. Most politicians do this, albeit to lesser extents. He’s 76 as well so his customs and mannerisms may be off tilt with younger generations.
That’s all just pause for thought, more than anything though. Before we #cancel Biden, we need to examine what value is to be attained in judging people’s morals and conduct retrospectively. If it’s for the cause of attaining a better 2020 candidate for the Democrats, then maybe there is something there. After all, the party has become more liberal and with so many alternatives on board, why should we accept the obvious choice like so many did with Hillary in 2016? There’s a few reasons:
Some of these candidates suck, are disingenuous, and do nothing but pander to the liberal waves like Kirsten Gillibrand
The aforementioned level of experience
He has the highest polling
He can appeal to moderates who might otherwise side with Trump
He’s charismatic and likable; marketable too
Association with Obama
There’s definitely reasonable debate on whether or not he should run. I would agree with Ross Douhat (New York Times) that, if he does, he should run on his record rather than against it. Any sharp left-wing moves will be preyed upon by the media, his fellow candidates, and online trolls and then mocked by Trump. There is a section of Trump’s base to be swayed too who actually do care about labor unions, health care, and other important issues, which Biden can speak to with precision as others might vaguely address. Plus, if nothing else, it’ll at least give Democratic voters some alternative to the growing liberalism represented by candidates like Booker, Sanders, Warren, and O’Rourke. Then, they can’t whine come November 2020.
Biden has always been “awkward”, prone to gaffes, and toneless remarks (e.g. wishing he “could” have done something about the Anita Hill sexual harassment trial in the early 90s, despite then being chair of the Judiciary Committee.) His record is not squeaky clean. He’s even run twice before and failed. In the Democratic Party’s quest for greater wokeness however, it can’t be worthwhile to decry and discard every ally who’s ever done wrong. When the bar is set this high, the likelihood for success becomes increasingly narrow and the bigger picture gets lost. The Republicans understand this much, if anything. I also don’t want to see Trump re-elected because his opponents couldn’t find their Messiah.
In the last few years, American politics have become increasingly preoccupied with style over substance, in the avenue of political correctness, the culture wars, and identity politics. The latter issue hasn’t been discussed much yet on this website because hey! who needs to hear from another white male about race and gender issues? This may seem like a cheap joke or key point, depending on your point of view, but it cuts right down to why this has become incontrovertibly linked with political discourse today.
Identity politics (and how it’s stirred in conversation) breeds off a culture of resentment among alienated groups (privileged and disenfranchised, generally) while at the same time remaining all the more relevant, in times when a US president can’t even be bothered to condemn the KKK. Its genesis lies in the history of oppression of minority groups (Blacks, LGBT+, etc.) and the effective silencing of their voices resulting in what many believe to be a necessary template for defense. Its faults, as some would argue, lie in the abuse of where it’s applied and the mentality of “victimhood” it encourages; giving a victim the leverage of identity over an opponent in debate. Naturally, it’s a sensitive topic to discuss because discrimination isn’t some abstract idea for many people but to make some steady progress, let’s examine the criticisms and defense channeling this conversation.
Criticism of Identity Politics
Let’s divide the critics into two types: a) rhetorical and b) practical.
The former have problems with the rhetoric identity politics inspires. They charge that it inspires groupthink, which in turn compromises individual thought on complex issues and furthers the gulf between left and right. In common discourse, we expect minorities to side with liberals all the time, even though many of the matters dividing the Republican and Democratic parties have little to do with identity, e.g. gun control, climate change. We assume race and sexuality plays a major role in a Black or Gay person’s life which may be statistically sound but at times, possibly comes across as condescending and untrue. As the popular political commentator Dave Rubin has noted, “you as an individual are much more than your immutable characteristics.”
Plus, experience does not necessarily establish authority in an argument. We may not be able to fully appreciate another person’s struggles and yes, it may at times appear insensitive to even engage but debates should be run on good ideas, regardless of one’s “immutable characteristics”. This notion blossomed considerably when echoed by Obama in a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth in July (when he said opinions should not be dismissed just because they are white or male).
Practical critics think along these lines too but with goals in mind- i.e. beating Trump in 2020. As Sheri Berman opined in a Guardian piece (“Why Identity Politics Benefits The Right More Than The Left”): “Is our ultimate goal ensuring the compatibility of diversity and democracy? Then promoting the overlapping interests and identification that enable citizens to become more comfortable with differences and thus more tolerant and trusting, is absolutely necessary.” Left and right have been painted as stark opponents in the culture wars. A tough point, some liberals seem unwilling to accept, is that not all Trump’s supporters are racist white males. Okay, there are definitely some racists. And yes, a lot of his support was from white males. Their support did not rest solely on identity politics however. It derived from other places; chiefly, economic misfortune- a shared characteristic for people of all identities in many situations. In short, as Bernie Sanders would hound, the media needs to pay more attention to the issues!
In Defense of Identity Politics
Okay, so that’s all very good but racism, homophobia, and sexism are everyday issues affecting millions of lives. There are oppressive methods in place preventing Blacks from voting (by conservatives gerrymanders and legislators). There is a double standard for women and inequality of opportunities in many job sectors. LGBT groups are routinely subjected to the nastiest treatment and commentary for merely being who they are. So, in many respects, identity politics is something that has been thrust upon these groups rather than something they’ve sought out and just as the right are known to parry off cries of offense with deflections like “oh you’re just being PC”, is it not possible that identity politics helps their cause a little when it comes to such enduring prejudice?
In his article, “In Defense of Identity Politics”, Paul Von Blume writes that American society has been mechanized to the umpteenth degree to reinforce the status quo of white male privilege. When expressions like “just plain American” or “melting pot” are bandied about, he argues that while they may be “well meaning,” they really just brush over the historical “exclusion” of millions of its people. Direct, aggressive racism or prejudice in general does not necessarily tie this altogether. White privilege is maintained out of fear that the promotion of less enfranchised persons may lead to a decline in their quality of life (a concern that pervaded the “turbulence” of the 1960s). Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and Peterson opponent), has noted this much, writing for the New York Times in December 2016 that “the interests of the white working class have often been used by white political elites to stave off challenges to inequality and discrimination by black folk and other minority groups”. (It should be noted however that he’s been criticized for pushing identity politics to the extreme, referring to Jordan Peterson as a “mean mad white man” during a debate on political correctness).
White men like me will never fully appreciate the Black, Women, or Muslim experience, as diversified or as shared as it can be. In many respects, our culture and systemic prejudice has necessitated such labels as identity be used in the mainstream. It catches people’s attention when a meme or hashtag or article goes viral, encapsulating all the frustrations of “mansplaining”, whitewashed history, or privilege. It’s all very understandable but at times, overtly sensitive to the point debate gets shut down; e.g. with the above case between Peterson and Dyson, the former debater was immediately cast under suspicion (or an attempt was made) just because he was a white male arguing against political correctness. At times, this isn’t fair but there will always be exceptions in every case that define how we must study it. For example, a panel of all male commentators discussing abortion would seem ridiculous to most but of all females, rather reasonable. Also, “All Lives Matter”?
It’s a trying discussion which transmogrifies the collective into the personal experience. For all practicalities’ sake though, in light of recent political developments, it has become a “serious nuisance” underlying almost every political debate. In order for the Democrats to make some ground on those stubborn Trump supporters, there needs to be some attempt at reconciling the majority with the minority, whose interests don’t necessarily deviate from one another’s. The 2018 midterms and the 2020 election should return to the boring stuff that makes up most sane countries’ elections; economic opportunity- and that means to help all citizens advance, be it on an individual or group level.
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!
With last week’s announcement of a ban on transgender soldiers in the US army, Trump slid to a new low that shocked even Sauron himself.
Of course, nothing is yet certain with this latest betrayal but even the proposal of such an amendment sheds light on the growing sense of desperation that characterizes this administration. And now at this fatal hour, when his cabinet is falling apart, North Korea is testing missiles, and the Republicans can’t pass a repeal on Obamacare, he must play what could perhaps be his last card; the culture wars.
Republicans have been playing this one for years. It’s what they do when the heat gets a little too intense in an election debate or when Modern Family introduces another minority character. It helps to convey the other side for what they really are; family-ruining, drug-addicted hippies who would have every American speaking Lithuanian, or some other strange language, if they could. And the thing is, it works.
In the 1980s, as the New Right became more powerful and assertive, they began to push back against some of the radical shifts in society brought about by the Left in the 1960s and 1970s, such as abortion. Although this issue had effectively been put to rest in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade case, the opposition never quite dissipated; in fact, they became more vocal and encroaching in everyday life, leading to the rise of Republicans like George W. Bush, who would, himself (yes), appoint two eyebrow-raising justices to the Supreme Court in 2005-6. Meanwhile however, leftist activists broadened their range of issues from anti-war activism and feminism, taking on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and power plants, energy sources, and globalism in the 1980s and 1990s. When the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, for instance, was turned down four years later, the cultural schism became apparent in the ongoing debates on environmentalist priority. The media, in their ever cunning way, capitalized on such tensions by targeting their audiences appropriately with ideological news channels like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.
Today, Americans live in a zany, amplified version of this reality however. Many liberals see conservatives as backwards-thinking, science-abating morons with their heads stuck in the sand, yearning for a time long gone. The right, on the other hand, resent how soft and regulated America has become under the likes of Obama. They believe the right to bear arms is tantamount to their right to freedom, under the US constitution. And… Gwyneth Paltrow!!! It’s not all clear cut but a range of issues divide these collective groups, including: political correctness, church & state, LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigration, recreational drug use, censorship, and state rights.
Are there two Americas then? or is this all better understood as a modern-day struggle to define the spirit of what America is? Of course, no society is ever wholly united on every issue but in general, there’s usually a strong consensus on at least several of the ones mentioned above. Judging by the course of other nations and the prevailing tide of social history, it seems rational to guess the left will prevail on most of these, though at times, it must be admitted that even their tactics can be deemed a tad excessive (especially with political correctness).
Trump is no ideologue but he is a master at shit-stirring. He may yet be able to rally his supporters up, if he’s able to cast his liberal opposition in the same framework Bush did to Kerry in 2004. It’s not a surefire strategy but with the 2018 mid-terms becoming a more prominent talking-point, it may be the one by which he hangs on. It certainly helped in 2016. As Rich Lowry wrote for The Guardian in January, ‘ [he] is an unlikely cultural warrior, but if he can harness a sense of national solidarity and speak persuasively for ordinary American workers… he may prove a powerful one.’ The battle’s on liberals- your base will undoubtedly garner the support of the transgender community but leave your Facebook commentators at home. They’re just terrible.
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.