On President Obama: The Black Swan
“Black swan” is used a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. I cannot think of anything that better describes President Obama. His win in 2008 was a surprise in every possible way. His win against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primaries was completely unexpected. His win against John McCain, even more so. No one at the beginning of 2008 would have imagined a young black man with the name Barack Hussein Obama would be elected, twice, as the president of the United States. As surprising as his elections were, the effect he has had on the country has been even more significant. Depending on what side of the political spectrum you belong, the effects of his presidency is either extremely positive or negative. What isn’t up for debate is whether or not the effects are significant. He is also one of the most misrepresented, misunderstood, misaligned political figure in my lifetime, and an argument can be made in the past hundred years. As a black swan, President Obama went against the entire American history of presidencies. In every way, he stood out in contrast to his predecessor and opposition. From the first time I heard him speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 to his last days as President, he has reaffirmed my belief that America didn’t deserve him or Michelle, but I’m damn glad they were here for us.
In early 2008, I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I thought she had the necessary experience and qualifications to be a very good president. As the Democratic primaries played out, I saw something in Barack Obama that made me think he was what we needed at this time in our country’s history. Not because he is a black man, I saw this was a secondary perk, but as someone who has a great grasp of history, ideals, and the importance of pragmatism. As a devout pragmatist, I rarely see politicians who fully grasp how moving the country forward as much as possible is more important than ideological purity. Like Justice Stewart’s view of pornography, when it comes to pragmatism, “I know it when I see it.” The more I watched candidate Obama, the more I knew he understood progress in ways very few politicians have or do. After eight years of one of the worst administrations since Hoover, what America needed was someone who knew how to move us forward ethically, legally, politically in a rapidly changing world. As much as I liked and respected Hillary, I felt Barack was the one who could move us forward at that moment in our history.
On election night, when he came out on stage in Chicago’s Grant Park to give his victory speech, I have never felt more proud of my country. As I wept, listening to him speak, I couldn’t imagine how African-Americans must be feeling. As much as his election meant to me personally, I could not imagine the significance it had on Black America. I grew up seeing the violent police actions against peaceful Civil Rights protesters. Even though the Civil Rights Act became law, I have been well aware of how ingrained and widespread racism is in American society. I never, ever thought I would see a black person elected as president. Yet, here was the black swan president-elect in front of a quarter of a million people in Grant Park and millions more watching on t.v. and online laying out a shining beam of hope and a path towards progress. Telling everyone that we are all in this together and it is up to us to demand and work for change. It was everything I’ve believed in and worked for my entire adult life. At that moment in time, I felt America had finally turned the corner towards the equality, justice, and fairness promised in the country’s founding documents.
Within months, this feeling of hope was replaced with feelings of frustration. Frustration not at President Obama, but at the cabal of conservatives who met on the night of his inauguration to discuss their strategy of stopping and obstructing everything the new president proposed. A group that included: Republican Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.), along with Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.). Along with former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and Republican consultant, Frank Luntz. Their meeting has been well-documented and their purpose was to make sure that Republicans not support anything and obstruct everything put forth by the new administration. Keep in mind that this strategy was laid out at a time when the country and the world was going through a serious economic downturn. Their efforts were focused on making sure the new administration failed. Even though he wasn’t there, then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it publicly known his main goal was to make Obama a one-term president. The GOP was on board, lock-step, to make sure President Obama, and by proxy, America fails.
Not long after learning of conservatives’ plans to obstruct President Obama, my frustration turned to the far left who turned on the new president because they didn’t get what they thought was their due. They wanted single-payer health insurance, banks taken over, and bankers thrown in jail. Single-payer was never going to happen with a coalition of only sixty Democrats and Independents in the Senate. All it took was one to be against it and the whole deal fell apart. With Blue-Dog Dems like Jim Webb, VA, Landrieu, LA, and Ben Nelson, NE, and Independents like Joe Lieberman, there weren’t the votes to get single-payer even put up for discussion, let alone voted on or passed. For reasons that can only be explained as a complete lack of basic civics knowledge, the far left blamed President Obama for these Senators never going to vote for single-payer. It doesn’t matter that President Obama accomplished something every Democratic president since FDR had tried to do but failed, comprehensive health care reform, they were upset. Never mind the number of uninsured would drop to the lowest in history, they didn’t care. They had their mind set on a unicorn and when they didn’t get it, they blamed President Obama for not personally delivering it to their doorstep.
The far-left had the same unrealistic attitude about the bankers. Never mind that most of the damage done from the mortgage crisis came from products and actions that were perfectly legal, the far left wanted heads on pikes. Never mind during his administration the largest fines ever imposed by the government have been against financial institutions. Never mind he helped get Dodd-Frank passed that is the strongest laws and regulations against the financial sector since FDR. Never mind he came up with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and put far-left hero Elizabeth Warren in charge of it, they didn’t get the unicorns they felt was due them. While the right was organizing and whipping up the masses into an anti-socialism frenzy, forming the Tea Party, having town hall meetings around the country, and spreading lie upon lie on social media and in emails, the left was pouting. Democratic members of Congress ran away from Obama and the Affordable Care Act because they were scared to stand up to the crazies on the right. Progressives sat out the 2010 midterms because they didn’t get their unicorns. The results of this have been catastrophic. Meanwhile, the black swan president kept finding ways to move the country forward.
It wasn’t just far-left progressives who abandoned President Obama in 2010, it was also many Democratic members of Congress who lost their spines and balls at the sight of a bunch of angry octogenarians at town hall meetings. They could have stood up for the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus, the auto bailout…but they didn’t. They ran away from the President and his policies. Policies, now that he’s left office, Democrats in Congress are saying have to be defended with every ounce of effort. Instead of touting how these policies helped the working class, these cowardly Democratic officials hemmed and hawed out weak ass explanations while the opposition was organizing and pushing outlandish talking points and lies that became ingrained in conservatives’ belief systems. Meanwhile, the black swan president kept finding ways to move the country forward without help from lawmakers from his own party.
With no way to get anything passed in a now Republican-controlled House, President Obama moved the bar of progress forward anyway. He made sure the DOJ didn’t defend DOMA. He expanded protections to the LBGT community. He had the DOJ investigate corrupt and racist police department practices. He got Syria to turn over its chemical weapons. He negotiated a treaty with Iran ending their nuclear weapons program. He did more to fight climate change than any president in history. He helped push a revolution in renewable energies. He expanded federally protected lands. He oversaw the longest positive private sector jobs growth in history. Whether it was the environment, health care, rights or jobs, President Obama did more than just about any modern-day president. And, he did it all with the least amount of help. FDR had major majorities in both houses of Congress every single one of his terms. President Obama had a slim majority in the Senate for a couple of months that was lost when Ted Kennedy got sick and eventually passed away. From that point on, he had no luxury of a working majority in the Senate and Republicans making sure nothing would get done.
Despite unprecedented political opposition, President Obama moved the bar of progress forward. Despite unrelenting racist attacks, he never lashed out. Despite the lack of support from members of his own party, he never turned on them. Despite having his legitimacy questioned from day one, he held his head up and acted with dignity. If you had to construct a president from scratch, you’d be hard pressed to construct one that would be better than President Obama. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have his flaws. Every president has them. However, his flaws were his willingness to believe his opposition had some bottom to the level to which they’d go, some basic ethical principles, some common ground from which he could work with them. Unfortunately, Republicans had no such limitations on their morals or conscience. It is easy in hindsight to blame President Obama for missing the nature of his opposition. That he wanted to believe the better nature of people could only be called a flaw by the most cynical of people.
As the black swan president, Obama had to walk a razor’s edge that no one in history has had to tread. He had to be twice as good, twice as nice, twice as everything in order to even be considered “normal.” If he would have been “No Fucks To Give Obama” from the onset, he would have accomplished nothing. His pragmatic nature knew and understood this. Unfortunately, like so many other things, too many progressives did not understand or appreciate not only the unique situation President Obama was in but how deftly he handled it to the betterment of us all.
Unfortunately, the razor’s edge he had to walk was not understood by even those who claim to have been his allies. Whenever I hear criticism of him from the left, I always ask, “What would you have done differently?” Inevitably, their response comes down to some idealistic act that completely ignores the realities and variables President Obama was faced with at the time he had to make his decision. “I would have pushed for single-payer!” Great, now explain how you would have got the Blue Dog Dems to even consider it so it would be discussed in committee, let alone reach the point where it would be voted on and passed. “I would have closed Gitmo!” Not without approval from Congress. “I would have jailed bankers!” Okay, on what grounds? A lot of the causes of the financial and mortgage meltdown were legal. “I would have helped those who suffered from the mortgage crisis more!” How? What mechanism would you have used and how would you have gotten the majority of Congress to approve it because it would have to have financial help and that has to go through Congress? It is easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback. Hundreds of thousands of fat, lazy, living off their self-perceived glory days of high schools sports do it every day on sports talk shows. Political decisions don’t occur in a vacuum. They happen in a very complex environment with dozens of moving parts and hundreds of personal agendas. Wanting someone to do what you think should be done does not translate to what can be done. I’ve closely watched major political figures here and abroad for the good part of forty years. In this time, I’ve never seen anyone get more bang-for-the-buck than President Obama. Democrats had a workable majority (60 votes) for all of four months and one week in 2009. That is the amount of time President Obama had legitimately get all the things the left say he could/should have. For two hundred and eight weeks of his presidency, he had a workable majority for seventeen with an opposition party that refused to work with him on ANYTHING but please go ahead and tell me about how he should have done X or Y.
When the history books are written fifty years from now, when I am long dead and gone, I have no doubt that President Obama will be viewed as one of the most influential presidents in American history. Sadly, like other influential presidents before him like Lincoln, FDR, and Johnson, he was not truly appreciated in his time, even by those of his party and those who claimed to be his ally. I will always be proud of my vote for him, twice, to be our president. I will always be upset at those on the right and the left who tried to undermine him. I will always believe that America didn’t deserve him. I will always be damn thankful we had him. He was the black swan. He came out of nowhere. He defied all conventions and history. He had and will have a dominant role in history. He will forever be my president.
When I think of President Obama, I am reminded of the scene at the end of “Excalibur” where King Arthur is talking to a mortally wounded Sir Lancelot:
“You are that and much more. You are its greatest knight, you are what is best in men.” President Obama was our greatest modern-day president and what is best in men.