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.
In both cases, Chait’s overstatement of Obama’s greatness is characteristic and ubiquitous. Summarizing his stunning election in 2008 as an expression of a rising multicultural, multiracial, more secular and tolerant America, Chait argues that Obama was not only the product of a new, more progressive generation; he was also “its cause.” And while Chait takes a deserved swat at the Nobel Committee for giving Obama the Peace Prize for “not being George Bush,” he also focuses almost exclusively on Obama’s diplomatic successes, while discounting how he fought wars without end or victory, expanded the president’s national-security prerogatives, unleashed drone attacks on eight nations, condoned the mass surveillance of Americans, and committed the nation to a $1 trillion modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Chait does allow that “undoubtedly, Syria and Libya cannot be counted as achievements for the administration.” No kidding.
Obama is given the same kind of treatment in the chapters on his domestic policy. Each chapter follows a similar form: The president identifies a major challenge—a collapsing economy, a health-care crisis, climate change. He proposes a major reform, usually based on ideas drawn from the “liberal Republican tradition, [which] shaped most of his programs—on health care, the environment, education, foreign policy and other areas.” Despite this, Republicans in Congress reject Obama’s reform proposal out of hand. After a process of negotiation, compromise, and legislative maneuver, the president succeeds in getting much of what he wanted. Somehow, the compromised product of these originally Republican ideas delivers reforms that are “historic [in] scope,” that “changed the economic calculus irreversibly,” that “moved the needle against income inequality.”
Obama did rack up substantial achievements, particularly in his first two years, when large Democratic majorities dominated both houses of Congress. He rescued an economy in free fall, passed the largest stimulus package in history, saved the auto industry, enacted the most significant financial reform since the Great Depression, extended health-insurance coverage to 20 million Americans, and took the first steps in addressing climate change.
But he also restored American institutions rather than restructuring them. Obama’s stimulus helped the recovery (along with the trillions in virtually free money pumped out by the Federal Reserve to the banks, something somehow ignored by Chait), but it didn’t dislodge our austerity politics. His financial reforms rescued the banks but left them more concentrated than ever. His health-care reforms were built on the private-insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations, and hospital complexes that continue to drive up costs. His energy reforms didn’t come close to meeting the minimal standards that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Chait argues that such niggling objections are based on expectations that no actual president could meet. Politics, for him, is about dealing with the balance of forces as given rather than trying to remake them. The interests of legislative barons, entrenched lobbies, and big money must be navigated rather than challenged. The measure of success is how the president manages the inevitable negotiations and compromises. The ways that leadership, movements, history, and even chance can transform political reality are largely ignored in his understanding of politics.
For example, Chait simply disregards the context of Obama’s election, other than to assert that the economic crisis “did not invest the president with new agenda-setting powers,” unlike George W. Bush after 9/11 or Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination. This is demonstrably false: Obama was swept into office with a majority of the popular vote—the first Democrat to win that mandate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The economy was on the edge of an abyss, the Iraq War exposed as a catastrophic failure. The Republican Party had been discredited by the abject failures of the Bush administration; free-market ideologues were in disarray, shattered by the failure of the markets they believed in so fervently. Citizen movements, particularly among the young, propelled Obama into the White House: As Chait points out, voters under 30 supplied virtually his entire electoral margin.
With the utter collapse of the conservative project, Obama had a massive bully pulpit from which to educate Americans about what went wrong, who drove us into the mess we’re in, and how to get out. Yet, as Chait acknowledges, the president “regarded the performative aspects of his job with a contempt he barely hid in public.” He chose not to litigate the past but rather to look forward. Obama had campaigned on the slogan “Yes we can.” But once he made it to the White House, that changed to “I got this.” He saw himself as above not only partisan politics, but also ideological definition. He would be the conciliator, the pragmatist, the one to decide on the proper compromises. He would get the best deal, given the current balance of forces in Washington. As a result, Obama didn’t lose the argument with the right; he chose, for the most part, not to wage it.
The result was a vacuum, too often filled by his opponents’ distortions, hysteria, and racial backlash. The stimulus plan, Obama’s first major initiative as president, is a classic example. He proposed a stimulus that his own aides understood provided far too little to meet the crisis at hand. He then compromised to secure Republican votes and wound up with more than a third of the stimulus as tax cuts. But the extent of the economy’s collapse turned out to be far worse than initially projected, and the Republicans shamelessly abandoned their previous support for the stimulus program, insisting that the rising deficits would turn the United States into Greece. As Chait admits, the “failure to secure an adequately sized response [to the economic crisis] haunted his administration for years to come.”
Chait argues that the mainstream press and establishment economists turned against deficit spending and demanded fiscal responsibility, reinforcing the right. But the president not only failed to address their arguments; he raised a white flag and went over to the other side. By the fall of his first year in office, with the unemployment rate reaching double digits, he began issuing public warnings about deficits, saying that the federal government, like families and businesses across the country, had to tighten its belt. His congressional allies were left without a defense for what they had already done, much less support for passage of another round of desperately needed stimulus money. In early 2010, Obama even created the Simpson-Bowles commission to recommend steps to reduce the national debt.
Democrats went into the 2010 midterm elections without a coherent economic argument, which contributed to the loss of their majority in the House. In 2011 Obama tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Republican House Speaker John Boehner and ended up accepting a deal for a “sequester” that, when it went into effect in 2013, embraced austerity and put a lid on spending. What followed was a far slower recovery, with millions suffering extended unemployment, and the continued decline of social provisions, with domestic discretionary spending dropping to levels not seen since the Eisenhower era.
For Chait, this line of criticism only reflects the delusional folly of a left that doesn’t understand politics. The president can’t simply decree change; he has to deal with Congress, which is filled with its own power centers. However, the question was not whether Obama could win complete reforms, but rather whether he could pose and win arguments that changed how we think about the political economy. A movement politician, Ronald Reagan, did this in his own eight years as president. He came into office facing a Democratic-controlled Congress. Like Obama, Reagan achieved major steps in his agenda: cutting taxes on the rich, deregulating industry and championing privatization, doubling the military budget in peacetime, launching a new Cold War against Russia and covert wars in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Like Obama, Reagan had to compromise, backtrack, and accept limited gains. Yet he waged and won the argument about government: that it was part of the problem, not the solution. He forged a new conservative consensus so prevailing that, when Bill Clinton ran for president, he felt he had no choice but to trim his sails to these headwinds.
Obama arguably accomplished more than Reagan did, but he failed to consolidate a new progressive consensus on the political economy. He embraced austerity over jobs. He described himself as being the only thing standing between the bankers and the pitchforks, then failed to break up their power or even hold any of them accountable for massive fraud. He peddled the same corporate-defined global strategies that Reagan had. While Obama called inequality “the defining issue of our time” in the run-up to his reelection campaign, he never mounted a serious campaign to address it. Disappointed, the young people that had propelled him into office moved to protest—Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers—and 2016 was the result. Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, ran on continuity and lost to an opponent whom a majority of Americans considered unfit to be president.
Donald Trump understood that this economy, even as it neared what economists considered full employment, was not working for working people. While he railed vociferously against all things Obama, vowing to repeal everything from Obamacare to the Paris climate agreement to the Iran nuclear deal, his constant focus was on good jobs. He indicted the “corrupt Washington establishment” of both parties for lousy trade deals and for coddling companies that shipped jobs abroad, while promising a trillion-dollar program to rebuild our decrepit infrastructure, increased military spending, and tax cuts, the deficit be damned. Trump combined this populist appeal with toxic doses of race-baiting politics, slurring Mexicans and Muslims and posturing about law and order.
Bizarrely, Chait maintains that none of this represents a repudiation of Obama. The president remained popular, he insists, and, if the Constitution had allowed it, could have won a third term. Clinton lost not because of her proximity to Obama, but because of voter distrust that was “intensely personal,” shaped by a “second-tier scandal” (a private e-mail server, not her Wall Street ties). “She lost despite, not because of, her association with the popular sitting president.”
The 2016 election was close enough that any number of factors could have made the difference. But Clinton’s defeat was hardly isolated. Under Obama, Democrats lost more than 900 state legislative seats and 11 statehouses, and went from total control of the government in 17 states to just six. Chait blames some of this on young voters, who don’t turn out in midterm elections, and some on geography. But it is bizarre to suggest that Obama has already won the future when his party lies in shambles across the country, and when the many young people who did turn out to vote—at least in the primaries—did so for a self-proclaimed socialist, not for the candidate running on Obama’s legacy.
Chait dismisses Trump as representative of the “historically normal counterattack against racial equalitarianism,” or what Van Jones described as a “whitelash.” Trump’s brazen politics of insult and racial division is the final “deadly death rattle” of a dying Republican Party that “won power” but “lost the future, and…also lost the argument,” Chait assures us, adding: “At the end of the twenty-first century, the vision of American pluralism that is taught to America’s schoolchildren will not be Trump’s…. It will be Obama’s.”
This could very well be true, and one certainly hopes so as we confront four years of a Trump administration. But that possibility will be endangered if the resistance to Trumpism turns into a call for restoration and a return to the politics of Obamaism, which Chait describes as embodied by the former president’s effort to transform “the ethos of the banished moderate and liberal Republican wing—with its support for civil rights and openness to well-designed, market-friendly public solutions to social problems—into a highly effective blueprint for Democratic governance.”
For Obama’s “pluralism” to triumph, the resistance to Trump needs to be combined with a call for a new direction that embraces bold reforms: Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, fair and balanced trade, a green New Deal to rebuild America, empowering workers and holding corporate executives accountable, shackling Wall Street, curbing our militarized global policing, ending the role of big money in politics, and more. It is, after all, the clarion calls of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that inspire the young, not the technocratic, “market-friendly” solutions of Obama and Clinton.
For Chait, this is simply an idle illusion of the left. For most Americans, however, it is utterly essential if we are not only to survive the Trump years but build the movements that can drive a new era of progressive reform.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article implied an inaccurate chronology when describing the 2010 midterm elections. The text has been corrected.