President Barack Obama’s term is winding down, and there is much apprehension about President-elect Donald Trump, and a ton of “why’s” about Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham, in a rather insightful article, focused on – pardon the pun – the political elephant in the room: those rural white voters who, rather than supporting Donald Trump, flipped to Hillary Clinton, bucking the national demographic trend. What one voter gave as his reasoning for voting for Hillary was stark – Trump struck him as being like a “bomb,” and hoping Congress holds the new President accountable. Another voter, Ed Dahle, a retired school teacher in rural Red Lake County, Michigan (61 percent of their citizens voted for Trump), gave the Washington Post an honest, yet brutal, assessment as to why Clinton lost.
“When Hillary was up to speak (during the debates), some of the people just did not feel that ease of conversation,” he said. “They felt there was like a screen or something between them and her. And that’s why so many people turned.” – Retired teacher Ed Dahle, speaking to the Washington Post.
That quote really cuts to the quick of the matter. Yet there is another factor which many folks simply refuse to acknowledge, and that is that Clinton’s loss may have, indeed, been the result of the Law of Unintended Consequences, particularly President Obama’s administration and governing style. Obama’s own administration had been reeling from a series of policy gaffes and “activism through inaction” with regards to the wave of attacks on police offers throughout the nation. Also, many in the media openly lamented how the President seemed to have “checked out” over the past few years, and experts feared Obama’s trademark stoicism was fostering an impression of indifference to the problems faced by rural and working Americans, especially those suffering from skyrocketing health insurance premiums caused by the Affordable Care Act’s numerous provisions and loopholes. There were also pundits who warned Obama’s body language and attitude towards Republican voters, and even moderate independents who supported him in 2008 and 2012, could badly damage Clinton’s chances of victory.
In short, President Obama had a historic opportunity as president and, frankly, became Hillary’s own worst enemy.
Let’s be fair; President Obama, beyond his status as the “First Black President,” actually accomplished some pretty impressive things. Even Trump admitted parts of the Affordable Care Act are useful and must be maintained. Obama was the President who gave the order to eliminate Osama Bin Laden, and did have a hand in deals to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat, saving thousands of American jobs. His administration also maintained or expanded programs to help mortgage holders navigate the troubled waters of the Great Recession, extended unemployment benefits to keep millions out of poverty, and his administration was able to turn the economy around, albeit slowly, to a trend of relative growth, even if it remains sluggish. His work continued the job of cleaning the Wall Street-produced economic dog poop, which began under former President George W. Bush. In the hyper-partisan political environment he faced, those things were no small potatoes.
Unfortunately, Obama committed a major error; he surrounded himself with many advisors who were disciples of the Saul Alinsky philosophy of radicalism. Though Obama’s term began with an inauguration speech reminiscent of the days of JFK’s Camelot, it quickly devolved into an administration steeped in arrogance, leftist ideology, and an impression of condescension towards everyday Americans. Naming GE CEO Jeff Immelt, who openly campaigned for Obama during his 2008 campaign and dangerously blurred the lines between media objectivity and political activism, as a policy advisor was bad enough (GE had over a billion dollars in government contracts in their interest), but bringing in noted 60s radical Van Jones as another policy advisor further damaged his credibility. Polarizing figure after polarizing figure visited the White House, and it only solidified the impression, however misguided, many conservatives shad of Obama being a left-wing globalist who didn’t care about mainstream Americans. Obama’s attitude towards this appeared to be one of “I’m the boss, deal with it,” which only made things worse for him. In fact, statements made by Obama about Republicans having to “eat your peas” over the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, and statements about being able to bypass Congressional authority through Executive Actions with his statement of “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” further cemented his image as an elitist insider who was completely out of touch with average Americans.
Then there was the matter of Hillary Clinton being his Secretary of State.
When Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, made Madeline Albright the first female Secretary of State, she was regarded as capable, respected and not a ladder-climbing political elitist and egomaniac. Albright’s term may not have been the most stellar in American history, but she held a “first woman to…” distinction. Hillary was not a “first anything,” which absolutely chafed her, and she was determined to show how tough she was as Secretary of State, but that rubbed many international leaders the wrong way, particularly Russia, which accepted Hillary as a matter of course, but took her about as seriously as the Soviet hockey team took the Americans in 1980. The “reset button” moment between Russian’s Vladimir Putin and Clinton was regarded by many in Moscow as a joke and, for that reason, Hillary later appeared to have been hoodwinked. Further, Clinton’s reactions and answers at Congressional hearings about the Benghazi attacks, and the subsequent email controversies involving her use of a private email server, further painted her as an out of touch elitist, which dogged her to the very end.
Where President Obama figured into this was a character flaw he suffered from; an extraordinarily awful sense of timing and proportionate response. Though he may have had myriad good intentions, Obama picked the worst possible times to stay silent or, when he acted, did so with either far too much or far too little authority. In the case of Clinton, Obama appeared to be protecting a fellow Democrat and heir-apparent to the Oval Office in his lack of action while, it the cases of police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, he appeared too aggressive towards reigning in rogue officers and departments. When riots hit those and other cities, and later, a rash of murders of police officers hit the nation, his responses (or, in some cases, lack thereof) created an impression, justified or not, of a President enabling a culture of vengeance for what African Americans, and other minorities, suffered over the years. Despite the historical facts of race relations in America, Attorney General Eric Holder’s approach, which was portrayed as and, in some ways was, indeed, activist, did little to help Clinton’s campaign. In fact, it is possible that Obama’s own stubborn loyalty to the activists within his cabinet gave Americans the impression he was blinded to, or simply ignored, the greater issue; that his responsibility to maintain calm and the rule of law as President outweighed his personal desire to seek justice for those who had been oppressed and targeted. Worse still, Obama’s own staff displayed a historic ineptitude with the media. A President who had the opportunity to bridge the racial and economic divides between Americans instead embraced an open policy of activism and radical transformation. In short, rather than taking a moderate approach, President Obama went for too much, too fast, too soon.
This did more than just empower Trump supporters, it galvanized them as never thought possible. Those whom embraced Trump’s bombastic and oft-bigoted rhetoric – did so because of a feeling of his being able to relate to them. Feelings of anger and blind rage over being abandoned by their own country transformed into action, and it led to a movement whose goal was singular in approach – strike back at, and destroy, anything which even carried a stench of political correctness.
The pendulum had begun to swing from one extreme to another.
Now for a dose of uncomfortable reality: Trump pulled off the greatest marketing ploy since Davey Crockett, packaging himself as a larger-than-life, all-American business hero who could pull the nation out of what supporters felt was a cesspool of moral relativism, liberal softness, and political correctness, and back to the “good ol’ days,” reminiscent of a time when everyone “got their hands dirty” and “knew their place.” It also, sadly, unified and motivated hate groups and bigots who believed a Trump victory would give them license to act out in their interests and “take back America.” Hillary’s campaign approach, which flip-flopped between elitist stoicism and firebrand speeches, some of which sounded more like shrill temper tantrums than cohesive calls to actions, gave Trump an easy target. Knowing it was in its twilight days, Obama’s own administration seemed to have checked out as much as the President, leading to wise decisions, such as re-investigations of Clinton’s activities while running the State Department, being made at ridiculously bad times for the Democratic nominee.
Clinton’s loss may have also illustrated a cruel irony; that being her defeat was, at least in small part, the unintended consequence of an administration which was in the most out-of-sight, out-of-mind mode anyone had seen since the final days of the Nixon regime. Had Obama’s cabinet and Hillary’s campaign displayed more tactical wisdom and taken Trump more seriously in the early going that it did, it is very likely Trump might not have even locked down the GOP nomination. Of course, sadly, hindsight is always 20/20.
It is said it takes at least a generation to even begin a fair assessment of an American President. Jimmy Carter is regarded as one of the worst, but better than James Buchanan (sorry, if you allowed the nation to fracture into civil war, you will always be at the bottom) and Nixon (you can’t overcome resigning in lieu of impeachment). Ronald Reagan is listed as among the best, but Abraham Lincoln, FDR and George Washington will always beat him (you can’t beat presidents who held the nation together in its first days, a civil war, or a global conflict against fascism.) So where will Obama likely end up? The smart money says somewhere in the upper middle; after Reagan, Ike and Jefferson but well ahead of Clinton, Bush “43”, and Wilson. He was not the best by a longshot, but far from the worst. Call him a divider if you will, but so was Hoover, LBJ, Jackson and Nixon. You can also call him a radical, but so was FDR, Jefferson, and Lincoln in their ways. What’s required is objectivity and perspective, and that will not be easily achieved for at least a generation. In the meantime, Obama and Clinton both need to take a long, hard look in their mirrors and ask themselves the classic JFK question.
Rather than what the country did for (or against) them, but what did they truly do for their country.