Opinion: Why Obama’s reforms were doomed from the beginning


Whatever else 2020 has shown us about ourselves, it has revealed how much the stubborn presence of racism and partisanship curtail the reality of this American dream for so many. Obama’s memoir is a further testament to how inherited hatreds and habits, magnified by modern media, make it exceedingly difficult to reform outdated institutions. As Obama’s popularity grew, so did the resistance to who he is and what he stood for — and the obstruction to his efforts to pass meaningful legislation. Opponents labeled his proposals “socialism” and demagogues questioned the fact of his birth in the United States. “My very presence in the White House,” Obama recounts, “triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.”

Other Presidents had felt the sting of partisanship before, and some had found temporary unity in the use of force overseas. But that is not enough, especially now, when our country faces so many serious policy challenges. “A Promised Land” reminds readers of what we can be as a humane, democratic society, and it also explains how a President cannot do it alone. The leader of the free world has power to affect many lives, for better or worse, but he has comparatively little ability to reform our decaying institutions and harmful behaviors without cooperation from lawmakers and fuller participation from citizens.

Obama ran an exciting campaign on restoring equity and opportunity to Americans, but he spent most of his difficult presidency holding off one disaster after another. His recollections of his first term in office are filled with repeated frustrations and regrets, born of the crises that repeatedly took him off track. He inherited an economy teetering on depression, rapidly degrading domestic infrastructure, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and aggressive adversaries in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

Meanwhile, Obama could not close the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That more than 200 detainees in the prison were being held without due process or public trial was a blight on America’s international image, but the President could not secure approval for another location to hold the detainees or a country that would take them in. Guantanamo remains open as an extrajudicial jail for alleged terrorists the United States has still not tried in a court of law. Obama laments that he was criticized by foreign policy hawks for questioning firm anti-terrorist measures and condemned by civil liberties activists for continuing to circumvent American law. Yet, he had no viable alternative, despite repeated efforts to find one.

So much for a powerful, transformative American presidency. Obama’s memoir exposes how hard it is for a reform-minded President to get anything done. He did muscle the Recovery and Affordable Care Acts through Congress, bailing out large segments of the economy and creating the first public health insurance option for all citizens, with indispensable…

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