A HEARTFELT LETTER OF THANKS TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
Dear President Obama,
On January 20, 2009, you were dealt the worst hand of any President-Elect since Franklin Roosevelt. The economy was in a total free fall, and there were two wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq. What our nation needed most was exactly what you delivered — a President who brought great intelligence and wisdom to each decision; a President who brought dedication, determination and discipline to the daily tasks of the Oval Office; a President who surrounded himself with the best and brightest and who listened when they spoke; a President who resisted the temptation to play to the mob or to pander to the 24 hour news cycle; and above all, a President who would make tough decisions regardless of the attacks from the media and the opposition.
Through this letter, I will try to capture many of the highlights of the last eight years and, in doing so, try to convey the deep appreciation that I will always have for our 44th President.
The Great Recession. As you were entering office, the U.S. economy was in a disastrous downward spiral. The stock market had lost almost half of its value. The ever-increasing job losses reached the shocking level of 800,000 losses a month. Major banks and investment banking firms were collapsing, and the auto industry was on the verge of a calamitous collapse.
Of equal concern was the unprecedented decline in home prices, which occurred at the worst possible time — soon after the mortgage industry had greedily foisted irresponsible sub-prime mortgages on millions of Americans. What followed were record numbers of upside down mortgages, foreclosures and personal bankruptcies. All of this resulted from the prior Administration being asleep at the wheel while executives in the mortgage industry and the creators of exotic debt instruments made huge fortunes.
And then, within just a few months of your taking charge, a miraculous change of direction began to occur. Soon after you took office, the accelerating rate of job losses was reversed, and the economy started to have positive job growth by early 2010. The stock market immediately began its rebound at the same time. The bankruptcies of major banks, businesses and other large institutions began to slow, and the auto industry not only avoided a complete collapse, but has roared back.
Fast forward and we now find that, by almost all measures, the economy of today reflects an astounding improvement from the economy that you inherited upon your inauguration. (I’ll go into more detail about this below.) So, how did this happen? The answer is that you and your advisers steadfastly followed the lessons learned from the Great Depression. You took bold, powerful and politically unpopular actions to achieve three goals: first, you ensured that the banking system would not collapse. Second, you took steps to ease credit throughout the banking system. And third, you took action to stimulate the economy through government spending. Whether this tough medicine was politically popular or not, it was desperately necessary to save the American people from an even greater economic crisis.
While there are populists on the right and the left who have railed against the TARP program, it was absolutely necessary to ensure that our banking system would not collapse. Whether one likes bankers or not, a total collapse of the banking system would have led to a total collapse of virtually every major business in our country. The job losses would have been catastrophic. What is truly amazing, however, is the final report card for the TARP program. Congress initially authorized the expenditure of $700 billion, but the actual amount disbursed was only $427 billion. And guess what? The banks and other recipients of the TARP funds repaid $442 billion, either through loan repayments or stock proceeds. Yes, this program actually created a surplus. If one is even remotely objective, it has to be viewed as a miracle that such a game-changing program of this magnitude effectively cost the American taxpayers nothing.
The Stimulus program (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is another example of a bold, desperately needed program that has been pilloried by the folks on the right. And yet, the Council of Economic Advisors has determined that between 2.4 and 3.6 million jobs were created by this program. On top of that, hundreds of billions of dollars were expended for state–approved infrastructure projects, especially $90 billion for renewable energy. Lastly, while it was not well advertised, over $200 billion of tax relief was provided to millions of lower income Americans.
There was one more significant benefit of these government programs, which has received almost no attention. The CEOs of American companies became convinced early on that you would cause the federal government to take whatever action was necessary to ensure that the U.S. economy would not collapse. With this sense of confidence, the CEOs stopped their job slashing and began to rehire. For many self-serving reasons, most of these CEOs may never give you the credit you deserve, but history will.
And so, within your first year Mr. President, you achieved what I believe to be one of the greatest accomplishments of any modern President — you saved the Union from a Second Great Depression. You took desperate actions in desperate times and did not falter under withering attacks from the Republicans and their media outlets. For this, we should all be eternally grateful.
The Great Recovery. Yes, I call it the Great Recovery. Let’s examine the current state of our economy, using benchmarks that have been used for decades.
Let’s take the stock markets. From a disastrous low point in early 2009, the markets have steadily advanced for eight years (except when Republican lawmakers threatened to close down the government). Indeed, in August of last year, all three stock markets hit all-time highs on the same day, the first time that has happened in 17 years. Tens of millions of Americans and their families are benefiting from this upsurge in value in their investments and their 401-Ks, as they look forward toward retirement.
Let’s take employment. Promptly after you took office, the massive job losses began to reverse. Today’s 4.7% unemployment rate is less than half of the recession levels and in the range that most economists would say is full employment.
Let’s take the deficit. By 2015, your Administration had battled back to a 2.4% deficit-to-GDP ratio (this is the gauge that most economists say is a much better gauge than using the raw dollar amount of the deficit— just consider why a $500,000 home mortgage would be irresponsible for someone with a $50,000 annual income, but safe for someone with a $500,000 annual income). By the way, the current 2.4% deficit ratio is better than 15 of the last 20 years under Republican Presidents, and they weren’t confronted with the Great Recession.
Let’s take inflation. For eight years, Republican politicians and their media outlets have constantly told us that your policies would cause massive inflation. It never happened. The very low inflation rates throughout your tenure have been an especially welcomed benefit to older Americans and others who rely heavily on fixed incomes.
Let’s take the U.S. Dollar. Again, Republican politicians and their media outlets have constantly told us that your policies would crush the dollar (the Obama conspiracy folks even alleged that you would do so on purpose). It never happened. In fact, the dollar has rebounded from its all-time low during the Great Recession, and the Dollar indices show that the dollar has recently reached levels not seen since 2003.
Let’s take energy policies. Could anyone have imagined eight years ago that, since 2012, the U.S. has been the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the World? (Take a moment and read that sentence again!) As for gas prices, just look at the pump!
All of this happened in the face of relentless attacks from the Right. Republican politicians and their media outlets relentlessly downplayed any economic advances. Knowing that consumer confidence is critical to a recovery, they took every opportunity to be “the glass is empty” party. While they achieved their goal of helping themselves politically, they hurt American families by depressing the recovery.
To be fair, there are those who say that the growth in the GDP has been slower than other recent recessions. But it seems logical to me that, since the Great Recession is rivaled only by the Great Depression, the current recovery would take longer than other, much weaker recessions. As for income inequality, there are many underlying causes. The ones that are government driven, however, result mostly from Republican initiatives over the past 35 years — tax cuts for the wealthy, ever-increasing attacks on labor unions and workers’ rights, and the various iterations “trickle down” economics, which all rely on the false notion that, by making rich people even richer, the other 99% of Americans will somehow benefit.
All in all, the state of the economy is vastly better now than in 2008. We’ll see what the future brings.
Obamacare. Let’s start with the name. I’m sure it was initially frustrating to you that the O word has stuck. (The right wing media has always been good at cryptic catch phrases). I say this because you purposely did not submit a single Administration bill on healthcare reform to the Congress. Instead, every proposed bill started within Congress itself. And the final bill was, of course, passed by a majority of the House and the Senate. In the end, though, you adopted the term, which, to me, simply reflects that you do, indeed, care about the healthcare of the American people
So, let’s continue with a statement of the problem. The single greatest domestic threat to the well-being of Americans is the untenable, skyrocketing cost of healthcare. The combination of skyrocketing healthcare costs and the aging Baby Boomer generation threatens all of our government spending, whether for our military, domestic programs, Social Security or Medicare. Although many recent Presidents have acknowledged this formidable dilemma, you are the only President to have had both the political courage and the political power to achieve meaningful change.
The best way to analyze the impact of the Affordable Care Act is to view it through the lens of its three primary goals. The first goal of the ACA was to aggressively tackle the rise in healthcare costs. Neither you nor any other rational person promised or expected that the ACA would immediately reduce healthcare costs. The goal was to bring down the rate of increase of healthcare costs, or in other words to “bend down this spending curve”. Through a series of complex Medicare reimbursement provisions and hugely popular provisions such as free preventive care, the ACA is clearly having the desired effect. According to Price Waterhouse, healthcare spending in 2016 increased at the rate of 6.5%, which is the lowest rate since 2009. For comparison, the growth rate for the last two years of the Bush Administration was 9.9% and 11.9%. There is still much to be done with a legacy healthcare system that was ineffective, bloated, monstrously complicated and infected with perverse incentives, but the ACA still represents a substantial start.
The second goal of the ACA was to forbid forever the unfair treatment of Americans by many of the practices of the health insurance industry. Front and center was the elimination of the “pre-existing condition” rule. Now, for the first time, American families can have the peace of mind of having coverage for their or their children’s medical conditions. The added benefit is that Americans are now free to pursue new jobs with other companies or in other cities without being shackled to their current employer’s medical plan. This is a big win for both American families and the U.S. economy. No wonder that huge majorities of Americans strongly favor this change, especially if you don’t use the word “Obamacare” to describe it.
And yet, this is just one of the many health insurance reforms. Parents can now cover their children under their medical plans until the age of 26. The timing of this was incredibly important to millions of American families, especially since the Great Recession made it so difficult for college graduates to find jobs. Also, no longer can health insurance companies discriminate against women; no longer can they impose annual or lifetime dollar limitations on American families that are the most in need of coverage; and no longer can they increase premiums because of the filing of claims. There is now a Patient Bill of Rights and a requirement that all health insurance policies provide at least a minimal, decent level of coverage. All of these ACA provisions have been well received by the public, and you are to be congratulated for this great achievement.
The third goal of the ACA reflects the noble vision that all Americans should have access to affordable healthcare. When you entered office, there were almost 50,000,000 men, women and children with no healthcare coverage. I, like most Americans, agree with you that this was an entirely unacceptable situation. You and the Congress tackled this problem head on by providing that Medicaid would be expanded and that employers with more than 50 employees must do the right thing and provide for healthcare. You also created a system of significant subsidies to help provide lower income Americans the ability to pay healthcare premiums. Today, over 20 million Americans now have healthcare as a result of the ACA. This is another of your crowning achievements. Tragically, the numbers would be significantly higher (and premiums would be lower) if Republican governors and Republican legislatures would have simply allowed Medicaid to be expanded with federal dollars. They made spurious arguments that someday in the future Congress might pass a bill that would increase the states’ small share of the expense (as politically likely as the Browns winning the Super Bowl this year). In fact, they simply wanted to hurt your Presidency. Every morning in my home state of Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal wakes up with the knowledge that more than 400,000 of his fellow Georgians have no healthcare and that some of them may die and many of them may suffer unnecessarily because his government has failed to sign on for Medicaid expansion. To add further insult to this unnecessary injury, Georgians pay federal income taxes that now go to other states to fund their Medicaid expansion.
We have all heard ad nauseam from ACA critics that the ACA represents a federal takeover of our healthcare system. They cannot name, of course, a single U.S. hospital that has been taken over by the federal government; nor can they name a single physician group, drug manufacturer, or any other healthcare provider that has been “taken over” by the government as a result of the ACA.
I suppose that I am most disappointed by the fact that the ACA has evoked such relentless and virulent opposition. The three goals that I’ve outlined above are each designed fundamentally to help American families. It is undeniable that reducing healthcare costs for families, eliminating draconian treatment by the health insurance industry and providing healthcare to tens of millions of Americans who have suffered mightily without coverage, represent noble ideals rooted in compassion for our fellow citizens. I recognize that some may reasonably disagree with some of the ACA’s methods or might have libertarian-type views about assisting others, but the utter hatred of the ACA is completely unwarranted. There is no doubt that the politics of personal destruction, so ravenously pursued by the Right, is largely to blame. History will ultimately judge the ACA, I’m convinced the verdict will be positive
The Iraq War. The Iraq War was the most contentious, divisive event since the Vietnam War. The Bush Administration attacked, conquered, and occupied a sovereign, independent nation a half a world away — a nation that had not attacked us, or threatened us or posed any meaningful threat to us or our allies. Our successful Gulf War campaign had neutered Saddam and any plans he may have had for further attempts at conquest or international terror. The decision to send our troops to war was made even worse because the support for the war had been procured through misrepresentation and fraud. Faulty evidence and clearly untrustworthy witnesses were used to move the needle of public support just enough to launch the war, a decision that had already been pre-ordained.
And yet, it has seldom been politically wise for a politician to speak out against a war. You had the courage to do so, loudly and clearly. During the 2008 campaign, you told the voters that you would consult with the generals and remove our combat troops by a fixed date. That date was August of 2010, and, in August 2010, the last of our combat troops returned. By that time, a strong majority of Americans viewed the War as a mistake. Indeed, in the 2016 Presidential campaign, even several of the Republican candidates admitted that the War was wrong.
National Security. Since the day you took office, Republican politicians and their media outlets have engaged in fear-mongering at its worse. Every attack has been magnified, and every threat has been exaggerated. They obsess with the definition of “terrorism”, stretching it so broadly as to lose its true meaning. There is one simple, straight forward question, though, that they conveniently ignore. The question is — how many 9/11-type attacks have occurred during the eight years of your Presidency? The answer is, of course, zero. Even though the United States continues to be the most prized target for any group of foreign terrorists, there has not been a single such attack. There is nothing that Republican politicians and their media outlets can ever say or do to undo the fact that there has not been a second 9/11 attack over these past eight years.
Just as important as recognizing this phenomenon is understanding the reasons for it. The absence of such an attack is not the result of luck, or coincidence, or lack of desire by our enemies. Instead, during every day of every year since your inauguration, you have led hundreds of thousands of America’s brightest and most dedicated public servants in relentlessly protecting our homeland. First, the brave men and women of our Armed Forces have fought the terrorists with the full force of the most powerful military in the world. ISIS has lost over half of its territory in recent months, and dozens of their leaders have been neutralized. ISIS’ last two significant strongholds are under siege and will fall. Our military and our allies will never allow ISIS to have an air force, a navy, a functioning port, a traditional army base or even a principal governmental building. Its leaders will continue to be forced to move around in darkness and in secret to seek to carry on their operations. Second, our Department of Homeland Security works tirelessly to protect our airports, seaports and other strategic locations. The Department of the Treasury works every day to destabilize the banking, funds transfer and finances of ISIS and other groups. Our CIA and FBI relentlessly investigate potential risks. And lastly, USCIS has established and carefully follows extremely robust national and international procedures to ensure that immigrants and refugees undergo rigorous vetting procedures.
Yes, we still live in a dangerous world. It’s been that way since the Beirut attack during the Reagan years, and it will surely continue. Perhaps, though, your critics will pause long enough in their withering attacks on your Administration to at least thank those who have protected us so well for these eight years. For myself, I will also thank you as our Commander-in-Chief.
Cuba and Iran are two further examples of your political courage. While the Cuba people have suffered from a political point standpoint under the Castro regime, they have also suffered from an economic standpoint from U.S-imposed sanctions and isolation. You were the first President to have the courage to acknowledge that 50+ years of a failed American policy was enough.
Standing with our allies, your Administration achieved the Iran nuclear deal which has shut down Iran’s military nuclear efforts. Under the watchful eyes of the robust monitoring protocols, Iran has been complying with its obligations to dismantle much of its capabilities.
The Environment. In the face of relentless resistance from the Republicans in Congress, you were able to achieve historic domestic and international victories for our environment. In yet another attempt to block your initiatives, grown men and women were willing to deny the overwhelming evidence of climate change that has been presented by virtually all of the scientific community. But you persisted and you prevailed. On the domestic front, your team developed the Clean Power Plan, which established national carbon pollution standards for power plants. Since you took office, carbon emissions are down by almost 10%, and your advocacy, funding and programs have led to a substantial increase in electricity generated from wind and solar. You have created many new National Monuments that protect almost two million acres in the West and over 500 million acres offshore along the Pacific coast and near Hawaii. On the international front, your environmental team worked tirelessly to implement the Paris climate accord. Over 190 countries signed up for the grandest effort yet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our children and grandchildren thank you.
Social Issues. It’s difficult to provide a short summary of your positive impact on so many of the social issues that have divided our country, but here goes. First, for eight years, the majority of Americans that support Roe v. Wade have known that you would be an impenetrable bulwark against any Congressional Republican efforts to water down women’s reproduction rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. Your mere presence forced the battle to the States, where federal courts can and have struck down unconstitutional laws.
Second, like many Americans of your generation, you’ve gone through a journey in your views on same sex marriage. You had the integrity to announce your evolving acceptance of same sex marriage, and you and your Justice Department became fervent advocates for change. On your watch (and with two of your appointees), the Supreme Court finally brought marriage equality to all Americans!
Third, from the very beginning you championed women’s rights. The first bill you enthusiastically signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which closed a massive legal impediment to women who have suffered from wage discrimination. Your selection of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court and many women to Cabinet positions is a further testament to your relentless commitment to diversity.
Fourth, one unfortunate consequence of your election (for which you shoulder no blame) is that we learned that racism in our country is more widespread than most of us imagined. While not all members of the Tea Party are bigots, the Tea Party gave many bigots cover and a political home. You were careful not to inject race into every issue, but you stepped up to address the issues head on when necessary. All of our children should listen to your 2008 national address on race and your 2015 speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Your speeches and eulogies after Ferguson, Dallas and Charleston were balanced, respectful and full of the hope that, if we work together, we can fight intolerance and violence in our land.
An Apology. No consideration of your legacy could be complete without addressing the unprecedented hostility that you received from Republican politicians and their media outlets. The bottom line is that no President in our history has faced more relentless, hostile and fraudulent attacks.
As you were celebrating your initial inauguration, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate met in secret and decided that their principal strategy was to block all of your initiatives. Obstruction was their chief strategy. The focus was often not what was right for our country — just how can we hurt the President. They didn’t wait to actually hear your proposed policies, or to study them, or to debate them — they would simply say “NO”.
A few examples. Your immigration policy was quite similar to the policy of President Bush (a former governor of the border state of Texas), but because you espoused it, the Republicans launched their attacks. Background check policies had been accepted by the NRA, but after you espoused it, they branded it an affront to the Second Amendment. If Newtown and Charleston could not change their minds, nothing will. Your executive appointments and judicial nominations languished for months and months for the sole reason that they were yours. The most unimaginable blasphemy of all, of course, was the Republican Senate’s refusal to even hold a hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, as your Supreme Court nominee. It was the exercise of raw and unrestrained power in the face of a clear constitutional mandate to act. Their treatment of you, Judge Garland and our Constitution was despicable.
Some people have asserted that the failure of the Congress to function as adults was caused by both political parties. That is simply not the case. On the House side, there were two Republican factions. First, the Tea Partiers had whipped their base into such contempt for you that they were forced to withhold their support on even the most mundane of Presidential actions. Second, the traditional or establishment Republicans, who often had disdain for the extremism of the Tea Party, lacked the political courage to stand up to them. The result — an utter failure to honor their oath of office to act as the people’s representatives and to conduct the necessary work of our government.
On the Senate side, the Republicans, when they were in the minority, effectively and wrongfully amended the Constitution to require 60 votes to pass any legislation. They did this by abusing the filibuster. Prior to your election, the filibuster was rarely used (for example by Southern conservatives who sought to derail the civil rights bills of the 1960s). In all other instances, the universal democratic concept of “majority rules” should carry the day (as it does in the House). By threatening filibusters for almost all meaningful legislation, the Republicans effectively shut down the “greatest deliberative body on earth”. While the Democrats may very well use this new paradigm to their advantage in the coming years, this is clearly not what the Founding Fathers intended, and it helped the Republicans avoid taking a stand and voting for your legislative agenda.
We will never know how much more you could have accomplished for the good of our country if the Republicans had been willing to do their jobs and to meet you at the negotiation table. This is not your failure, however, but instead the result of destructive hyper-partisan politics at its worst. And it is not simply sour grapes. It reflects a breakdown of responsible representative democracy, or, as I see it, the final chapter of the hyper-partisanship brought to us by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.
As for the media, every single day of your presidency, Fox News (supposedly a cable “news” network) attacked you and your Party with a zealot’s fervor. Each day’s events were repackaged and distorted to make you look bad. The line between journalism and news, on the one hand, and pure partisan, personal attacks, on the other hand, was blurred out of existence.
The shock jocks on hate radio were, of course, even worse. The listeners that they pander to were given a steady diet of “he was born in Kenya”, “he’s a Muslim”, “he’s a socialist”, “he’s out to get white people”, “he’s out to get your guns”, and worse. The Internet and social media allow these conspiracy theories and just plain lies and fraud to race throughout the land. “Fake news” generated by teenagers in Macedonia can now receive as many “hits” as our old and venerable news outlets. Sometimes it’s hard to argue that we don’t live in a post-truth world.
Throughout it all, however, you handled yourself with grace and composure. You did so without rants or rancor against your detractors and with a profound respect for the freedom of speech and the press. I can only give you my unsolicited apology for the treatment you’ve received.
In closing Mr. President, we, the American people, are forever indebted to you. Nothing can ever take away from eight years of your compassionate leadership at home, your thoughtful presence throughout the world, and your faithful stewardship of our planet.
The short-term future may be frightening, but I will not besmirch your legacy by discussing our next President. I will, however, find ways to honor your legacy by reaching out to those in need, standing against bigotry, sexism and all forms of intolerance and getting further engaged in our national discourse (yes, I listened to your farewell address!).
11:59am, January 20, 2017