12 examples of President Barack Obama being weak during his first term

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Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign is pushing a new line of attack against Senator Bernie Sanders: in 2011, Sanders said President Barack Obama was “weak” and perhaps should face a challenger in the 2012 Democratic primary. O’Malley’s communications staff have also pushed out reports suggesting Sanders himself was considering a primary challenge to Obama and failed to campaign vigorously for the president’s re-election later in 2012 (not that Vermont was ever in play for Mitt Romney).

Those talking points may fire up Democrats who already resent the fact that the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sanders has always campaigned as an independent. But I doubt they are a promising line of attack for moving caucus-goers and primary voters away from Sanders and toward O’Malley. The inconvenient truth is that Obama’s record hasn’t always lined up with progressive principles or with his own campaign promises. I suspect those who “feel the Bern” are more likely to agree with than be offended by Sanders’ critique of the president.

I don’t know yet for whom I will caucus, the first time I’ve ever been undecided so late in the election cycle. But I count myself among those “millions of Americans” Sanders described as “deeply disappointed in the president” during the interview O’Malley’s campaign portrays as harmful. I caucused uncommitted in 2012 to send the message that the president “hasn’t stood up for core principles of the Democratic Party.” Moreover, O’Malley’s own stump speech hints at some valid reasons for Democrats to be disaffected by Obama’s rightward drift.

Sanders doesn’t bash the president at his rallies, but longer versions of his stump speech point to one big mistake Obama made: after building a huge people-powered movement to win the presidency, he in effect told his supporters, “Go home. I’ll take it from here.” Sanders goes on to describe how powerful corporate lobbies exert too much power in Washington. He provides frightening statistics on inequality and the super-wealthy’s influence on the electoral process. He is the voice of “real change,” calling for a “political revolution” to get rid of the corrupt system. Judging from the phenomenal attendance at Sanders events and his rise in the polls far beyond what most analysts expected six months ago, that message is resonating with many Democrats. I doubt they would be shocked or repelled to learn that Sanders was not satisfied with some of the president’s policies.

Now, let’s see what Sanders said in his July 22, 2011 interview with Thom Hartmann, which O’Malley’s campaign has been spreading far and wide. My transcript:

Sanders: I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate, and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been–for whatever reason–in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is–I think, and I think one of the reasons I think the president has been able to move so far to the right, is that there is no primary opposition to him. And I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda, as opposed to what Obama is doing.

A primary challenge to the president would have been a non-starter, of course. But remember the context: in July 2011, the U.S. was approaching a deadline for Congress to raise the debt ceiling, and Obama was putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table, hoping to strike a “grand bargain” with Congressional Republicans. Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin slammed the “misbegotten, misguided deal” the president struck: “To say that this is the wrong policy at the wrong time is a gross understatement.” In other words, plenty of liberals in the Democratic Party were upset about Obama’s negotiating stance.

Although I have no regrets about voting for Obama in two general elections, there’s no need to whitewash his mistakes or over-praise him (for example, as an “extraordinary leader during unsettling times,” a man whose allegedly “monumental record of accomplishment” prompts “Iowa Democrats [to] say simply, ‘Thank you, Mr. President’”). Let’s not get carried away.

The president did move to the right on many issues, compared to stances he espoused while campaigning in 2007 and 2008. Here are twelve examples of “weak” actions during Obama’s first term. My list is far from an exhaustive accounting.

Within weeks of taking office in 2009, Obama lowballed the stimulus.

With the economy losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month, the president asked for a smaller stimulus package than most economists thought was needed. Why? In order to placate Congressional Republicans. For the same reason, the president agreed to a larger proportion of tax cuts relative to government spending in the stimulus package, even though certain forms of spending get far more “bang for the buck.” Of course, his concessions didn’t move GOP members toward supporting the bill.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped the economy, preventing deep cuts in state budgets that would have prolonged the recession. But the stimulus could have done even more good if the president had driven a harder bargain.

Obama didn’t keep his campaign promise to nix the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The tax cuts President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001 were scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. The Democratic-controlled Congress could have approved a more balanced package of tax cuts to replace them during Obama’s first two years in office. Instead, the president cut a deal with Congressional Republicans shortly after the 2010 GOP landslide. Bleeding Heartland commented at the time,

President Barack Obama announced the “framework” for his unilateral surrender betrayal of core principles deal with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts today [December 6, 2010]. It’s worse than I expected, which is saying something. Republicans get tax cuts for all income levels extended for two full years (we’re supposed to believe Obama will stand up for letting them expire during a presidential election year). They agreed to extend some unemployment benefits, but only for 13 months. Although long-term unemployment is at historically high levels, the “99-ers” (people who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment benefits) will get nothing out of this framework. To sweeten the deal for Republicans, the estate tax will be reduced to 35 percent, and it will apply only to estates exceeding $5 million in assets. That’s very costly and not at all stimulative. To provide more disposable income for working people, the payroll tax on employees will be cut by two percentage points for a year. That’s good as long as it doesn’t become an excuse later to cut Social Security benefits. UPDATE: David Dayen reports that a senior administration official told him the payroll tax cut “would be paid for out of general revenue through a credit, and so would not impact Social Security and Medicare finances in any way.”

The deal to resolve the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012 was even worse from the perspective of progressive tax and budget priorities.

Predictably, Senate Democrats are now willing to go along with Obama’s cave on tax rates, raising them only for income above $400,000 per year (make that above $400,000 per year for individuals and $450,000 for families). Some might say the president was an idiot to give way on that point after he won re-election promising to ask people making more than $250,000 to pay more. My hunch is that he was never sincere about keeping that promise. […]

Obama gave an absurd 10-minute speech at an early afternoon press conference [on December 31, 2012]. […] He said he would have rather struck a “grand bargain” to address spending as well as taxes, but Congress doesn’t work that way, so they are working on taxes now. He continued to pretend that he is standing his ground on protecting the middle class, even though the deal being negotiated no longer includes any extension in the payroll tax cut. In the new year, Obama promised, we will have “more work to do” on deficit reduction, and he will insist on new revenues as part of the “shared sacrifice”—not just the spending cuts Republicans want.

How could anyone take this man seriously? He said a zillion times during the campaign that taxes will go up on the top 2 percent of income, but he’s now committed to protecting most of that group by preserving the Bush tax rates for ten years on income up to $400,000 for individuals, $450,000 for families.

[…] Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times pointed out that in 2010, only about 5,000 out of approximately 1.4 million Iowa tax returns reported income of at least $500,000. In other words, under this deal income taxes would go up for only about a quarter of one percent of Iowans.

At the time, Jonathan Chait commented that the end-of-2012 deal complicated future tax reform efforts.

The basic gist is that President Obama traded away long-term revenue — that is, his best chance to fund the government at adequate levels — in order to keep the economic recovery going. […]

He’ll make up some of the lost revenue by reintroducing a complex mechanism called Pep and Pease that reduces income tax deductions for high-income earners. […] The key thing here is that this is a worse way for Obama to raise the tax revenue; because, by reducing tax deductions for the rich, it takes money off the table that could be raised by future tax reform. If Obama had raised the revenue through straight rate hikes, as he initially proposed, he could go back later and get more revenue through tax reform. Now he has cannibalized a chunk of any future revenue haul.

What did Obama get in return for giving Republicans smaller tax hikes on the rich? He got a one-year extension of unemployment benefits, wind energy tax credits, and other temporary measures. In other words, he’s buying a little insurance to keep the recovery going in return for sacrificing long-term revenue. That’s a poor bargain but not an awful one.

Obama offered painful Social Security cuts in exchange for what would have been only token tax hikes on the top income bracket.

When Sanders alluded to Social Security in the interview with Thom Hartmann, he was talking about the president’s support for a chained consumer price index, more commonly known as “chained CPI.” Switching from the current Cost of Living Adjustment formula to chained CPI would significantly reduce lifetime Social Security benefits for the typical retiree. Obama never campaigned on such a regressive policy, yet he was willing to impose hardship on middle-class senior citizens for tax increases that wouldn’t affect the wealthiest Americans’ lifestyles in any meaningful way.

Obama put Social Security cuts on the table again in 2013. He left the chained CPI proposal out of the draft budget he proposed in 2014, but his spokesman “repeatedly insisted that Obama would still consider chained CPI as part of a grand bargain on the debt, and that the move ‘does not reflect any reduction in the president’s willingness to try to meet Republicans in the middle.’”

O’Malley’s stump speech includes this line: “Instead of cutting Social Security, we must expand Social Security!” I agree entirely, and so does Sanders. That’s why he criticized Obama’s actions during the summer of 2011.

Obama repeatedly offered to raise the Medicare eligibility age.

Like chained CPI, the Medicare concession was part of the president’s effort to forge a $4 trillion long-term debt reduction deal during the summer of 2011. He should have been using his bully pulpit to insist that Congress send him a “clean” debt ceiling hike at that time.

The White House flirted with raising the Medicare eligibility age again during the December 2012 “fiscal cliff” negotiations. If anything, the U.S. should lower the age at which Americans can buy in to Medicare.

Obama capitulated to pharmaceutical companies on several key health care reform provisions.

The Affordable Care Act Obama signed in March 2010 kept many of the president’s campaign promises on health care reform, but several big promises were broken: namely, allowing importation of prescription drugs, taking steps to stop pharmaceutical companies from blocking generic versions of some drugs; and allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices.

The ACA also didn’t include a public option for health insurance, which had been part of Obama’s health care reform proposal during the 2008 campaign.

The Obama administration didn’t prosecute anyone on Wall Street for actions that led to the 2008 banking crisis.

Every time I have heard O’Malley’s stump speech this year, one passage has bothered me. From the version he delivered at the “Wing Ding” in Clear Lake in August:

Tell me how it is, that not a single Wall Street CEO was ever convicted of a single crime related to the 2008 economic meltdown. Not. A. Single. One.

What have we come to as a nation when you can get pulled over for a broken tail light in our country, but if you wreck the nation’s economy you are untouchable.

This is not the American Dream!

This is not how our economy is supposed to work!

This is not how our country is supposed to work!

I can’t answer O’Malley’s question, but I do know that the blame for not prosecuting Wall Street executives lies with Obama’s Justice Department. You can’t pin that one on Republicans.

David Dayen commented in September on a new Justice Department memo to staff regarding prosecutions, which Dayen characterized as a “brutal admission” of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s failures:

No major Wall Street executive went to jail for the illegal actions that precipitated the financial crisis, despite a mountain of documentary evidence of fraud. Corporations and their employees got away with what amounted to slaps on the wrist. And Holder, after presiding over this, joined the head of his Justice Department criminal division and several top deputies at Covington & Burling, a white-collar defense firm that represents most major banks.

You can draw a direct line from this failure back to the “Holder memo,” written when he served as a deputy in the Clinton Justice Department. That memo created the “collateral consequences” policy, arguing that prosecutors who seek criminal cases against large companies should take into account innocent victims who may get hurt. It laid out a host of alternative remedies, such as fines and deferred prosecution agreements.

This eventually gave prosecutors a way to shrink from complex cases, to talk themselves into not wasting the effort. The working theory inside the Holder Justice Department was to only go after cases where victory was absolutely assured, and where collateral damage was minimized. And this philosophy drifted to preventing prosecutions of individuals as well, even though there’s no shred of evidence that sending an executive to jail would sink a company (or that juries won’t be able to understand complex cases against individuals, for that matter).

On a related note,

Obama didn’t punish big lenders for mortgage fraud or keep his promises to shield Americans from foreclosure.

The Justice Department hasn’t indicted any of the banking executives who cheated thousands of Americans out of their homes. Cynthia Kouril and David Dayen “documented the atrocities” in dozens of reports about foreclosure fraud linked here.

John Grgurich exposed “The Justice Department’s Phony Fight Against Mortgage Fraud” in a March 2014 article for The Fiscal Times. Excerpt:

The department may have said that mortgage fraud was a high priority. The reality was quite different, as the report [from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General] found “that the FBI did not rank mortgage fraud among its highest ranked priority white collar crimes.” Instead, the Inspector General says, “the FBI ranked mortgage fraud as the lowest ranked criminal threat in its lowest crime category.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation is, of course, part of the Justice Department.

Specifically, though the FBI received $196 million in funding from 2009 through 2011 to investigate mortgage fraud, the number of agents actually working on such crimes dropped, as did the number of pending investigations.

In September of this year, Dayen published a set of e-mails that point to “solicitation to commit a felony, to fabricate a mortgage document, presented in such a way that it looks like a fairly routine practice.” He concluded that “document fabrication continues at the same rate that it ever did,” which means foreclosure fraud “continues unabated.”

The Treasury Department’s Home Affordable Refinance Program failed to live up to big promises. About 900,000 homeowners have benefited, not the 9 million people the president promised to help through the foreclosure-prevention package he announced in February 2009.

Similarly, the Obama administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program did far less than originally advertised for homeowners. Olga Pierce and Paul Kiel wrote a good series of reports for ProPublica on that failed policy: “Loan Mod Program Left Homeowners’ Fate in Hands of Dysfunctional Industry”; Govt’s Loan Mod Program Crippled by Lax Oversight and Deference to Banks; Dems: Obama Broke Pledge to Force Banks to Help Homeowners; and especially Secret Docs Show Foreclosure Watchdog Doesn’t Bark or Bite.

Speaking of crimes left unpunished,

The Obama administration didn’t prosecute any Bush administration officials for illegal torture policies or tampering with evidence of government-sanctioned torture.

Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on that subject. He summed up the shameful result in this August 2012 column for The Guardian:

During his 2008 campaign for president, Obama repeatedly vowed that, while he opposed “partisan witch-hunts”, he would instruct his attorney general to “immediately review” the evidence of criminality in these torture programs because “nobody is above the law.” Yet, almost immediately after winning the 2008 election, Obama, before he was even inaugurated, made clear that he was opposed to any such investigations, citing what he called “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

Throughout the first several months of his presidency, his top political aides, such as the chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, publicly – and inappropriately – pressured the justice department to refrain from any criminal investigations. Over and over, they repeated the Orwellian mantra that such investigations were objectionable because “we must look forward, not backward”. As Gibbs put it in April 2009, when asked to explain Obama’s opposition, “the president is focused on looking forward. That’s why.”

On 16 April 2009, Obama himself took the first step in formalizing the full-scale immunity he intended to bestow on all government officials involved even in the most heinous and lethal torture. On that date, he decreed absolute immunity for any official involved in torture provided that it comported with the permission slips produced by Bush department of justice (DOJ) lawyers which authorized certain techniques. “This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” the new president so movingly observed in his statement announcing this immunity. Obama added:

“[N]othing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past … we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.”

Note how, in Obama’s new formulation, those who believed that Bush officials should be held criminally accountable for their torture crimes – should be subjected to the rule of law on equal terms with ordinary citizens – were now scorned as “the forces that divide us”. On the same day, Holder issued his own statement arguing that “it would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the justice department.”

As president, Obama advocated “free trade” policies he had criticized as a candidate.

Obama promised during the 2008 campaign not to support bad trade agreements, but in 2010 his administration started negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which resembles those deals in every important way. Incidentally, O’Malley bashes “bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership” in his speeches this year, but he doesn’t connect the dots to criticize the Obama administration for negotiating TPP and pushing Congress to approve “fast-track” legislation.

Obama expanded offshore oil drilling.

In March 2010, the president agreed to allow more oil drilling off the Atlantic coast, without obtaining any energy policy concessions from Congressional Republicans. The move foreshadowed his decision this year to allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic. What could go wrong?

Obama delayed implementation of life-saving smog reduction rules.

Don’t get me wrong: the Obama administration has put forward some strong environmental policies. But at times, the president needlessly gave ground to Republicans. The best example was his 2011 decision to delay air quality rules to combat smog. Adding insult to injury, Obama validated bogus conservative talking points about “job-killing” regulations (“I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover”).

Obama froze civilian federal employees’ pay.

A few weeks after the 2010 midterm election, the president

proposed a two year freeze in civilian pay for federal employees that the White House says will save $2 billion in fiscal year 2011 and more than $60 billion over the next decade.

“The hard truth is getting this budget under control is going to require some broad sacrifice, and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government,” he said.

“After all, small businesses and families are tightening their belts,” added the president. “Their government should, too.”

The freeze will apply to all civilian federal employees – including, as the White House noted, doctors who care for wondered veterans, national parks workers, Department of Defense employees and other federal workers – but not military personnel.

Again, Obama took that step without getting any concessions from Congressional Republicans. The impact on the budget deficit was minimal and far outweighed by other actions the president took around the same time (proposing increases in the defense budget and allowing the Bush tax cuts to be extended at all income levels instead of letting them expire at the end of 2010). In effect, Obama told federal employees and their families to take one for the team, so he could posture as a deficit hawk. A federal worker in my neighborhood told me he would have been happy to give up a pay raise if he felt something good for the country had come out of the deal.

Polls indicate that most Democrats largely approve of Obama’s work as president. Yet on the progressive wing of the party, the frustration Sanders described in that July 2011 interview is real. For that reason, I doubt O’Malley will get much traction out of his campaign portraying Sanders as disloyal to Obama.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Photo credit: Greg Hauenstein

  • Odd strategy for O'Malley

    Even though I was a big Obama supporter in 2007-2008 and have not turned my back on him, I’m with Desmoinesdem on the O’Malley strategy. I can’t see it working for him. I think O’Malley’s Maryland background may partially explain his tone deafness on this. First of all, in the Maryland Dem party machine politics, loyalty is a huge thing. Disloyal Democrats are not going anywhere around here and are obviously frowned upon by the likes of O’Malley. Also, my guess is that Obama is much more popular among Democrats in Maryland than in many other states. Part of that has to do with the fact that African-Americans make up a large part of the party in Maryland, and Obama has not lost his popularity in that segment of the party. I believe the other factor adding to his popularity is the fact that much of Maryland is in the DC media market and many see Obama pretty much as a local politician on your side, fighting the Republican bad guys in Congress.

  • Not necessarily "weak"

    Maybe duplicitous would be an alternative explanation. I used to say he was a con artist.

    Anyway, thanks for letting him have it with both barrels. May I add his promise to go after monopoly power in the ag markets (highlighted by Vilsack and DOJ holding hearings in DSM) which also came to nothing.

    The more things “Change”. the more they stay the same.

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