In Search of Obama

Pete Souza/The White House/Sipa via AP Images

President Barack Obama meets with advisors in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. 

Audacity: How Barack Obama Defies His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail
By Jonathan Chait

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Jonathan Chait’s Audacity is the perfect book for anyone in search of a robust defense of President Barack Obama. Taking aim at Obama’s critics on the right and the left, the New York magazine columnist offers a full-throated defense of the former president. In his quintessentially punchy style, Chait provides a thoughtful and compelling case as to why Obama was a transformative president.

The book feels as if it were written at the height of the Democratic primary in March or April of 2016, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were engaged in a brutal left-right competition for the soul of the party, rather than in early 2017 when the world is trying to make sense of President Donald Trump. While Chait spends a good amount of time punching holes in the claims of rabid Republicans who said Obama accomplished nothing of significance, the focus of the work is a frustrated and pointed response to left-wing Democrats who believe that their president let them down. Rather than a passive centrist who settled on middling, market-based solutions to domestic problems, Chait believes that Obama had large ambitions and worked hard to turn them into policy in an extraordinarily difficult political environment. In the end, what’s most important is that he delivered.

President Obama wasn’t perfect, Chait says, but he never promised that he would be. Those who expected perfection and graded him accordingly did so based on a false nostalgia about his predecessors—like Lincoln, FDR, or LBJ—all of whom weren’t as powerful as we often remember them to be.

Chait’s Obama is an audacious commander-in-chief who made great progress on a number of critical policy challenges, including health care, the economy, financial regulation, climate change, and education. In contrast to the public perception, Obama turned out to be a bold risk-taker who was often more willing than his inner circle of advisers to pursue big changes despite the potential political fallout. He even found ways to use Republican ideas to achieve progressive changes.

Chait recounts the many ways that the Affordable Care Act succeeded in expanding insurance coverage and containing costs. The economics of health care forever changed as a result of the policy. Echoing the work of Michael Grunwald, Chait argues that the economic stimulus saved the nation from another Great Depression and revived economic conditions, even if nobody seemed to give the administration any credit for what it had achieved. Dodd-Frank constituted a bold piece of financial regulation that curbed Wall Street’s riskiest and most destructive form of behavior. Chait even depicts more modest programs such as education reform as crucial policy innovations that would have been considered breakthroughs in other presidencies if it hadn’t been for the overwhelming number of other changes that took place.

When Chait turns to foreign policy, his challenge is more difficult. With the rise of ISIS and the chaos in Syria, as well as ongoing Russian aggression, Chait admits that the administration made many terrible mistakes during its eight years. He doesn’t deny the bloodshed and instability that were partially a result of Obama’s poor choices. Yet Chait doesn’t back down from his bigger claim. He correctly reminds us that President Obama drew down our involvement in President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and eliminated some of the most egregious parts of the counterterrorism program, such as ending the use of torture, all while waging an effective drone war against terrorist networks. The Iran nuclear deal was a landmark measure to contain nuclear proliferation. Moving from specific areas to his overall approach to international relations, Chait believes that Obama moved the U.S. government away from the aggressive interventionism that took hold after September 11 toward a more cautious and restrained diplomatic model of foreign policy.

Not only did Obama accomplish much of what he set out to do, but Chait believes that the accomplishments will not easily be undone. Indeed, he uses strong language to argue that those who are warning about the likelihood that Obama’s legacy will mostly be dismantled are wrong: “The fatalistic conclusion that Trump can erase Obama’s achievements is overstated—perhaps even completely false.”

Chait couples his analysis of Obama’s policy legacy with a Whiggish take on his political legacy. Although it is hard for Democrats to muster much of a smile as President Trump and the Republican Congress get to work on an extraordinarily rightward agenda, Chait feels that the Obama coalition of immigrants, African Americans, young voters, educated suburbanites and women does offer a path to success in the coming years. The 2016 election, he argues, was the last gasp of an older vision of America that won’t work as a result of the demographic changes transforming the country. Hillary Clinton’s loss, he says, was not Obama’s fault. “She lost despite, not because of, her association with the popular sitting president.”

And yet, when read in 2017, some of the arguments Chait makes seem suspect. If it is possible to give a president credit for much of the policy success that takes place during his tenure, it is also justified to blame him for some of the political problems that he and his party encountered. Right now, Democrats are looking at a Republican president pursuing a right-wing agenda, working with an extremely conservative Congress that stands a good chance of surviving the usual midterm backlash, and a massive number of Republican statehouses and governors, who are going to do everything possible to protect Republican power at the local level.

That’s not all. During Obama’s presidency, the conservative movement reenergized at the grassroots level with the formation of the Tea Party movement that fueled the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010. Conservatives have also created a vast infrastructure of interest groups and media outlets that provide the right with a permanent institutional stronghold. Even if the Democratic coalition looks like a winning one in the long term, we are all dead in the long run, as Keynes said. Right now, Democrats are not in great shape.

As historians look back at what happened, some of the blame for the condition of the Democratic Party will have to fall on the president’s choices. The organizational strength of the Democrats at the state and local level has withered under bad leadership, as Theda Skocpol has argued. To the dismay of congressional Democrats, the president has not always worked hard enough to help the party amass the resources that it needed to fight an aggressive GOP. His Democratic critics complained that Organizing for America, his political campaign operation, had always focused on Obama over the interests of the party in the states and localities. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Obama does not leave behind a coalition that, at least in the short term, has the muscle to protect what he built.

Obama had an unyielding belief in the potential for bipartisanship and civility. This was the promise of his brilliant speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he questioned the idea of a hardened red and blue America and claimed the divide did not have to be permanent. He continually attempted to reach out to Republicans early in his term, putting compromises on the table even when it became clear that the Republican compromise would never come.

The contrast with Trump, who as president has aggressively appealed to his campaign base as a way to start building pressure on Congress, is striking. Obama didn’t do that, to the frustration of supporters who understood just how vibrant his grassroots appeal had been. When Republicans embarked on a zealous campaign of austerity, or “anti-deficit fervor” as Chait describes it, Obama didn’t offer a full-scale rhetorical response and expose the economic irrationality of their arguments.

In an interview with David Remnick after Trump’s victory, Obama admitted: “We’ve seen this coming. Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”

It is reasonable to ask, why was Obama caught by surprise? Why wasn’t he more aware? Why didn’t he do more to work with the Democratic Party and activists to fight these currents as he saw them gradually building strength?

Some will question whether the design of policies was as sound as Chait argues. It is true that Obama faced enormous obstacles and made pragmatic decisions about what policy design would work best. But, as critics have noted, the way he and his advisers chose to structure the policies did have costs. A key measure for any policy is not simply whether it passes but whether it lasts. Some of the challenges the Obama legacy faces stem from the design of the programs themselves. While it is true that the byzantine methods through which the Affordable Care Act lowered costs and guaranteed insurance were politically shrewd given the obstacles that health-care reform has confronted in the past, the program often made it difficult for beneficiaries to perceive what the program did. It depended on mechanisms such as the subsidies for exchanges and the individual mandate that would offer conservatives juicy targets to unravel the program. The ACA lacked the clear and direct kind of benefit that Social Security or Medicare provided.

The Dodd-Frank regulations, which Chait touts as a major success, were also limited and highly vulnerable to changes in policy by a new administration. Critics, and not just on the left, have pointed out how the design created a significant amount of space for financial institutions to curtail the impact of the programs. The reforms did not do enough to undercut the power of the interests they were meant to regulate; they only provided a framework for governance rather than more specific rules. The flexibility built into the law gave the financial industry more than enough room to maneuver to weaken the effects. Although some risky activity has been curtailed, there is more than enough evidence that Wall Street is on anything but its best behavior. All of the designs created regulatory programs that would be possible to dismantle via a president and cabinet leaders who were not interested, as is now the case, in carrying out the laws. Chait may turn out to be correct. But the programs were not well designed to withstand counterattack.

Chait is also much too dismissive of the left. In his book, the left comes across as a bunch of whiny, unrealistic neophytes who don’t know much about how politics work. In his chapter on revered earlier presidents, Chait means to show that the critics of Obama have little understanding of what actually happened in the past. But for Obama and all other mainstream, pragmatic liberals, the left has been an essential force for generating ideas and creating grassroots political pressure. Historians such as Doug Rossinow and Michael Kazin, whom Chait criticizes, have demonstrated that many of the best moments for liberals—such as the mid-1930s or the mid-1960s—come when the left keeps the feet of the Democratic leadership to the fire, forces issues onto the agenda, and helps create the kind of political momentum that leaders need to overcome political opposition. The left pushes Democrats as a whole to address big questions—like racial injustice or economic inequality—that seem unrealistic or out of bounds, until they are not. If Democrats had ignored the cries of the left, we might never have obtained the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the ACA, for that matter. Chait downplays the role of congressional Democrats and the left in driving the health-care legislation in 2009 and 2010 even when the administration buckled.

Obama’s legacy looks simultaneously greater and more vulnerable as we watch President Trump take his political sledgehammer to Washington. As Chait rightly claims, the policies that he leaves behind are impressive and, should they survive, they will remake the social compact. But will they survive? That’s the burning question right now. If they don’t, his audacity won’t seem so grand. And that is where some of the costs of Obama’s mistakes might prove to be most damaging, if there is no left to defend what he created.


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