Back in 2008 — eight years before Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again” — Barack Obama ran on a somewhat similar platform. First in his primary contest against Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, then in the general election versus John McCain, Obama framed himself as an outsider, someone who wouldn’t govern like a normal politician and would serve the people he represented. His big promises galvanized progressives across the country, who hoped they’d finally have a president pushing for their goals.
If you fell into a coma on Nov. 4, 2008, and awoke on Nov. 8, 2016, you might think that still applies. Ever since Donald Trump beat Clinton to become the president-elect, Obama has made bold moves on issues ranging from the environment to foreign policy to criminal justice. But everything that happened in those eight years matters as well. Obama’s lame-duck decisions won’t come close to compensating for his insufficient — and in some cases, indefensible — actions during his prior time in the Oval Office.
Obama inherited an environmental crisis in 2008, with rising greenhouse gas levels spelling disaster for the planet’s future. He soon laid out a brazen plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, soothing the fears of environmental activists. Yet while Obama worked to implement that plan over the subsequent eight years, his efforts won’t be enough. As I laid out in a November column, the current measures against climate change are woefully inadequate. Indeed, leading scientists have criticized the Paris agreement Obama agreed to, arguing it won’t go far enough to avert disaster.
The same is true of Obama’s recent generosity. Earlier this month, he announced an irrevocable $500 million transfer — the second in as many years — to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund, earning applause from numerous short-sighted progressives. Let’s put aside the uncertainties with how the fund will spend the money: In 2014, Obama pledged to give the fund $3 billion, meaning he made it only a third of the way toward his goal. While Obama certainly doesn’t deny climate change, his milquetoast method of combating it will prove costly in the long run.
Where Obama was a moderate on the climate, he took a rather one-sided stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to the November election, his administration blocked every single U.N. resolution that criticized Israel, an unprecedented move in recent American history. And in September, he agreed to give Israel a record $38 billion in aid over the next ten years, despite repeated allegations of human rights abuses. As the result of this, many Israelis and Palestinians are pessimistic about the future of the two-state solution.
This makes the Obama administration’s actions in December — when it allowed a U.N. resolution criticizing Israeli settlements to pass — all the more laughable. Don’t let the right-wing histrionics in both Israel and the U.S. fool you: This resolution was wholly symbolic, with no actual penalties for Israel’s undeniably illegal settlements. Obama gave Israel its $38 billion pudding, then tried to coax it into swallowing a tiny morsel of meat; his failure in the latter regard shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Still, at least Obama took some steps toward resolving climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By contrast, he was actively harmful when it came to transparency. After promising to open up the government like no president before him, Obama restricted scientists and other federal experts, covered up American military activities and prosecuted whistleblowers at a record rate. (Plus, he didn’t plug leaks equally — he was much more lenient toward the whistleblowers closest to his administration.)
In this context, yesterday’s announcement that Obama was commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning becomes rather bittersweet. A former Army intelligence analyst who exposed military atrocities without causing harm, Manning was nevertheless sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013. Since then, she’s attempted suicide twice and been placed in solitary confinement, while living in a men’s prison as a transgender woman. That she’s remained incarcerated this long is a travesty in and of itself; that Obama gifted Trump the tools to crack down on dissent and leaks — which this decision did nothing to counteract — is an unforgivable transgression.
With Trump taking over in a couple of days, progressives might be tempted to look back fondly on what Obama accomplished, especially during his last few months in office. But this is a foolish impulse — in the fight against Trump and the GOP’s far-right extremism, half-hearted and incomplete measures just won’t suffice. Obama was no political outsider, nor any kind of progressive hero, despite what his last-ditch efforts would have us believe.
Ryan Romano is a sophomore journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.