Barack Obama’s stature will grow ever more impressive in the rearview mirror. We already miss his dignity, his grace, and his intelligence. His presidency was largely a competent, no-drama, scandal-free administration, and it will only gain in esteem as we gag on a presidency rotting, like a fish, from the head down. Donald Trump may be intent on repealing everything Obama accomplished, but he will inevitably ennoble him in the process.
Meanwhile, the predictable flood of Obama retrospectives has begun filling magazine racks and libraries. In his last months in office, Obama himself devoted no small amount of time making his case in interviews and in an extended farewell tour. A presidential memoir is in the works. But none of these are likely to celebrate Obama as fiercely as the early entry provided by Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine.
For Chait, Obama isn’t simply a successful president; he is a transformative one, to be compared to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt before him. Obama “proposed change on a massive historic scale” and “accomplished nearly everything he set out to do,” even in the face of purblind Republican obstruction. For Chait, Obama’s presidency in this way provides the “model of what pragmatic and liberal Americans ought to believe in, how they can achieve it, and a standard around which they can rally in the dark years that lie ahead.” Chait doesn’t simply want us to appreciate the accomplishments of Obama’s years, but to see his politics as the standard by which Democrats should be guided in the future.
Chait makes his case forcefully, in part because he believes Obama can’t get any respect. Republicans loathe him, but even his own supporters among liberals and the left, in Chait’s view, don’t sing his praises loudly enough. For Chait, any reservation about the former president tells us “more about the liberals than it does about Obama.” Liberals, he argues, suffer from a psychological disability: “an infantile rejection” of the compromises inherent in governing. The “realities of exercising power…invariably repulse them”; they have a “reflexive disgust with governing” and find “power itself discomfiting.” If progressives would only just get real—if they could only understand the kind of realpolitik that Chait appreciates—then they too could see Obama in his full power and glory.
The core of Chait’s argument in Audacity is a set of chapters on Obama’s major initiatives: the economic stimulus after the 2008 financial crash, health-care reform, foreign policy, and climate change. But before he turns to Obama as domestic policy-maker, Chait first examines his role in helping to shape US racial politics during his eight years in office and his role as the US military’s commander in chief.