August 4th, 2020


Happy Birthday President Obama

On August 4, 1961 (59 years ago today), Barack Hussein Obama II was born, not in Kenya as some have claimed, but in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was the 44th President of the United States, and the first African American to hold the office. President Obama is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Harvard Law Review. He was a community organizer in Chicago before earning his law degree and he worked as a civil rights attorney and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004. He served three terms representing the 13th District in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he lost a Democratic primary race for Illinois's 1st congressional district in the United States House of Representatives to four-term incumbent Bobby Rush.

In 2004, Obama received national attention during his campaign to represent Illinois in the United States Senate with his unexpected victory in the March Democratic Party primary, and his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July. He was elected to the Senate in November. Halfway through his first term as a US Senator, he began his presidential campaign in 2007 and, after a close primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, he won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. He then defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the general election, and was inaugurated as president on January 20, 2009. Nine months after his election, Obama was named the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

During his first two years in office, Obama signed into law economic stimulus legislation in response to the Great Recession. This included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010. Other major domestic initiatives in his first term included the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as "Obamacare". The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was also passed during his first term. The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 was also passed as well.

In foreign policy, President Obama ended U.S. military involvement in the Iraq War. He also increased U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, signed the New START arms control treaty with Russia, ordered U.S. military involvement in Libya, and ordered the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Despite these accomplishments, in November 2010, the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives as the Democratic Party lost a total of 63 seats. After a lengthy debate over federal spending and whether or not to raise the nation's debt limit, Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

Obama was re-elected president in November 2012, defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney. During his second term, Obama has promoted stronger gun control legislation in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and his administration filed briefs which urged the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and California's Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. In foreign policy, Obama has continued the process of ending U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.

In 2015, the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy was an agreement on nuclear arms with Iran. In 2013, Obama's administration opened negotiations with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Negotiations took two years with numerous delays, with a deal being announced July 14, 2015. The deal, titled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saw the removal of sanctions in exchange for measures that would prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. While Obama hailed the agreement as being a step towards a more hopeful world, the deal drew strong criticism from Republican and conservative quarters, and from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Obama's presidency ended on January 20, 2017, when he attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump. In May of 2015 it was announced that a site been selected for his Presidential Library. It will be built on the south side of Chicago. In July of 2016 he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, strongly endorsing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who he described as being more qualified to be president than "me or Bill" (referring to the candidate's husband, former President Bill Clinton).

In February of 2017, Obama went on a holiday which included kite-surfing with billionaire Richard Branson. On March 2, 2017, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum awarded its annual Profile in Courage Award to Obama "for his enduring commitment to democratic ideals and elevating the standard of political courage." The following month, on April 24, 2017, Obama made his first public appearance out of office, at the University of Chicago aimed at the engagement with a new generation as well as an appeal for their participation in politics. On May 4, 2017, three days ahead of the French presidential election, Obama publicly endorsed Emmanuel Macron, stating: "He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears, and I enjoyed speaking to Emmanuel recently to hear about his independent movement and his vision for the future of France." Macron went on to win the election. He has recently traveled to Europe, delivering a speech in Milan, Italy on May 9, 2017, at a food innovation summit. On May 25, 2017, he made a joint public appearance with Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was at Kensington Palace in England where he met with Prince Harry on May 27, 2017. He offered condolences following the Manchester Arena bombing that occurred five days earlier.

On June 1, 2017, after President Trump announced his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, Obama released a statement disagreeing with the decision. During an appearance at the Seoul conference on July 3, Obama said the Paris Agreement "will still be a critical factor in helping our children solve the enormous challenge in civilization."

On September 5, 2017, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. President Obama released a post on Facebook that was very critical of the decision. On September 7, 2017, Obama partnered with former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush to work with One America Appeal to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in the Gulf Coast and Texas communities.

Obama went on an international trip from November 28 to December 2, 2017, visiting China, India and France. In China, he delivered remarks at the Global Alliance of SMEs Summit in Shanghai and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. He then went to India, where he spoke at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit before meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over lunch. He also held a town hall for young leaders, organized by the Obama Foundation. He met with the Dalai Lama while in New Delhi and ended his five-day trip in France where he met with French President Emmanuel Macron, former President Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, later speaking at an invitation-only event on climate issues.

On October 31, 2017, Obama hosted the inaugural meeting of the Obama Foundation in Chicago. He plans to make the foundation to be the central focus of his post-presidency. He has also been working on a Presidential memoir, in a reported $65 million deal with Penguin Random House. As well, the Barack Obama Presidential Center is Obama's planned presidential library. It will be hosted by the University of Chicago and located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. In August 2018, the Chicago Park District began construction of the project, but it suspended in September. The District stated that construction will not restart before a dialogue with federal agencies confirms that work is appropriate. On June 11, 2019, a court granted judgement dismissing the lawsuit to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

A package that contained a pipe bomb was sent to the Obama's home in Washington, D.C, on October 24, 2018. The package was intercepted by the Secret Service during routine mail screenings. Similar packages were sent to several other Democratic leaders. On October 26, 2018, Cesar Sayoc was arrested for the offense. On March 21, 2019, Sayoc pleaded guilty to 65 felony counts, including using weapons of mass destruction in an attempted domestic terrorist attack abd was sentenced to 20 years in prison on August 5, 2019.

In 2019, Barack and Michelle Obama bought a home on Martha's Vineyard. Earlier this year, on April 14, 2020, Obama endorsed his former vice president Joe Biden for president in the 2020 election. The following month, in May of 2020, Obama criticized President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, describing President Trump's response to the crisis as "an absolute chaotic disaster." Trump retaliated by accusing Obama of having committed "the biggest political crime in American history", though he refused to say what he was talking about, telling reporters "You know what the crime is, the crime is very obvious to everybody."

On May 16, 2020, Obama delivered two commencement speeches on behalf of the graduating youth who were not able to go to their physical graduation ceremonies due to the COVID 19 pandemic. He spoke about systemic racism and the coronavirus pandemic, and also on racism. He said "The fight for equality and justice begins with awareness, empathy, passion, even righteous anger. Don't just activate yourself online, change requires strategy, action, organizing, marching, and voting in the real world like never before".

Potus Geeks Summer Reruns: Summarizing Presidential Highs and Lows

In January of 2018, we did a series of articles on the high points and low points of various presidencies. At the end of the month, on January 31, 2018, the summary that is reposted below sought to sort out what lessons could be found in a consideration of what could be learned from times when things went right for presidents and times when they went wrong. Here are our takeaways from that series.

Great presidents are pragmatic. They realize that before great change can be effected, elections and re-elections must be won. Even Abraham Lincoln, dubbed "Honest Abe", knew this. A journal entry written in this community on April 15, 2015, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death, entitled Lincoln's Relevance Today, makes this point:

Lincoln was no saint. He was not a mindless idealist. On the contrary, a study of the man and his actions make it clear that he was first and foremost a pragmatist. He was a man of principle, to be sure, but he was practical and politically shrewd when it came to achieving those principles. For example, be believed in the rights enshrined in the Constitution, but he was not above restricting those rights when he felt doing so was necessary to achieve the greater good. He disallowed a free press when he believed that doing so would impede those seeking to break up the union. He removed the right of habeas corpus (judicial review for some of those arrested and detained) when he felt it necessary. When it looked as if he might lose a close election in 1864, he allowed leave to union soldiers in swing states so they could come home and vote for him. For Abraham Lincoln, lesser principles gave way in favor of the greater.

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This has been true of all successful presidents. They have their eye on the big picture, their ultimate goal, one which will survive the test of time and one for which the citizenry will come to see that it was for the betterment of the nation. For Washington and Lincoln it was the survival of the union. For Theodore Roosevelt it was progressive reform that would protect the common man against the power of corporate conglomerate interests. For Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan it was emergence from economic hardship and the maintenance of global security. For Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, it was preservation of the peace.

Many will disagree about the degree to which each of these presidents have achieved these goals. It is a measurement best taken through the lens of objective history, cleansed from the distortion of political ideologies and partisan politics.

Are there strategies or common characteristics that can be learned from the presidents who have achieved popular support and can these be applied generally or are they unique to their time? Here are some lessons learned from a study of presidential popularity:

1. Popular Presidents are great communicators. Franklin Roosevelt used his fireside chats to successfully bypass the media and Congress and speak directly to the people. Theodore Roosevelt cultivated a very friendly relationship with the media, something that William McKinley, Warren Harding (a former newspaper editor) and Dwight Eisenhower also did very well, but that William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover never learned. Abraham Lincoln used communication in the press as a weapon in war (this story is very well told in Harold Holzer's excellent 2014 book Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, reviewed here in this community). The jury is still out on whether or not Donald Trump's use of Twitter as a means of controlling the media agenda will be seen by history as a success or failure. Lessons will be learned from the 2020 election.

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2. It's the economy stupid: This was a slogan used by the Clinton Campaign in 1992 to defeat a president who had once enjoyed a 90% approval rating. For Clinton, his success in turning deficit budgets into surplus budgets and the success of the dot-com economy kept Clinton's popularity high even as he was the subject of impeachment proceedings. While Presidents can not unilaterally control the economy, it had better be a president's first priority if he or she wants to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. However once again, a healthy economy will not, by itself, make a president popular, and once again, there are still lessons to be learned from the Trump administration which has a president with declining popularity presiding over low unemployment numbers and a very healthy stock market. Lessons are waiting to be learned by those who can set partisan sentiment aside in favor of objective study.

3. If you're going to war, you'd better win it, and quick: It was a prompt victory in the First Iraq War that catapulted George H. W. Bush to 90% approval ratings (only to have the air let out of its tires by the economy - see lesson 2). Early victory in the Spanish-American War, along with a strong economy, insured William McKinley's re-election. Conversely, lingering wars with daily reminders of casualty rates and lack of success contributed to the undoing of Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and George W. Bush. Military success can swell national pride, while loss of life in foreign wars where the objectives are unclear can deflate a president's popularity very quickly.

4. As much as possible, make peace with Congress: This one appears more difficult in the modern age when polarization in politics seems to be past the point of no return. But as history shows, this is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the time of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and was very prevalent during the antebellum period when the political polarization and resentment was sectional. Jimmy Carter went to Washington as a proud Washington outsider. While this position was initially popular, he soon found himself legislatively neutered and a one-term president. Harry Truman won an upset election in 1948 by campaigning against the "do nothing Congress", and while the strategy won him the White House, he left office with a record-low approval rating. Once again, it will be interesting to learn what history will show as the Trump Presidency continues its vocal criticism of those in Congress who fail to tow the party line.

5. Own up to mistakes: This was one of John F. Kennedy's greatest strengths. The nation quickly forgave him for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion after he took personal responsibility for its failure. Ronald Reagan left office with strong popular support despite his admission about his administration's participation in the Iran-Contra Scandal. Even after the Tower Commission personally cleared Reagan himself, he still took responsibility for his administration's actions, telling the nation:

“Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem. You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly — so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”

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Presidential popularity and approval is a fickle friend. It can be lost by circumstances beyond a president's control such as world economic phenomenon or political forces. For those that manage to retain it, history demonstrates that their possession of it is anchored in a strong over-riding goal, the compromise of lesser principles for the greater goal, and an ability to get this message across directly to the people.

If history is an accurate guide to predict the future, the success of the current administration in 2020 will be tied to the maintenance of a healthy economy and keeping the nation out of foreign wars. It will also be based on the ability to communicate this message directly to the people. Leaving aside the potential for scandals or other similar impediments, if it fails in 2020, this will likely be the result of significant losses in this year's mid-term elections and a resulting lack of progress as a result of hostilities with Congress. Looking at the issue purely from the perspective of the study of history, divorced from any partisan or ideological distortion, there are still a lot of unknown factors which prevent accurate crystal ball gazing into 2020.


That's the wonderful thing about history: the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. And that's why it never gets boring.