EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
There are three different temporal perspectives from which to evaluate the presidency of Barack Obama. There’s the perspective of November 8, when it was widely anticipated that he would hand off the White House to his favored successor and thus cement his legacy. Then there’s the perspective of November 9, when the most shocking electoral upset in American history was accomplished by a man who is in every way—from ideology to temperament to skin color—a repudiation of our nation’s first black president. Lastly, there’s the perspective historians will take decades from now, as they assess Obama’s entire tenure in comparison with what came after it—so long as what comes after isn’t total nuclear annihilation. (I’m joking… mostly.) Obviously, it’s the last of these perspectives that will prove most useful. But sitting here in 2016, I don’t have the luxury of distance, and so I find myself torn between the first two.
How to appraise the presidency of Barack Obama as the specter of President Trump looms? The clearest way to reconcile the two perspectives is to understand how Obama’s presidency, and all that it accomplished, could have led to the election of Trump. I think there are basically two tweet-length explanations:
1. America elected a black man president, and about half the country proceeded to lose its goddamn mind.
2. The white working class realized that the American dream is a sham. Then a con artist promised to restore it, and they bought the con.
This is, of course, not a comprehensive list. This election, decided by about 100,000 votes in three states, was so overdetermined that you can plausibly list two dozen factors that were “decisive.” But allow me to focus for a moment on the second account.
In 2012, I wrote a book, Twilight of the Elites, about the crisis of authority in American life. Noting that America’s trust in its institutions was at an all-time low, I argued that a cascade of elite failure, ever-growing inequality, and declining mobility had brought the nation to the brink of a genuine democratic crisis. There were, I wrote at the time, two basic types of response to this fact. Institutionalists “see the erosion of authority and declining public trust as a terrifying trend,” whereas insurrectionists “see the plummeting of trust in public institutions as a good thing if it can act as a spur for needed upheaval and change.”
Despite his pledge to “fundamentally change the way Washington works,” Barack Obama was always an institutionalist. He ran on the promise of restoring wise stewardship to institutions that had been trashed by the reckless and feckless. Rather than blowing them up, he urged significant reforms aimed at making our institutions more responsive. Standing before the millions who had gathered on the National Mall on the blindingly frigid morning of January 20, 2009, he delivered a kind of institutionalist pep talk: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
As a substantive project, Obama’s institutionalism was, in many ways, a historic success. For all the flaws in his handling of the foreclosure crisis, for all the insanity of the early-onset austerity he agreed to in his negotiations with congressional Republicans, for all the unprecedented obstructionism of that same Republican Congress, the fact is that the United States emerged from the financial crisis in better shape than almost any other similarly positioned economy. By the end of Obama’s two terms, wages were growing at their fastest pace in 60 years, unemployment was down to 4.6 percent, and 20 million more people had health insurance. Life had improved—tangibly, if at the margins—for millions. You could fill a book (indeed, a library) with celebrations and criticisms of the Obama administration, but we grade presidents on a curve, and who since Franklin Roosevelt has been a better Democratic president? Given Lyndon Johnson’s shameful legacy in Vietnam, I think the answer is no one.