In fact, despite the heated tone of Obama defenses, not one person disputed the underlying factual basis of my argument:
1) Under Barack Obama, economic inequality in terms of income growth has skyrocketed to historically high levels. After I published my piece, Ian Welsh buttressed these claims, pointing me to this St. Louis Federal Reserve chart of the Gini coefficient, a measurement of inequality. Labor as a share of GDP is at a historically low level. And this is in spite of a different trend line when Obama took office – during the crisis, inequality was actually collapsing. Obama reversed this trend, restoring Bush’s unequal America, and then going beyond it.
2) Under Barack Obama, there has been a massive foreclosure crisis, with a policy response that was intentionally ineffective. Meanwhile, corporate profits have rebounded, while home equity levels (which can rebound through increased home values or debt write-offs), have not.
3) These shifts largely occurred when Barack Obama’s party controlled Congress, from 2009-2010.
4) The American energy system is turning us towards a petro-state, with investment in mining (fracking, tar sands and dirty oil, coal, etc) nearly equal to investment in manufacturing.
5) Obama broke a significant number of campaign promises from 2008, promises that would have secured bargaining leverage for debtors and labor. These included : a higher minimum wage, a ban on the replacement of striking workers, seven days of paid sick leave, a more diverse media ownership structure, renegotiation of NAFTA, letting bankruptcy judges write down mortgage debt, a ban on illegal wiretaps, an end to national security letters, stopping the war on whistle-blowers, passing the Employee Free Choice Act, restoring habeas corpus, and labor protections in the FAA bill.
Obama’s main policy framework for his first term was bailing out the financial system and the auto industry – this was more consequential than his health care plan, despite receiving less attention. Obama’s health care plan didn’t change the incentives or structure of an overpriced and underperforming health care system, while the bank bailouts greatly increased the concentration of power within the financial sector. These actions were portrayed by proponents as saving the financial system and preventing a depression. Opponents often argue these bailouts were a shift of funds to banks. This doesn’t quite encompass the scope of what Bush and Obama did. In fact, the combination of Federal Reserve activity, regulatory forbearance, TARP, and a lack of criminal enforcement against those who rigged markets comprise an intentional policy to change the American system of property rights. The property rights of the wealthy have been super-sized. Private creditors can now enforce even dubious claims (exemplified by the robo-signing and foreclosure scandals) and get government protection from any downside, or even immunity from criminal wrongdoing. Meanwhile, ordinary debtors have property rights at the pleasure of the powerful. Obama took a financial system flat on its back, and, with an unlimited checkbook and an overwhelming mandate, entrenched oligarchy.
Remarkably, though my piece inspired tremendous vitriol, none of what I laid out is in dispute. The only point of contention is whether these shifts just sort of happened, with the President as an innocent bystander or an ineffective actor, or whether he aided these shifts with his policy framework. If it is the former, then this President is guilty of gross incompetence and one wonders why he is worth defending. Moreover, one wonders why the President should be credited for policy victories like the resuscitation of the auto industry, or, if the Presidency is so ineffective an office, why it is so important to deny it to someone like Mitt Romney. Indeed, Obama defenders – and Obama himself – simply cannot dispute any of the facts above. Is it any wonder this is a close race? Romney may be a comically foolish liar, but Obama isn’t exactly Mr. Credibility.
Moreover, arguing that Obama’s policy framework didn’t contribute to serious problems is foolish, and disrespectful. Many advocates who support Obama, such as Bob Kuttner, Dean Baker, Damon Silvers, Charles Ferguson, Simon Johnson, and Elizabeth Warren, understand that policy is significant, which is why they worked so hard to encourage the President to choose a different policy course than the one he chose. And many people who worked on policy during this period, such as Neil Barofsky, Sheila Bair, and Jeff Connaughton, are perfectly willing to explain how Tim Geithner, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama executed the policies that produced the society I described above. They even wrote books about it, all of which are available from Amazon. You don’t even have to read if you don’t want to. Ferguson made a film called Inside Job about the rampant criminality enabled by Barack Obama. It won an Academy Award.
Obama defenders for the most part simply do not address the core moral question in evaluating the role of any political leader, which is whether the lives of their constituents have improved during that leader’s term and whether society is more just. And the outcomes for Americans under Obama – a historically higher student debt burden, deleveraging of debt occurring only through defaults, larger banks than existed before the crisis, a crushing foreclosure crisis, higher inequality, and a falling median net income – suggest that for most, the answer is no. What people care about – whether their lives are better overall – is basically irrelevant in their calculus. As Kuttner notes, this is the reason that Obama is in a very difficult reelection campaign against a comically weak opponent. The American people think he has done a bad job, because he has. And he has promised, many times, to cut more spending and cut entitlements – Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid. This is what you are voting for when you vote for Barack Obama.