If the Obama administration ever had the opportunity to launch a Manhattan Project-scale effort to build a 200-mpg car or a solar electrical grid (or whatever the big new discovery will need to be) and break our toxic dependence on fossil fuels, it no longer does. While Obama has paid lip service to the issue throughout his career, his policy changes have been minor and incremental. In our grandchildren’s time, when ecological catastrophe is widespread and portions of the planet become uninhabitable, they will curse our names for seeing the future so clearly but failing to act.
Obama has always favored single-payer healthcare in theory, and he’s more than smart enough to understand that it’s the only way we’re ever going to control costs while providing care to everyone. But he has never displayed the will or courage to pursue it seriously, in the face of the insurance industry, Big Pharma and the Iago-like whisperings of Rahm Emanuel. Even now, as Newtown begins to fade out of the news cycle a little, you can feel all the purple-state Democratic senators who face 2014 election campaigns backing away from an assault weapons ban, or any other serious gun reform. Obama is likely to leave office having expended a lot of rhetoric on the issue with almost no result. (I predict we will see a new self-enforced ratings system for the video-game industry, some tweaking on background checks, and that’s about it.)
To go a bit “Zero Dark Thirty” on you, Obama has never shown the slightest inclination to rein in the exaggerated executive powers of the Bush-Cheney era, or the super-secret surveillance powers of the post-9/11 national security state. He may have ended the practices of torture and rendition and closed at least some of the CIA’s secret prisons, but we really can’t know any of that for sure. What we do know is that he has ramped up the drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, and has claimed the right to kill any civilians he doesn’t like, including American citizens, anywhere in the world, on secret evidence and on his sole authority. Most of the president’s liberal defenders, who would have been outraged had George W. Bush done those things, have shrugged this off – and clearly this was one area where Mitt Romney found himself in total agreement.
On both national security and Obama’s handling of the economy, you can’t claim his hands were tied. He absolutely had the power to set a progressive new course and didn’t use it – unless, that is, you want to take the cynical position that no president these days truly possesses the power to stand up against Wall Street and the big corporations. (It’s an unhappily plausible view.) As Paul Krugman has consistently reminded us, Obama made clear choices at every step in his response to the financial and economic crisis, and chose to leave control of financial policy in the hands of the same Wall Street geniuses who brought us to the brink of apocalypse.
Throughout his career, Obama has been a cautious, calculating politician. Even when he has adopted the rhetoric and manner of a more prophetic and progressive leader, he has deliberately steered away from the kind of far-reaching liberal policy agenda he now claims to be embracing. He’s always done what Beyoncé did, relying on the backup track instead of trying to hit those high notes in the cold. Those instincts have helped him repeatedly win elections, bedevil opponents and bewilder supporters. But he’s no longer running for anything, and the beginning of the end of his presidency is at hand. Will he be remembered as a president who changed America, or just as an amorphous symbol of changes that were happening anyway? Is it too late for him to sing the song for real?