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President Obama’s Cult of Mediocrity

Richard Kadzis

Commentary: His Presidency is over, and although Barack Obama had eight years to make a mark on America and the world, I believe history will judge him as a mediocre Commander-in-Chief, at best.

Not so fast, you might contend. President Obama completed his second term with a high approval rating. Good things happened. We averted a financial collapse. The stock market recovered, and then it boomed. Unemployment was cut in half. We killed Osama Bin Laden.

But scratch the surface, and you might argue the numbers are misleading. “Statistics, damn lies,” Mark Twain’s famous quote, lends some perspective.

Obama’s appeal wasn’t nearly strong enough to carry the Democrats to a third consecutive White House term, or to hold on to the Senate, for that matter.

Hillary Clinton’s election loss was as much a repudiation of the Obama years as it was a rejection of Clintonism.

The only poll that really matters is the one taken on Election Day in the voting booth.

Healthcare and Terrorism

Those who voted for Donald Trump – call them a different kind of Rainbow Coalition – voted against the Obama agenda and the strong likelihood of its continuation for at least another four years.

The Affordable Care Act, or ACA, is a prime example, because its complexity has left an uneven landscape of cost vs. benefit.

Insurance is regulated on a state-by-state basis, so it works well in some states but not in others. My personal experience with ACA, also known as Obamacare, came at a time when I was moving from Atlanta to Denver. In both cases, the monthly premium would have been affordable, but not the deductibles that also come with it. I was able to avoid Obamacare because I qualified for Medicare.

A new Wall Street Journal survey shows a 50 percent approval rating for the ACA, a reflection of the uneven landscape and the different state-by-state impacts of ACA.

I think the pro-Trump vote also questioned Mr. Obama’s nuclear treaty with Iran, and the closely-linked deterioration of relations with Israel. The President’s attitude toward, his almost-open disdain for, Israel shaped the voter mentality, probably more than the content of his policies on other related controversial issues like Israeli expansionism.

It’s almost as if Obama was oblivious to the strategic reality of Israel being one of the last, if not the last, deterrent to Iran, Al-Qaeda, Isis, and Syrian madman Bashar al-Assad.

Maybe Obama’s use of drone warfare was a good idea, but it had no impact on filling the Syrian-terror vacuum, or saving innocent humanity from Aleppo or other genocidal venues.

Obama was unable to respond effectively to Russia’s open support of Syria and Assad’s mass murder campaign, which became part of a litany of Obama practices that did nothing to stop Isis from beheading innocent Americans, while we watched helplessly via live internet TV.

Yes, Mr. President, a big thank you came from all Americans for hunting down and killing Bin Laden in your first term. But why did you stop there?  Your drones took out some other terror leaders but killing the head doesn’t kill the body of Isis.

Like the Israelis, we are among the best at justifiable covert actions, not the all-out warfare that marred the Bush administration.

Slighting the Greatest Generation

I also think Americans voted against Obama’s trip to Hiroshima, where he apologized for Harry Truman’s courageous decision to drop the bomb and save thousands more American military lives.

Japan started World War II, but did we hear a word of apology from its prime minister when Obama hosted him at Pearl Harbor?

These events did not sit well with the children of the Greatest Generation, including myself.

But, in my opinion, that’s Obama’s way, trying to make a statement of meaning or purpose without having his finger on the pulse of the people, without really knowing or understanding outcomes, and how those outcomes often count most at the individual level.

The election showed how out of touch Obama became with the American people, just as with the Democratic Party itself.

He was quick to bail out multiple major banks early in his first term. Yes, he had to clean up the mess made by President Bush’s pricy war in Iraq, questionable investment practices on Wall Street, and even President Bill Clinton, who signed off on the sub-prime mortgage loan model ending with the 2007-2008 real estate crash.

Obama might have been more selective over which banks to save and diverted stimulus into the small business sector, where most jobs are created.

No considerations came from the White House on behalf of tax breaks for working families, either. No progress was made on securing the future of Social Security.

Style over Substance

Another resulting setback became the lack of meaningful job creation and income growth. This president will not be remembered for economic development. Trump’s election night victory in Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and other Blue heartland states is a direct reflection of the Obama administration’s inability to create higher-income jobs on a mass scale.

The bailouts framed the massive debt, deficit and Social Security issues predating Obama but which were not adequately addressed these past eight years due largely to a divisive and sometimes hostile Congress.

It was a tough challenge engendering collaboration on Capitol Hill, and Mr. Obama may have been remembered as The Great Unifier if he could have appeared less divisive himself. It was an opportunity that slipped through his hands.

I admit to voting for him in 2008, tantalized by the prospect of greater diversity and the possibilities of fresh change for everyone. Watching him closely for eight years, I came away with the feeling he was there to promote the African American experience to the exclusion of the total American experience, and at the expense of our national motto, “e pluribus unum.

From many, one…this classical tenet of American governance was lost on this president. President Reagan had an Irish heritage but I don’t recall seeing the Reagan White House overpopulated by Irish writers, athletes, artists and performers. Yet Reagan brought both substance and style to the Oval Office.

On CBS Sunday Morning, one Black thought leader recently complimented Obama’s style of appeal to African Americans over the substance of his performance impacting all Americans. The statement demonstrates how out of balance Obama became: style over substance, political opportunist over leadership.

As important as Obama’s presidency was to inspiring the African American cause, it also contradicts the principle that we are all in this together. It probably helped feed the Congressional stalemate that shackled his administration.

It extended to the First Lady’s assertion from the podium at the Democratic National Convention that she had been living in a house built by slaves.

This preoccupation with promoting the African American struggle is actually an anachronism.

Divisive Language, Messages and Symbolism

Not only is this kind of posturing akin to traditional Southerners complaining about losing the Civil War, it alienates people because it is divisive language. Today’s Black struggle is, in fact, part of the greater American struggle.

These nuances might also explain why Mr. Trump made unexpected inroads within constituencies presumed to oppose him.  Election analysts refer to the “incrementalism” of taking away presumed votes from the Democrats as a critical factor in Trump’s success.

The incremental increase within groups like college-educated women, working Black and Hispanic women, and underemployed White American males also reflects a trait that Mr. Obama will regret in retrospect. His tendency to talk down to people and constantly dictate his viewpoint lent a distinct air of arrogance that grated on voters.

By choice, I did not watch his farewell address, because I knew he would give himself high marks and a positive performance review, as he did. Some objectivity, honesty, humility and candor could have helped the moment, but instead the reality of his denial became the reality of his arrogance.

Mr. President, the American people reviewed your overall performance on November 8, 2016, in a light much harsher than your 2008 election and 2012 re-election, far more realistically than your self-assessment. You were fortunate to have weak Republican opponents in both of your campaigns.

It was a sad irony how the stock market boomed while more and more of us went from career jobs to hourly work at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

Lack of Vision and Practical Ideas

What if President Obama had created an alternative energy development initiative to offset underemployment, to create a whole new industry with higher paying jobs?

President Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon in less than a decade. Obama pulled the plug on funding manned space exploration. NASA was once an inspiration to this country.

The same type of innovation and technology advances that took us to the Moon would break America’s reliance on fossil fuel by the year 2050, but the stage was not set.

A new-age Civilian Conservation Corps could have been proposed and enacted, one combining energy management advances with repair of our sagging infrastructure.   

Underplaying the future of alternative energy and the crumbling infrastructure was another Obama missed opportunity, as was the administration’s stand against the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline project.

Befitting the ultimate tone of your administration, you created a cult of mediocrity within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You did not inspire many of us because a space-filler is not a difference-maker, and a political opportunist is not a leader.

Richard Kadzis, a Las Cruces resident, is a former New England correspondent for National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered.’ He has extensive experience covering national politics.