Barack Obama’s economic legacy: His four must-have items

I’ve been writing about Obama’s Legacy Tour (sorry, his second term) from time to time without focusing on the legacy itself. So this post will lay down a marker — in brief, what’s on Obama’s economic legacy list, and what will he get if he succeeds? Consider this the Legacy View from 10,000 feet.

I think the whole of Barack Obama’s two-term economic agenda is topped by these four items:

  1. Health care “reform” — a privatized alternative to Medicare expansion
  2. A “grand bargain” in which social insurance benefits are rolled back
  3. Plentiful oil & gas and passage of the Keystone Sludgepipe (KXL pipeline)
  4. Passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement

And that’s the list. Privatized “Medicare expansion” (the ACA). Benefits cuts for SS and Medicare. Keystone. TPP. If Obama gets these four, he’s a happy man, and in his mind he goes out in glory.

Notice, by the way, that these are his economic wants. His social agenda — gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights and the rest — well, I’ll leave it to you to decide how hard he’s fought for these things, and why he’s fought for them (or not). This piece is only concerned with his economic wants. Why? The reason is here.

Why do I think he wants these things strongly? Occam’s switchblade: Because he acts like it. If you disagree, let’s wait till the Obama show is over, then show me the economic policy he’s fought for harder. (And no, I’m not counting the tepid stimulus tied to the bankers’ Never Go To Jail card. That was on his list (and he won), but it doesn’t top the items above. I think you could argue that this was his forced response to the end of the Bush II crisis, something he had to do before moving onto his own must-have agenda.)

What’s his purpose in pushing for these items?

I’ve examined each of these items separately before, and will again. (For newbies, the TPP discussions are here and here.) But I want to short-form the discussion. What does Obama get out of each of these high-priority items? Taking them one by one, a summary:

■ Privatized “Medicare expansion” (Obamacare or ACA) is a neoliberal solution to a public health care problem. It gives money to billionaires (in this case, insurance and Pharma CEOs) as a privatized way to solve a public need, and it blocks actual Medicare from being expanded to younger people.  Win-win for the neolibs. Young people now will never get access to Medicare.

■ The “Grand Bargain” is a pretend way to solve a pretend problem (the deficit) with a disguised real goal — start the rollback of social insurance programs. (See here at 1:30 and elsewhere in the clip; note, that’s 2006.) Rolling back social insurance is a neoliberal wet dream. Clinton was on that path until a certain blue dress got in the way. The next Clinton will be on that path as well. Obama’s been after benefit cuts since his inauguration.

Oil drilling

Oil via Shutterstock

■ Oil and gas production under Obama is off the charts, at a mid-term high. This is obviously a big-time Obama goal, and getting Keystone approved is a clear must-have. Keystone has been fast-tracked since the beginning, and after a speed-bump in which the environmental movement reared its powerful head and asked for the wrong thing, it’s fast-tracked today. The latest government Keystone study was authored by the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada.

Keystone is coming. Make no mistake. Obama wants it bad. It will make him Climate Criminal Number One, but not in his mind.

■ TPP is the latest trade agreement in a gaggle of trade agreements that enshrine capital as the only entity with global travel rights. TPP too is coming, and every billionaire on the planet will pay both the House and the Senate major money to please-please-please make it so. Obama will eagerly sign if they pass TPP through Congress. (For an added why, see below.)

So that’s the big four. Remember that list —

Privatized Medicare expansion (done)
Benefit cuts (in process)
Keystone (coming)
TPP trade agreement (coming)

Did you notice? Every item on that list promotes billionaire wealth. By a lot. Obama got the first one, is working on the second, and he has more than three years to get the last two. Then he’s out of office and into Clinton land.

All four have to be blocked. We screwed up on the first — thanks, Dennis “Plane Ride” Kucinich and the other “bold” progressives in Congress. But we can still win the other three.

What does post-presidential Obama look like?

Post-presidential Obama looks like post-presidential Bill Clinton: World-wide acclaim. Sneaky neoliberal “do-gooder” foundation. Library (with obscure funding). And Bill Clinton money.

Since every item on his list promotes billionaire wealth, he’ll get Clinton money and then some (inflation, don’t you know, plus added value for extra effort). That means he’ll also get the Big-Money–funded foundation (“The Barack Obama More-for-Them Institute”), and of course, the donor-compromised library.

But what about reputation and acclaim? In my estimation at least, likely not. The man may have to live with disappointment after all. As I noted earlier, things are coming to a head, on many fronts. If they do, James Galbraith may be right (as quoted here):

For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.

Because sometimes, there really is justice in the world. And also because, the minute people get that he really is Climate Criminal Number One (after all, he’ll be that Keystone dude till he dies), Obama will be Them, not Us, for as long as post-industrial civilization survives. Roughly the length of the rest of his daughters’ lives, I think, unless James Hansen is really really wrong.

[Updated to clarify phrasing.]


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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20 Responses to “Barack Obama’s economic legacy: His four must-have items”

  1. Dan Kervick says:

    Yes, future conservatives will lionize him as the “savior of capitalism” who fought off every serious push from the left during one of the worst economic crises in history, and gave us a much smaller government and the beginning of the end of social insurance programs.

  2. Kim_Kaufman says:

    Obama didn’t even care about his stimulus enough to mention it. I think it was a tiny bone to the optimistic and naive who elected him and also kept the states marginally functioning for about a year or so while he was crafting the Medical Industrial Complex Bailout Act. Worst. President. Ever. But “The Most Effective Evil,” quoting Glen Ford.

  3. Kim_Kaufman says:

    Do what the Republicans did 30 years ago: start electing people on the local level and training them upwards.

  4. Kim_Kaufman says:

    uh, Hillary Clinton is already in line. One of those jokes right after the election: Obama: “Hey, Hill, I won.” Hillary: “Keep the seat warm. #Hillary2016”

  5. karmanot says:

    Well done GP I agree!

  6. karmanot says:

    And he didn’t even know it! Without the Nancenator he would have been drooling in public.

  7. Dameocrat says:

    Doesn’t it disturb you at all that the mainstream democrats including the netroots are lining up behind Hillary and she will likely give us another 8 years of privatizations and sellouts. What are we going to do to make sure we are represented by one of our own?

  8. GaiusPublius says:

    I try to make it a fun and playful read as well. :) Thanks!


  9. KYrocky says:

    I agree with each marker you have laid out. In future years when the VSP all commiserate that “no one could have predicted…” at least can point to your I Told You So. I watched an interview with Phil Donahue where he was asked why people like him, who were right, have no place in the media. His answer was that “no one likes a scold.” So true. But you, sir, are a scold in real time, and I appreciate every article you write.

  10. lynchie says:

    Palin would make me swear off voting forever if she is ever a choice again..

  11. nicho says:

    And Reagan at least had the excuse that he was mentally ill.

  12. nicho says:

    Hold your horses. Sarah Palin is angling for another shot at the gold ring. You may have someone to vote for.

  13. lynchie says:

    But loved by the ruling class as a true champion of capitalism. He makes Billy seem like an amateur. For me the first tell was his winning the Noble Peace Prize. Coffee shot out my nose as I read the insanity of that news release. Sadly he has done nothing to show I was wrong about him. I never vote for the lesser of. I prefer to not vote if there is no one with enough integrity to earn my vote. Viewing the potential field for 2016 there is no one worthy of my vote.

  14. karmanot says:

    Disaster Capitalism!

  15. BeccaM says:

    At the basis of neo-liberal corporatism is the dubious belief that capitalism is the most ideal economic system, and that capitalism works best when there are no regulations or laws to limit its extent.

    Capitalism dictates that those who are willing to work for the lowest wages and least benefits will be chosen over all others — and ding-ding-ding, we have a winner with “slave prison labor in China!” It also dictates that a company willing to pollute the environment will have higher profits than those which take on the expense of avoiding doing so. If there is profit to be had, it perforce must be pursued, no matter who it harms. Besides, the rich people will ensure they themselves never have to live downwind from a coal-burning power plant, that their personal beaches will remain pristine (and private), and that their tap water won’t ever be flammable.

    In the capitalist ‘paradise,’ there are no long-term obligations such as pensions or pre-paid health insurance. No concern for a climate going berserk. Not a single thought about the fact that people who have no money cannot buy anything or sustain a consumer-based market-driven capitalist economy — because the billionaires can now create pseudo-wealth out of thin air (to wit, the derivatives market.) Why does this wealth exist? Because they say so.

    Everything is about short-term plunder.

    Even as America’s founders recognized the need for checks and balances, of powers that are shared and compete with each other, unfettered capitalism seeks always to get rid of any limits or rules. Judging from the way now the biggest multinationals can thumb their collective noses at laws, having become “too big to prosecute,” they’ve already won.

  16. karmanot says:

    Assuming he lives that long.

  17. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obama is the worst Republican president since Reagan. He’s passed the obscene records of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

  18. Ford Prefect says:

    Excellent post, GP. Your switchblade is getting sharper.

    One smallish quibble though. Note that his “economic” priorities aren’t really economic priorities. They’re really just private interests asserting themselves through public means. There really aren’t any macro-economic benefits to his program, but those particular profit schemes will do very well indeed.

    Poisoned drinking water for millions will prove an economic disaster. But the profits will be amazing!

    TPP will be an economic disaster, but the profits will be amazing! (And so on….)

    The “National Interest” itself has been privatized.

  19. lynchie says:

    i wrote a comment on a previous post. Basically it said that Corporate America/1% doesn’t care who is elected, Dem or Repub. They are owned from the first day they are in congress. The goal get all the cash and push down the 99%. No health care they can afford. Raise retirement age so they can’t collect too much from SS. Increase pollution and destruction of the world for cash. Keep unemployment high which keeps wages low. Don’t spend a millisecond on the poor and elderly they will die so it is a waste. As far eyes following him, the 1% don’t give a shit there is no interaction with the 99%. Obama makes no bones about his lack of interest in the everyday problems faced by Americans. A good cover right now is the DOMA/Gay rights debacle. It keeps us all from thinking about what is really going on behind the scenes

  20. nicho says:

    FWIW: Truthdig today has an excellent piece on the scope and impact of the neoliberal agenda. It’s well worth a read:

    As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, selling
    off of state functions, deregulation of finance and labor, elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society.

    As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

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