Elsewhere: Obama's legacy, Davos

For the last full day of the Obama administration, two retrospectives. The first, published in the New York Times, is by Adam Shatz, who argues that Obama "did not transform the world; the world transformed him."

In a speech to the Turkish Parliament in 2009, Mr. Obama promised that “America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world cannot, and will not, just be based on opposition to terrorism.” Yet that is precisely what happened, even if the “war on terror” was decorously renamed the “fight to counter violent extremism.” The war was based on Special Operations and drone strikes rather than torture and ground invasions, but it, too, was subject to few restraints, and eventually it came to cover a much greater land mass. Styling himself as an anti-terrorist commander, Mr. Obama buried the legalistic multilateralism that he had taught at Harvard. While the drone program began under Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama substantially expanded it. Armed with a “kill list” and the Predator joystick, he could eliminate America’s enemies, while avoiding land wars—or public scrutiny.

Mr. Bush’s occupations provoked liberal outrage; Mr. Obama’s drone war emitted a kind of white noise that most Americans ignored. But the killing of people by drones or Special Operations was not unnoticed in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan or other countries, and did little to win local hearts and minds. In fact, his determination to avoid American casualties, even as he expanded the battlefield, reinforced the impression that for all his talk of cooperation and partnership, he was a pitiless realist.

Shatz concludes that "despite the best of intentions, and for all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of this dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism."

Jonathan Chait isn't having it. In a piece posted yesterday on New York magazine's website, he argues against all those, on both the left and the right, who think Obama is to blame for the "angry new world" Trump represents here in the United States. Chait focuses on Obama's domestic achievements rather than his foreign policy. He judges these a success on their own terms and doubts that Trump will succeed in undoing all of them, whatever his intentions:

Trump’s bid to repeal Obamacare has run into a series of immediate obstacles, beginning with the fact that both the 20 million people who get health care through the law and the doctors, hospitals, and insurers who sell it to them are raising bloody hell about snatching it away. Trump will slow down the green-energy revolution Obama started, but he won’t halt it; the economic logic of affordable clean energy displacing expensive coal, and the diplomatic logic of international cooperation to ratchet down emissions, have taken on a momentum of their own. And the bold actions Obama took to prevent a depression—the stimulus, the bank stress test, and the auto bailout—cannot be undone by definition.

The fashion for blaming Trump on Obama has less to do with any programmatic analysis of the 44th president, though. It is a tic adopted by Obama’s critics—especially those who dislike Trump but wish to vindicate their fervent opposition to Obama. [...]

Meanwhile, as Washington prepares for the inauguration, this year's World Economic Forum is underway in Davos, Switzerland. The mood there is understandably jittery, as business leaders and heads of state contemplate the current backlash against globalization and inequality. According to the New York Times, the anxiety felt by the financial elite has not yet led to much soul-searching. The headline of the Times report says it all: "Davos Elite Fret About Inequality Over Vintage Wine and Canapés":

The answers [to inequality] from the corporate executives who comprised a panel could be crudely boiled down to this: The people who have not benefited from globalization need to try harder to emulate those who have succeeded.

Abidali Neemuchwala, the chief executive officer of Wipro, the global information technology and consulting company that hosted the event along with The Financial Times—and who last year earned some $1.8 million plus stock grants worth an additional $2 million or so—said working people would have to pursue training for the jobs of the future.

“People have to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis,” he said.

No one can reasonably argue against the merits of training (or entrepreneurialism for that matter). The jobs of the future have not yet been invented. New skills will be required to seize them. But nowhere in the discussion was there a mention of tax policy, or addressing the soaring costs of gaining higher education, or access to health care.

In short: "the solutions that have currency seem calculated to spare corporations and the wealthiest people from having to make any sacrifices at all, as if there is a way to be found to tilt the balance of inequality while those at the top hang on to everything they have." The Times notes that one word in particular is rarely heard at Davos: "redistribution." To her credit, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, did mention it in passing, but "then the conversation moved on to other subjects," like the importance of deregulation.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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