Eight years ago tomorrow on a very cold morning I stood in line with Jessie Phelps, Brandon Jewell, Chris Hartman, Christa Robinson, and over one million of our close friends as we waited for the new president to take the Oath of Office. I had voted for Barack Obama in both the Primary and the General of the previous year. I had met him at Slugger Field in 2006 when he made a campaign appearance for then-candidate John Yarmuth who was running his first (and successful) race for Congress, of which I had a part as an adviser, a role I still have in the Yarmuth for Congress campaign apparatus.
I was as excited as I have ever been at the onset of a new presidential administration. I was hopeful for all those people, those million-plus who spilled out into the National Mall on that cold morning, and for those people with whom I had waited in line to vote at the L-113 polling place on S. Shelby Street two months earlier, and especially hopeful for the minorities in the crowd and the young folks who had pushed Barack Obama’s popular vote to over 51%, the first of Obama’s two 51+% elections, the only president to have such a margin twice since Dwight Eisenhower. We were all very hopeful, very excited. It was a good time to be a liberal Christian Democrat, labels I still hold dear, labels I know President Obama also holds dear.
Looking ahead to his departure I wanted to reflect on the eight years which have had mixed results on many fronts. No one can doubt that many people have prospered. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has improved over 150% during his administration, outperforming all but three other presidencies, those of Clinton, FDR, and Coolidge. The job force has seen an increase for 75 straight months. Under President Obama, estimates are that about 15,000,000 new jobs have been created, making him the third best president in this regard in modern history, behind Clinton in first and Reagan in second. More than a few of those jobs came about building and rebuilding parts of America’s infrastructure as part of the “Stimulus Plan” known officially as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. You can see real literal concrete improvements in most any community in the Republic, whether rural, suburban, or urban. However, it must also be acknowledged that many of the jobs created since 2009 have lacked the buying power of the jobs they replaced. Automation and cheap labor overseas have taken a toll on American labor. Kentucky has seen its share of jobs gained in the automotive and related industries while we have also suffered with losses in the coal mines. Obama, and specifically the EPA, gets blamed for the coal losses but that’s simply a GOP selling point. Twice as many coal jobs were lost under Reagan as were lost under Obama. We’ve lost coal jobs under every president, Democrat or Republican, during the last 30 years with the single exception of George W. Bush’s terms of office. It should be said that even in Kentucky the job indices are looking good. The last jobs report dated November 2016 indicated unemployment was below 10% in every Kentucky county save one, Magoffin, for the first time since 2007.
The bright light shining on the Obama administration has been the Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010. Before any discussion of Obamacare, I would ask how many people were complaining about their healthcare costs before Obamacare? Most people would have to admit they were. To be sure, there are problems with Obamacare. The Congress has had almost seven years to resolve those problems but has chosen not to. Could it be that they weighed the good with the bad and determined the good outweighed the bad? I don’t know. For all the talk from everybody on the GOP side to repeal Obamacare on Day One “root and branch” that hasn’t happened and we are quickly getting to Month Two. Obamacare has its detractors, a small few of whom have legitimate complaints about it but many of whom dislike like it mostly because it is Obama’s plan. Personally I’ve always considered it the first step to a more socialized system of healthcare delivery, true healthcare, as opposed to an insurance system, but few people either in favor or opposed seem to understand that distinction. Like so many things, people are either for or against based on the idea that it belongs to Obama. As of tomorrow, it will belong to the new president.
There are other issues where Obama has, in my opinion, done the right thing. Approving federal dollars for stem-cell research might be at the top of that list. The long-term ramifications of this research are unknown but it may be helpful for many generations to come and anytime you can “pay it forward” on such a large scale should be considered a good thing, an honorable thing. Science played a large role in the Obama administration. His Science Fairs for middle-school students were, in a word, cool. I am hopeful that science finds as great or a greater role in the upcoming administration.
I have liked the steady calm delivery of the president. I have liked his passion and emotion. I have liked what I think is his honesty. I have liked his level-headedness and his willingness to speak to Americans across all social and economic boundaries. In listening to him I am convinced that while he is far more intelligent than most of us, he has taken great efforts at communicating with as many people as possible in a way they understand. He is an honest successor to President Reagan as a great communicator.
An honest assessment of the president must include those areas where I find fault with him. Those are mostly on the foreign policy front. Admittedly, I am not all that smart when it comes to foreign policy. A lot of foreign policy in my mind is intertwined with military policy where I believe in a small but strong military but also believe in as little war as possible. The Obama for whom I voted in 2008 seemed to be more aligned with my views on this front than the Obama who served eight years as Commander-In-Chief. Yes, Osama Bin Laden is gone but so are lots of innocent civilians. Yes, we are out of Iraq but we are deeper than ever in Afghanistan. I do not wholly approve of drone warfare although maybe I need to know more about it. I do not completely understand Syria, the Arab Spring, and our responses to that but I do not approve of what we have done or are doing. We misread the events involving Russia and Ukraine and I’m not sure we know where we stand with either country.
And that brings us to Russia.
Russia, the remnant country of the former USSR.
All my life we have been taught that Russia is the enemy. We waited to see who would blink. We crawled under our desks in grade school imperiled by the Cold War. We implored Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” We have been at odds with Russia for decades. Now suddenly we aren’t. Suddenly we’re okay with Russia. I don’t get that. I don’t get that military people I know suddenly have a newfound love for Russia. No one can quite explain it or maybe they just don’t want to.
In the very early morning hours of November 9th, a few short minutes after Hillary Clinton conceded the previous night’s election, I posted a congratulatory note on my Facebook page to President-Elect Trump. I had just gotten off the phone with my longtime friend Preston Bates who, while not supporting Mr. Trump, had precisely nailed the Electoral College down to the First Congressional District of Maine and its separate balloting from the rest of the state a few days earlier. While it is disconcerting to me that in a race where 74,074,037 voted against someone for whom 62,979,879 voted that the lesser-voted candidate won, that is our system. We are a federal Republic of states and our states vote for president, not our residents. I’ve never complained about the Electoral College to my recollection; this isn’t the time to start.
I am hopeful that the new president builds on the job gains made under President Obama. I am hopeful that the new president sees a 150% increase in the Dow Jones Average just as President Obama has. I am hopeful that the new president continues the $831 Billion commitment on infrastructure found in the Stimulus Plan of 2009. I am hopeful that the president continues to work with our science and technology community to find new treatments and medical procedures for those in need. I am hopeful for lot of things. And while I do not share the new president’s agenda in many regards, I do not want him to fail as I do not believe we have the resources to recover.
To “make America great again” is a noble goal. I believe we are a great nation but that there was a time when we were even greater. And in those days there was one major difference, something which has been taken from us and this is the resolve and the idea that the government can and should be a vehicle for the collective improvement of we, the people. To “make America great again” will require a lot of coming together as opposed to tearing apart. And it will require money. Lots of money, first to get out of debt and then a lot more to do the programs the new president wishes to implement.
America is in debt. We first went “deep in debt” under President Reagan when he borrowed-and-spent the Republic down so much as to tripling the National Debt while he was in office. Even Obama hasn’t done that. And beginning with Reagan, who enjoyed a federal tax rate on the wealthiest earners of 50% for most of his presidency, we’ve been lowering that rate and exempting more and more people from taxes. If we go back to the “great times” of Nixon, Ford, or Johnson, that rate is 70%. Lots of people look to Eisenhower as president during America’s golden era. The rate then was 91%. To make America great again will mean paying for it. We are getting the government we are willing to pay for. Simply changing presidents will not make America great again; changing our attitude toward the government will.
So, farewell and thank you, President Obama. Thank you so much. You brought us hope and it mostly worked. And thank you too to Mrs. Obama and Sasha and Malia for their class and graciousness. Finally, Good Luck, Mr. Trump. You’ve made a lot of promises. You will need a lot of luck and hard work to deliver on those promises. That starts tomorrow – or, as you have indicated, Monday.