REVIEW: Just How Satisfied Should Liberals be with the Obama Presidency?

   By Jim Swearingen

Buyer’s Remorse

By Bill Press

Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster

320 pp.                   $24

Patently and egregiously unfair! That is how many of us in the political center and on the left have responded to indictments of Barack Obama’s presidency.  And it’s not hard to understand why – the attacks on Obama from the right have been so personal, slanderous, or simply inane.

There has been the blather about Obama being born in Kenya, and the nonsense about him being a Muslim.  There has been the crazy talk about Obama intentionally trying to sell out America in his foreign policy.  And of course there has been the contrarian petulance and barely disguised racism from the diehards who still can’t reconcile themselves to having a black man at the pinnacle of the national pyramid.

Now, along comes veteran Democratic radio talk show host Bill Press with Buyer’s Remorse, a smart and engaging new critique of Obama’s leadership from the left.  It is a book that should make the President’s progressive apologists abandon their defensive crouch and calmly ponder: just how good a president has Obama been?

In the book, Press breaks down what he sees as the top 10 issues—and failures—of Obama’s Presidency.  Speaking as an unrepentant liberal, Press—who wanted to see Obama be a successful two-term chief executive—asserts that Obama the President has dithered and frittered away the better part of his two-term administration by ceding strong liberal positions that Obama the candidate promised to pursue relentlessly.  

Press lambastes Obama for missed opportunities on universal health care, economic stimulus, immigration reform, and more.  Only in the last 18 months or so of his final term, Press contends, has the President gotten around to fighting for what few political victories are left to be gotten with the waning power he has left.  Press was expecting a Tesla S, but feels he ended up with a practical, but uninspired, family sedan.

The underlying critique of Press’s book is that Obama made a mistake by being consummately reasonable in his dealings with an opposition party that abandoned rationality as a deliberate tactical response to his election.  It is not hard to find evidence of the President’s unending pursuit of cordiality.  Even in his last State of the Union address, after all of the recent tough talk and hard-edged presidential orders, Obama showed that he still longs for a time when political opponents would come reason together – as though the Tea Party would ever beat their swords into ploughshares.

In example after example, Press makes the case that President Obama ignored his Democratic allies in Congress, offered premature concessions to his Republican adversaries before they were necessary, and showed little willingness to play political hardball to get what he promised during the campaign.

Obama showed colossal indecision, naiveté, and confusion in dealing with Congressional Republicans, Press argues, on almost every conceivable issue: the economy, health care, national security and foreign policy, immigration reform and race relations, guns, climate change, labor, and even his own role as head of the party.

When the President walked into the Oval Office, in the middle of a global economic catastrophe, he failed to push for what Press considers to have been a necessary stimulus package of $1.8 trillion – missing the mark by more than half, despite economists from both parties recommending the higher figure. To Press’s further consternation, at the very moment when the economy needed a greater influx of cash, Obama yielded to Republican budget hawks in Congress, and quickly pivoted from Keynesian-style stimulus to slashing the federal budget.

When the President had the opportunity—and Democratic control of the Senate—he could have pushed for national health care for all, Press argues.  But he settled for a largely privatized health insurance system for most, a shortcoming that has become a 2016 Democratic primary issue. Press insists that the administration never got tough, never went to the wall to fight for the whole prize.

Instead, he says, Obama rifled through the files of the conservative Heritage Foundation for a health insurance plan palatable to Republicans. Press is one of many progressives who are still smarting that Obama included private health insurance companies, which are profiting handsomely from the Affordable Care Act, rather than simply expanding Medicare to include everyone and eliminating the private-sector middlemen.

And Press’s list goes on.  In prosecuting the War on Terror, he says, the President has been guilty of perpetuating—if not exacerbating—many of the abuses of power that began under the George Bush-Dick Cheney regime. In keeping the Guantanamo prison open, maintaining domestic surveillance measures, and pursuing a drone war without Congressional approval, the complaint against him charges, Obama has disregarded legal constraints on the executive that one would expect a Democratic constitutional law professor would feel bound to respect.

Although Press spends most of his time on policy substance and strategy, he also has objections to the President’s style.  Obama resists boasting about his accomplishments, schmoozing with either his allies or his enemies, or consulting with Democratic Party leadership, Press charges. He lays out the case that in fight after fight, on virtually all of the major issues he faced, Obama avoided congressional arm-twisting for votes or coast-to-coast barnstorming for popular support. These stylistic impulses, according to Press, unnecessarily weakened the President’s bargaining position and often gave Republicans an unearned upper hand.

Press believes that Obama’s laissez-faire attitude toward party cohesion is a major reason that the Democrats have fared so poorly at the ballot box during his presidency.  In the last seven years, they have lost control of the House, the Senate, 20% of state governorships, and 60% of state legislatures. Press makes the painful observation that Bush was better for Democrats nationally than this President.

Press’s prose at times reads like his Crossfire repartee. It can feel a notch below literary, but this style is also what makes Buyers Remorse an easily accessible and enjoyable read for those interested in a critique of Obama’s performance from within the President’s camp.

If Press is deeply disappointed with the Obama Presidency – and he clearly is – he keeps his displeasure in check.  He readily admits that Obama was a far better choice than Bush or Romney.  And he acknowledges that the President had to govern while fending off recalcitrant Republicans on one side, and strident disappointment from the left on the other.

And Press does hand out a few compliments.  He gives Obama credit for his accomplishments on job creation, the Iranian nuclear deal, Cuba, marriage equality, and his Supreme Court appointments. But, in Press’s view, even most of these could have been far greater.

Of course, there is another way for liberals to look at Obama’s Presidency.  President Bill Clinton, the only Democrat in the past 60 years who has had Obama’s political success, has a more positive take, starting with Obama’s first frightening days in office:

He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long hard road to recovery…. When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month…. No President, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just 4 years.

This liberal defense of Obama goes on to see the Affordable Care Act as a glass that is at least half full, to see Obama’s judicial appointees as being champions of a progressive approach to the law, and so on.

Despite all of the liberal might-have-beens – and there are many -- it is still astonishing how much Obama has accomplished in less than eight years, with an obstructionist Congress and right-wing pundits fighting him every step of the way.  Press concedes all of this, which ultimately tempers his Buyer’s Remorse somewhat. In the end, he doesn’t regret buying the car. He just wishes it had lived up to the hype.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Follow him on Twitter at @Jim_Swearingen