President Obama made these remarks to the New Yorker magazine early in his second term — some thoughtful introspection from a man so often praised for his thoughtful introspection. But history’s judgment of presidents never stops and is never settled. The paragraph of the 44th president will be endlessly reconsidered, relitigated, rewritten.
That paragraph can and should note that he broke the racial barrier in the White House, a historic achievement that no revisionism can diminish. Also, that he prevented a second Great Depression, a feat likely to grow in public appreciation over time. The remaining lines — whether they address health care, climate change or the waning hope for a new tone in American politics — are TBD.
Of course, while legacies are determined in the long run, the polishing begins in the short run. In the final months of his administration, Obama has given lengthy interviews to big-think writers and published meaty essays on health care and criminal justice reform. Another attempt came Tuesday night in his farewell address — “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can,” he declared — and one more will arrive with a post-presidential memoir. Still, he would be hard pressed to produce a more congratulatory appraisal than the ones provided for him by journalists Jonathan Chait and Michael D’Antonio, who have written two of the earliest books taking the measure of Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office.
Together, Chait’s “Audacity” and D’Antonio’s “A Consequential President” will become obligatory references for future historians grappling with the Obama presidency, though mainly as pivot points toward works that are more probing and less celebratory. They read almost as synchronized in their sympathy, methodically reciting Obama’s achievements and minimizing his reversals. Even the election of Donald Trump is not entirely discouraging here — for Chait, it somehow affirms his case. And the authors reserve special disdain for that pesky, unsatisfiable left; at times, the books feel less like assessments of Obama than excoriations of the supporters who feel let down after all that hope delivered less change than they expected.
Legacies often hinge on how presidents respond to the unanticipated (think Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis, George W. Bush and 9/11), but Chait and D’Antonio take a checklist approach, looking back on whether Obama made good on his campaign pledges. “He accomplished nearly everything he set out to do,” Chait writes, “and he set out to do an enormous amount.” D’Antonio, in lockstep, concludes that Obama “reached a long list of goals set during the election campaign and at the start of his presidency.” Fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, financial regulations, renewable energy, military drawdowns — this is the bulk of the terrain these books cover, and they do so thoroughly, if glowingly.
Obama inherited an economy on the brink of collapse, but avoiding that fate, Chait notes, hardly helped him. It was “a substantively gigantic achievement,” he writes, “but politically it would be minuscule.” Presidents get credit or blame for how they deal with crises that materialize, less so for crises averted. Republican opponents would win the spin war “in a rout,” Chait laments, labeling the $787 billion stimulus of 2009 as a big-government pork-fest, no matter how necessary it would prove to sustaining the economy.
The authors also lavish praise on the president’s health-care initiative, stressing not just its increased coverage for millions of Americans but its intellectual bipartisanship: The individual insurance mandate traced back to the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, and Obama’s reform borrowed from the Romneycare precedent in Massachusetts, too. “Obama’s plan to overhaul health care was certainly radical in its ambitions. . . . It was not, however, radical in its methods,” Chait argues. Indeed, he contends that Obama, far from the radical liberalism of which he was often accused, “gravitated toward the liberal Republican tradition . . . on health care, the environment, education, foreign policy, and other areas.” The only problem, he writes convincingly, is that the tradition has been essentially banned from the modern GOP.
In matters of foreign policy, Chait notes gently that Obama “was not transformative.” Aside from the nuclear deal with Iran and perhaps the renewed ties with Cuba, the president’s main achievement was his presumed status as the anti-Bush, which, after all, was enough to win him a Nobel Peace Prize. “Syria and Libya cannot be counted as achievements for the administration,” Chait writes with generous understatement. “How heavily these failures ought to weigh against Obama’s record depends on the unknowable question of whether an alternative strategy might have worked.” Unknowable — so no need to judge too harshly. And while D’Antonio criticizes the president in passing for his “compromises on civil liberties” in the quest for security, he provides boilerplate assessments, such as concluding that Obama deployed a “realistic and flexible foreign policy that restored international respect for the United States and opened new avenues to cooperation and peace.”
In foreign policy and other arenas, these books invariably describe Obama as playing a “long game,” connoting far-seeing strategic brilliance that the rest of us can barely grasp. “The Obama presidency will be seen as the careful, patient application of the powers of office that paid off in ways that were often not evident on the surface — a long game with audacious goals, and a bold willingness to endure short-term costs in order to achieve them,” Chait writes. D’Antonio praises Obama’s “patience and sophistication” and his “multilevel, long-game leadership style.” A few other recurring terms, obligatory in Obama legacy writing: “pragmatic,” “preternaturally calm”and, of course, “cool,” or as D’Antonio writes of the president, “an even cooler level of cool.”
And when that cool, calm mind messes up, it is usually in the best possible way. D’Antonio compresses his criticisms of Obama into a quick final chapter titled “Unfinished Business (and Failures),” though he still gives the president points for his “candid reflections on his disappointments.” And when Chait writes that the president’s decision to negotiate with House Republicans on the debt ceiling was his “greatest domestic blunder” — because it opened the door to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration — he does so in a way that makes the president’s opponents look far worse. “Obama had not grasped the willingness of the Republican Congress to use catastrophe as leverage in a game of chicken to win policy concessions,” Chait writes. So Obama’s sin was simply not realizing how reckless and vicious his political opponents would be.
The behavior and mind-set of the president’s opponents, particularly on the subject of race, is a frequent preoccupation. For D’Antonio, prejudice played a straightforward role during the Obama years. “The burden of his office would be increased by his symbolic role,” he writes, “and by the indisputable fact that some of his fellow citizens were racists and would reject him on that basis.” Chait’s view on race is more complex. He suggests that while Republicans were indeed obsessed with race during Obama’s time, this was not necessarily because of rampant prejudice but rather their own unique sense of racial grievance. “Liberals believed racism lurked invisibly beneath the upsurge of right-wing rage that exploded at the outset of Obama’s first term and never fully disappeared,” Chait writes. “Conservatives believed liberals used accusations of racism to delegitimize all opposition to Obama. Both sides had a point.”
In between stood the president, whose electability “always rested on presenting himself as a racial conciliator, rather than as a spokesman for black victimhood,” Chait writes. This seemed especially true early in his presidency — think of the White House “beer summit” of 2009 — though less so in his second term, as police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement gained greater prominence.
For all the conservative attacks against Obama that the authors fend off, they seem especially eager to go after the disaffected liberals who eventually lost patience with the long game. D’Antonio finds it remarkable that Obama was not uniformly appreciated by fellow Democrats. “Those who expected him to be perfect, struggled to accept that he was, instead, extremely good,” he writes. For Chait, it is a more serious shortcoming, a “congenital liberal failure to accept some of the normal features of legislative give-and-take.” Liberals love protesting the status quo, but they share a “reflexive disgust” with the actual business of governing, he contends. “Liberals found the experience of Barack Obama’s presidency mostly dissatisfying because they find power itself discomfiting. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious — but not with the real thing.”
So they’re disappointed by their presidents in real time, whether it’s Obama or Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy or even FDR. “When liberals judge Obama, or any president,” Chait asserts, “they measure him against a baseline of something very close to perfection.”
In 2016, the right proved unencumbered by such baselines, as Trump’s candidacy put the lie to conservative delusions of small-government purity. “Here was a demagogue whose appeal barely intersected with the right’s abstract ideas about the role of the state,” Chait writes — yet that demagogue won the Republican nomination and then the presidency. Chait has an optimistic interpretation of this outcome. Conservatives, knowing that the country’s demographics and social values were turning against them and toward Obama’s vision, opted not to adapt but to “stage a decisive confrontation” while they still could, obstructing the president at every turn and stoking such anger among the base that, eventually, they wound up with Trump.
“Conservative Republicans won power, but they lost the future,” Chait writes. “Trump is the poisoned chalice of a failed ideology. Obama, not Trump, is destined to supply the model for American governance in the decades to come.”
It’s a neat trick — turning Trump’s victory into an affirmation of Obama’s values, not a repudiation of them. Indeed, while Chait notes that Trump’s presidency could reverse various Obama-era initiatives, particularly involving climate change, he dismisses the notion that the election of a man pledging to unmake Obama’s policies had anything to do with, well, Obama’s policies. This is, in his words, the “myth of repudiation,” concocted solely to justify such reversals.
If this sounds like the conclusion of a writer who made up his mind early about Obama and then spent years defending that position, that’s because it is. “I am not always right. But Barack Obama is a subject I believe I got right, right from the beginning,” Chait, a columnist for New York magazine and before that the New Republic, writes in his acknowledgments. “I concluded early on in Obama’s presidential campaign that he possessed a keen mind, oratorical gifts, and just the right combination of idealism and skeptical, analytic thinking. . . . I criticized him when I felt he deserved it, but mostly I found myself defending and admiring what I concluded early on was an exceptional and historic presidency.” It is a rather remarkable admission for a journalist to make, and I’m not sure Chait grasps its implications. “Audacity” is confirmation bias in book form.
I wish D’Antonio, who in 2015 published a thoughtful biography of Trump titled “Never Enough,” had also had time to revise his manuscript after the election to reflect on the meaning of Trump’s victory for Obama’s legacy; there may be few journalists better positioned to do so. But that may have to wait for another book, many more paragraphs to be written.
In his speech in Chicago’s Grant Park after winning the 2008 presidential election, Obama hailed the endurance of America’s political project: “If there is anyone out there . . . who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” In his farewell address this past week, Obama looked at that same project and saw it threatened and divided. “Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear,” he warned. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
The distance between Obama’s first words as president-elect and his final words as president is vast — as vast as the distance between a leader immortalized with a gleaming monument on the Mall in Washington and one who serves as namesake for a few middle schools. Which of Obama’s two visions prevails will go a long way toward determining his legacy.
Obama has written his paragraph. The fact that Trump gets to edit it suggests that the arc of history is indeed long, but any bend toward justice can prove merely incidental.