Obama’s Legacy: Symbolism Over Substance

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The Imperial Death March. Image via Pete Souza (Official White House Photo)

President Obama’s decision not to veto the recent UN resolution on Israeli settlements generated significant outrage on both sides of the aisle. Lost in the furor, however, was the simple fact that the resolution did not actually do anything. It was just another symbolic gesture without substance.

In this way, it was also the perfect capstone for Obama’s presidency. When it came to the controversial issues where Obama’s personal position appeared to be aligned with peace and civil liberties, he was unwilling to take a stand. He saved his political capital to push through destructive policies and took symbolic half-measures on the few issues where he could have made a meaningful positive difference.

As Obama’s tenure draws to a close, this must be viewed as a key part of his legacy. In nearly every case where political courage was required, President Obama consistently chose symbolic actions over substantive ones. It’s as if he wanted to be on the right side of history–just not enough to do anything about it.

This pattern is evident across many different issues. We’ll consider a few of the most significant ones to make the case:

  • Refugee crisis
  • Marijuana prohibition
  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Refugee Crisis

As the Republican primary season heated up in 2015, there was an intense competition to see which candidate could take the most extreme position on refugees from the Greater Middle East (and Muslims generally). Donald Trump emerged as the champion of this unfortunate contest when he suggested banning admission of all Muslims to the US. But Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush were close on his heels by contemplating religious tests for Syrian and Iraqi refugees–reject them if they’re Muslim, accept them if they’re Christian.

Because the bar was set this low, it was easy for Obama to take a more reasonable position, and he did. The Obama Administration successfully pushed to increase the number of refugees that would be accepted. Obama also worked to capitalize on the issue politically, strongly denouncing the Republican rhetoric as contrary to American values and arguing that we can’t “have religious tests to our compassion.

Unfortunately, Obama’s actions on refugees were decidedly insufficient. The US accepted roughly 70,000 refugees in FY 2015, and the plan was to increase this total to 100,000 annually by FY 2017. In percentage terms, it’s impressive–a 43% increase over two years. But in terms of the overall scope of the refugee crisis–which US foreign policy precipitated–these numbers were wholly inadequate.

Using the most recent figures available from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 2015, the total population of concern, which includes refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), was 63.9 million. If we restrict our focus to seven countries where US intervention played a significant role in bringing about the present crisis, the total is still an incredible 28.6 million as shown in the table below:

Origin Total population of concern
Afghanistan 4,434,853
Iraq 4,915,827
Libya 447,018
Pakistan 2,184,670
Somalia 2,350,997
Syrian Arab Rep. 11,690,327
Yemen 2,558,016
Total 28,581,708

*Source: Annex Table 2 from the UNHCR Global Trends 2015 report.

These numbers put the US pledge of taking 100,000 refugees into perspective. Compared to the total number of people that US foreign policy has helped put at risk, the US pledge amounts to 0.35% of the need–in other words, a rounding error.

The US policy on refugees is actually even more useless than this paltry figure would suggest, however. This is because the vetting process for refugees takes an estimated 18 to 24 months. People in desperate situations can scarcely afford to wait that long.

Based on this, it’s clear that President Obama’s actions on this issue were always meant to be a symbolic gesture. He gave a speech and implemented a policy that appeared meaningful on the surface–if only because Republicans’ reaction exaggerated its effects for political gain. But in fact, it did little or nothing to address the underlying problem.

More serious (and politically feasible) proposals might have included significant increases in aid directly to the countries hosting refugees right now or perhaps stopping US intervention in the region. Unfortunately, these policies were not adopted.

Marijuana Prohibition

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama expressed his view that marijuana should be regulated as a “public-health issue,” rather than as a criminal issue. While not quite the libertarian ideal, this would represent major progress on the status quo regarding marijuana because it would mean eliminating a huge number of victimless crimes.

In addition to expressing this view, President Obama has also made the controversial move of offering numerous pardons and sentence commutations–primarily to nonviolent drug offenders. As with the refugee situation, the numbers involved here (1,324 at last count) are minute relative to the massive population of such offenders that could be helped.

This is better than nothing, but it falls far short of the progress Obama could have made on this issue if he’d made it a priority. In the interview cited above, Obama attempted to blame his inaction on a lack of public support for reform on marijuana laws. But as Reason points out, this just isn’t true. Recent opinion polls show a significant majority of Americans (70%) support some form of legalization for medical marijuana, and a somewhat smaller majority (60%) supports outright legalization. Granted, it’s unlikely these same majorities would exist in the House of Representatives or the Senate–otherwise such legislation could have already been implemented. But what these polls show is that, if Obama wanted to make a push on this issue, he could have prevailed.

If Obama was unwilling to have a public fight with an obstructionist Congress, he could have also improved matters directly by rescheduling marijuana. The rescheduling process is somewhat convoluted, but it can be done by the Executive Branch without any input from Congress. If successful, this would have moved marijuana from a Schedule I substance with no recognized legitimate usage to a lower level, such as those used for prescription drugs. The end result would be to effectively legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, an enormous step in the right direction.

But Obama was unwilling to take this administrative action, even though he showed no reluctance exercising executive power elsewhere. Either due to a lack of courage or a lack of interest, Obama chose token actions and rhetoric over meaningful reform.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Finally, there’s the most recent example at the UN. To his credit, Obama did allow the UN resolution to pass without a US veto. Secretary of State John Kerry’s follow-up speech to defend this action was a refreshingly blunt and honest description of the conflict, especially by US standards.

On balance, these are positive developments. But they come so late in Obama’s term that they are also basically meaningless. The resolution itself had no actual effects, and there is almost zero chance that President-elect Trump will follow in Obama’s footsteps. Meanwhile, the substance of the US’s policy towards Israel remains the same as it has been. The US still gives Israel disproportionate amounts of foreign aid, and under Obama, it blocked every UN action that Israel objected to–except for the toothless resolution in question.

The problem here is that nothing of substance changed in the last eight years. The UN resolution and the speech given by Kerry would have been every bit as applicable at the start of Obama’s presidency as they are today. Over at Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss sums up this frustration very effectively:

The speech repeated warnings that President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state made to the Israelis 25 years ago, when the illegal Jewish settlement project was a mere stripling of 25. And though the UN Security Council resolution of last week condemning settlements is a victory for Palestinians, and may well precipitate a crisis inside Israeli politics, it is not as if Obama succeeded in his 8-year quest to make a Palestinian state. No, he and Kerry failed.

Obama waited eight years to break with the US status quo on Israel-Palestine. And when he finally got around to it, he no longer had any real power to make a difference.

Conclusion

President Obama will soon leave office with few accomplishments worth bragging about. Most of his campaign promises went unfulfilled, he routinely abused and expanded executive power, and the national debt is higher than ever, and the US is still involved in multiple unwinnable wars–just as it was at the start of his presidency.

Of course, most of the above could be said about previous US presidents as well.

The real disappointment about President Obama is his failure to take meaningful action on the few issues where his private position appeared reasonably sound. When he was elected, there was at least some cause for optimism that the constitutional law scholar would make a positive difference on some issues. But in the end, he chose to settle for symbolism over substance in order to save his political capital for something worse.