Democrats Turn On Obama's "Establishment" Legacy As 2020 Approaches

As Democrats turn their attention to the 2020 primaries, there is a marked sense of deflation over the prospects of beating Donald Trump. The thought of candidacies from Elizabeth Warren - botched DNA "reveal" aside, and the ever-confident Joe Biden, have failed to stoke much excitement throughout the Democratic base. 

As Vanity Fair's T.A. Frank notes, Democrats surveying their options going into 2020 have begun to genuinely question the state of their party - and an increasing number of them are settling on the conclusion that Obama was a bad president

 If today’s Democrats can’t beat Trump, then maybe Hillary Clinton wasn’t as bad a candidate as her critics claimed. And if Clinton wasn’t the problem, then what was the problem? Such questions are behind a recent spike of debates on the left over Barack Obama’s record. More and more voices seem to be saying, either obliquely or bluntly, that Obama was a bad president. -Vanity Fair

Most on the left will agree that when Obama ran he was the obvious choice vs. his Republican opponents. In fact, Democrats who object to how Obama handled major issues such as war and peace, health care, immigration and the economy would likely conclude that he was still the better of all the evils on the right. 

That said, Obama was an establishment man at the end of the day, after campaigning as a revolutionary that would end wars and "change" the status quo (powered of course by mass quantities of "hope"). He sold himself as a disruptive phenomenon, then bombed seven countries and cobbled together an unsustainable healthcare plan destined to fail. 

That makes it tempting to say that Obama is being criticized only for pushing insufficiently to the left, settling for the Affordable Care Act rather than Medicare for All or a stimulus package under a trillion dollars rather than one twice that size. But such an explanation tends to assume a difference of degree rather than kind, with Obama dwelling in a more purplish spot than his bluer critics. In reality, the categories that matter as much as left and right are those of establishment and radical. Obama’s record of siding reliably with the former at a time when the zeitgeist had come to favor the latter is the source of much of the tension over his legacy

The categories of establishment and radical are tricky to define, except to say that the former wishes to preserve much of the status quo, while the latter seeks more fundamental change. If one side is full of people with opinions on how to set the dials, the other is full of people who say we need a new instrumental panel. This creates interesting alliances of left and right, ones that are less a union of extremes—a product of what political scientists call “horseshoe theory”—and more a union of dissent. A radical is not an extremist, necessarily. It’s someone who believes the fundamentals are flawed. -Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair's Frank notes that many of the disputes between today's establishment and its radicals "are merely continuations of where we were about 25 years ago. Clinton-era policy such as NAFTA and the decision to intervene in the Kosovo war in 1999 were widely supported by the establishment center, while "the outer bands of the left and right opposed it." When it came to immigration, "the center took a high-influx view while the disruptors took a more restrictive one." 

Blistering economic growth in the late 1990s and a relatively peaceful world stifled the debate between establishment-supported US policy and radicals on the left and right. Then came 9/11, "which reshuffled everything but also caused the right (with plucky exceptions such as Ron Paul and the founders of The American Conservative) to put aside internal disputes and, for the most part, fall in line behind George W. Bush." 

Then came the credit crisis - and the moment of truth in which the choices were massive bailouts, or economic cleansing by fire. The establishment, of course, chose the former. 

After the failures of Iraq and other Bush policies, though, the divisions roared back to life. If there was a crystallizing moment, it was when Wall Street as we knew it was about to collapse. In the eyes of the establishment, left and right, an unforeseeable real-estate crash had threatened the survival of the country’s vibrant financial sector and, with it, the wallets and neighborhood A.T.M.s of every American. In the eyes of the radicals, our financial sector was an out-of-control predator built on a rotten edifice that was finally about to crumble. Its collapse wasn’t the threat; it was the cure. For the first time in years, an immense policy question was breaking out not between parties but within them. Among both Democrats and Republicans, an establishment wing was supporting the bailouts, while the radical wing was opposing them. -Vanity Fair

Enter Obama

Barack Obama entered the scene amid financial chaos, as billions in bailouts and short-term lending facilities orchestrated by major central banks was the only mechanism propping up the financial industry, or at least helping it collapse in an "orderly" way. Of course, this isn't what the "radicals" wanted - and Obama sold himself as quite the disruptive candidate. 

And what did he do? Instead of pulling the plug on massive bailouts opposed by much of his base, Obama went full-throttle and sided with the establishment instead. It was the safer choice, after all, and earned Obama plenty of defenders. But that choice came at a great cost to Obama's legacy

Only one Wall Street executive ever went to prison for his part in the financial crisis. For millions of Americans, any residual trust in the competence and integrity of the ruling class was lost, and Obama had become part of the problem. -Vanity Fair

At that point Obama's credibility was shot, and it was predictable that when forced to choose, he would side with the establishment. Obama proceeded to send a surge of Troops to Afghanistan, conceal records of detainee abuse under President Bush, refuse to nationalizing banks or prosecute executives who had committed malfeasance, and promoted trade agreements created by establishment negotiators. 

Oh, and when the establishment called Obama callous when he initially refused to intervene in Libya, he reversed course and toppled Gaddafi (with his very establishment Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton).

Many of these positions, welcome as they were within the Beltway, were out of sync with the mood of the country. In the 1990s, the radicals had been on the fringes, but that was no longer the case after 2008. An anti-war and anti-corporatist message sent Ron Paul riding surprisingly high in 2012, and a filibuster by Rand Paul in 2015 over the issue of drone strikes prompted even Democrats to deploy the #StandWithRand hashtag. Tea Party Republicans began to team up with Democratic union members to oppose Obama’s trade deals. Fury over the bank bailouts made its way into the congressional campaigns of Republicans and Democrats alike. -Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair's Frank gives Obama somewhat of a break - noting that it would be unfair to call him an "establishment president," due to the "status-quo overtones of the term." After all, "He gave us the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform, an executive action for Dreamers, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a nuclear deal with Iran, diplomatic relations with Cuba, a climate deal in Paris, a New START treaty, a reform of student-loan programs, and two liberal Supreme Court appointments."

Then again, "many of the country’s most ominous trends proceeded apace under his watch.

The financialization of the economy kept increasing. Student debt kept exploding. Trade policy kept its same priorities. Opioid addiction kept spreading. Suicide numbers kept rising. Disparities in life expectancy between rich and poor kept widening. Union membership kept declining. Illegal border-crossers kept coming. Our defense commitments kept growing. In towns like Jasper, Indiana, and Mebane, North Carolina, factory workers—a hundred here, a couple of hundred there—kept losing their middle-class jobs, outcompeted by giant Chinese mills with appalling conditions. -Vanity Fair

Towards the end of his article, Frank points out a staggering statistic by left-leaning author John B. Judis' book The Nationalist Revival: 3.4 million jobs were lost to the growth of trade with China since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. For many of those "forgotten Americans" whose jobs went overseas, Obama's last State of the Union address boasting about America's robust manufacturing surge was a slap in the face. Just as insulting was his vision of making "change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people."

Even Bill Clinton made the observation of Obama that "millions of people look at that pretty picture of America he painted and they cannot find themselves in it."

Trump and 2020

"Radicalism deferred was radicalism intensified," writes Frank. And Donald Trump - despite his "countless" failures, is a radical if nothing else. 

And this is what Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats have to contend with in 2020. Warren, who put out a bizarre video of herself drinking beer on instagram, is not a radical - and will have to embrace Obama's voting record along with her own. 

This leaves other Democrats, such as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Beto O'Rourke - who are also not radicals, but are instead establishment-friendly and "assisted by charisma, youth, and identity. 

Each bet could win or lose, because Trump is a wild card. Still, while revolution must give way to a new establishment eventually, the mood doesn’t seem to favor it yet, and our shifts are still ongoing. (Just look at Tucker Carlson’s recent monologue attacking our ruling class and its quest to “make the world safe for banking.” Much of it could have been delivered by Bernie Sanders.

In short, Obama spent eight years "deferring a radical disruption" that the country was absolutely waiting for. And then Trump - an actual radical, came along and took the Oval Office away from the establishment.