In defense of Barack Obama and a transformative presidency


President Biden and Democrats in Congress are moving mountains. The President has moved with the speed of light to turn around the bleak COVID vaccination picture Donald Trump left him, and Democrats in Congress passed the largest economic stimulus package in history without a single Republican vote. 100 million shots and 100 million checks are a reality. And they're not taking a break. Speaker Pelosi has already instructed the chairs of House committees to begin working on a big infrastructure plan, and the President made it plain this week that he is going to look to raise taxes on those who make over $400,000 a year to pay for it.

No one doubts that Democrats are dead set on using the momentum behind them to do big things. In fact, Republicans are so worried about Senate Democrats unifying to come up with a plan to thwart tyranny of the minority in the Senate that Mitch McConnell has has resorted to warning that he will blow up the business of the Senate of Democrats dare pass legislation to protect voting rights with a mere majority vote.

But a narrative has been created that this invigorated Democratic push is the result of Democrats realizing that they and President Obama "made a mistake" by not pushing big, ambitious legislation in the first two years of Obama's presidency when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. This narrative has been reinforced by multiple members of Congress, including, unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who on many occasions referred to this 'mistake' of 2009-2010. The argument is that Democrats lost badly in the 2010 midterms because they had - or had been seen as having - failed to deliver for the American people when they had a united Democratic government.

While learning from the mistakes of the past is critical and while no presidency flawless, this narrative is categorically, factually, and provably false.

First, President Obama and then-Vice President Biden - did do big things legislatively in the first two years of his presidency. Huge things, in fact.

The first major legislation that President Obama signed into law was the American Recovery Act - which, at $800 billion, was the largest single economic stimulus to date, and President Obama actually got Republican support for it. Although Democrats had much bigger majorities in Congress then, they did not have 60 votes in the Senate at the time. But Senate Democrats did not use reconciliation to pass the Recovery Act. Instead, 3 Republicans - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - joined all 58 Democrats to pass the landmark legislation, the fiscal management of which President Biden often cites as one of his proudest accomplishments in domestic policy.

The vote count is important because of yet another false political narrative of the Obama years. The vast majority of what Barack Obama had to do was fundamental restructuring and re-regulating of large parts of the US economy, and the most critical of those reforms would not have survived the tight rules of budget reconciliation and thus required 60 votes to move in the senate, as Bernie Sanders found out when he was trying to push through a minimum wage increase through the reconciliation process.

Much of the storytelling of the time involves a claim that Democrats had 60 votes the whole two first two years of the Obama presidency, which, as shown above, is false. In fact, Democrats did not have 60 votes in the senate until Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties in late April and Sen. Al Franken's disputed race was resolved and Franken took office on July 7, 2009.

But it didn't last long. Sen. Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009, and although then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed a Democrat to the seat until a special election could be held, Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill Kennedy's seat in the Senate and took office on February 4, 2010, costing Democrats their filibuster-proof majority.

To set the record straight, during President Obama's time in office, Democrats held 60 seats in the Senate for less than 7 months, a far cry from the constantly peddled 2-year narrative.

In that time, President Obama and Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act, the most expansive health care legislation and the most significant public investment in healthcare since Medicare itself. They outlawed health insurance discrimination based on gender and pre-existing conditions, mandated that large employers provide health benefits to their employees, radically expanded Medicaid, closed the prescription drug coverage gap in Medicare Part D, compelled insurance companies to spend 80-85% of premiums to actually provide care (as opposed to marketing and profits), created central exchanges for individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance, and created premium subsidies for people of modest means trying to buy insurance in those exchanges. President Obama shifted the frame of heath care itself, from an individual privilege to a social responsibility. Most of what Obamacare did could not have been done though budget reconciliation, and President Obama needed - and received - every Democratic vote for it in the Senate. Sure it had compromises to get every vote on board, but Obama was able to finally do what presidents of both parties for almost three quarters of a century before him had only been talking about. As then-VP Biden noted, it was a big f*cking deal.

Obamacare insured 20 million more people and saved the lives and homes of countless millions. There is nothing not big about what President Obama, and anyone who doesn't feel an immense sense of pride when they remember that moment isn't a real Democrat.

Once Scott Brown was seated and Democrats lost their supermajority, though, they did then use the reconciliation process to increase premium subsidies under Obamacare and to institute the first major student loan reform since inception of the federal student loan program. This reform cut out Banks as the middleman for federal student loans and had the loans issued by the Treasury department.

The next big structural reform that President Obama accomplished was the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which imposed the most significant reregulation on the financial industry since the 1930s. It cracked down on liar loans, imposed tough stress test on banks, and created the much-celebrated Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the first ever independent Federal agency dedicated to protecting consumers.

Once again President Obama was able to get 60 votes in for this legislation in a senate that at that point had 59 Democrats, one of whom, Russ Feingold, voted no. Collins and Snowe, the two Maine Republicans, were again the decisive votes.

President Obama passed significant social legislation through the Senate despite its 60 vote requirement as well. 65 senators, including eight Republicans, voted to repeal the military's policy against gay servicemembers serving openly, 61, including five Republicans passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair pay Act, and the Fair Sentencing Act, the first significant criminal Justice reform legislation in decades, passed the Senate with unanimous consent.

But why didn't try get rid of the legislative filibuster when they had a comfortable majority, even if it weren't 60 votes?

Prior to Obama's presidency, the opposition party - whether at any given moment they were Republicans or Democrats - simply did not pursue the scorched earth policy that Mitch McConnell, in what was later revealed to be his singular quest to deny President Obama a second term, chose to follow. And since it just did not happen before, attempts to remove the filibuster would have at that point been pre-emptive. Obama and Reid - unlike Biden and Schumer - did not have the benefit of hindsight.

A pre-emptive strike against the filibuster would have been even more perilous because of who Barack Obama us. Barack Obama was president while Black, and his rise to the presidency as a Black man had already erupted an ugly, racist backlash in large swaths of white America in the form of the Tea Party. Simply because he is Black, President Obama had to deal with constant challenges to his patriotism and loyalty to country - in a way that no white president, even President Biden, has or will ever have to. If he had pushed to strip the Senate minority of the filibuster with a nascent presidency, it too would have been seen through the racist lens of a Black man trying to disrupt 'American' traditions as if him being president weren't disruption enough.

Practically, removing the legislative filibuster in the first two years of the Obama presidency would not have resulted in much better outcomes, given that Obama was able to meet the 60-vote threshold on a somewhat regular basis and since even without a 60-voter requirement to end debate, Republicans could - as they did - slow down the business of the senate by requiring votes to end debate on everything. After 2010, there was also no real ground to remove the legislative filibuster since any legislation the still - but smaller - Democratic majority in the Senate could pass would have to go through the House, which after the midterms had switched to Republicans.

The only thing the Senate could do on its own with a majority was confirm judicial and administrative nominees, and that is exactly what they did. In 2013, Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold for confirmation of non-Supreme Court judicial nominees as well as nominees for the executive branch.

One more thing. For all the hue and cry today about how Obama should have spent more - like Biden is spending now - to pump money into the economy and bring it back quickly, people forget that at the time President Obama took office, the world was in the midst of global financial crisis in which lending had trickled to a halt. People couldn't get loans for businesses or mortgages, and governments around the world were in serious trouble because their ability to deficit-finance - which, you understand, is done through borrowing from the big, bad, evil bankermen - had been severely jeopardized. In the United States, with lending in the private sector already drying up, President Obama and Democrats in charge had to mindful of just how much more of the scarce funds the government wanted to lap up.

By contrast, precisely because of how well President Obama and Vice President Biden managed the financial crisis they inherited, there is no such lending crunch facing the Biden presidency. Plainly put, President Biden has certain advantages in dealing with the present crisis that his former boss simply did not have, and President Biden would be the first person to acknowledge that.

Democrats did not lose in 2010 because they failed to do big things. They lost, in large part, because they paid the political price for having the courage of their convictions to do big things - and because the media and a certain segment of the left spread this very lie about Democrats not going big that is being recycled and re-used now.

Let's learn from the Obama years - both from the obstacles he faced and from what he was able to accomplish.

But let's stop belittling the the way a young, charismatic, Black leader was able to shift the tectonic plates in much of our political and social paradigm despite those obstacles by calling it a 'mistake.'

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