January 22, 2017
Review by Peter Baker
How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail
By Jonathan Chait
240 pp. Custom House. $27.99.
If everything had gone according to plan, these would be valedictory days for President Obama. With the economy humming if not roaring and his approval ratings higher than they were through most of his time in office, Obama expected to take a victory lap, map out his memoir and hand the reins to a like-minded successor to build on his accomplishments.
But everything did not go according to plan, and instead he finds himself bequeathing his record to Donald J. Trump, a man he disdains, who was elected in large part on a promise to take a sledgehammer to anything with Obama’s name on it. Obama is left trying to explain the debacle, salvage what he can from the wreckage and make his case to history that his was still a transformative presidency.
In his corner will be Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and one of the country’s leading progressive voices, who has come to Obama’s defense with “Audacity,” a timely, trenchant and relentlessly argued book presenting the 44th President in terms that he himself would approve. Not only did Obama change America for the better, Chait writes, he also cemented a new policy infrastructure that will resist Trump’s efforts to tear it down.
What is Obama’s Legacy?–On Time Will Tell–Audacity or Mendacity
To be sure, this was a book written largely before the November election with the evident expectation that Hillary Clinton would be preparing to move into the Oval Office, and it cannot help reading that way. After Trump shocked the world with his improbable Electoral College victory, Chait tweaked the text to address the upheaval in American politics. But he did not change his fundamental conclusion or buy into the notion that Clinton’s defeat represented a harsh verdict on Obama.
“She lost despite, not because of, her association with the popular sitting president,” Chait writes. Republicans nurtured the opposite conclusion to justify a demolition of Obama’s new foundation. “The myth of repudiation had a clear purpose: to make it appear both fair and inevitable that the conquering Republican government would destroy Obama’s legacy.”
But, he adds, “the fatalistic conclusion that Trump can erase Obama’s achievements is overstated — perhaps even completely false.” Chait’s point is that “good ideas advance in fits and stops” and that Obama’s presidency “represented one of those great bursts” that will not simply be erased despite momentary setbacks.
Whether that is the case remains to be seen. Certainly in facing the judgment of history, much of the record that Obama will point to is beyond any Republican effort to reverse. He helped pull the country back from the brink of the economic abyss, saved the auto industry, ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and broke the ultimate racial barrier.
Yet despite Chait’s confidence in the durability of Obama’s legacy, other elements of his agenda appear to be in jeopardy. Obama’s health care program, efforts to ease immigration rules, crackdowns on emissions by coal-fired plants, regulations on Wall Street, labor rules intended to improve worker conditions and a free-trade pact with Asia all seem unlikely to survive, at least in the form he prefers. The fates of his nuclear agreement with Iran and his diplomatic opening to Cuba are at least in question, although Trump may ultimately find it harder than he thinks to unravel either.
Other Presidents, of course, have been followed by successors of the other party who in the end sustained their signal accomplishments. Dwight Eisenhower did not undo Harry Truman’s record, nor did John Kennedy undo Eisenhower’s. Richard Nixon, given the chance, left Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society largely in place. Even Obama preserved many of George W. Bush’s achievements, including the vast bulk of his tax cuts, his Medicare expansion, his AIDS-fighting program in Africa and his homeland security architecture.
Trump, on the other hand, is more mercurial, so it is harder to predict how far he will go to wipe out Obama’s imprint on the country. He has sent conflicting signals since the election about his commitment to following through on certain campaign promises while Obama has quietly tried to nudge him away from a radical change.
It could well be that Trump unintentionally helps his predecessor’s case for history as a point of contrast — that whatever Obama’s leadership flaws, his calm, no-drama performance will look better in hindsight to many Americans. At the same time, it raises the question that if Obama was so successful, why do so many Americans feel so dissatisfied and left behind? How could an America that twice chose Barack Obama decide to replace him with Donald Trump?
Beyond noting Clinton’s popular-vote margin, Chait, like others on the left, points to willful distortion by Republicans determined from the start to tear down Obama and cynical news media that were complicit in that strategy. But he also faults liberals who were too willing to flay a president they agreed with because he failed to achieve some impossible standard of progressive perfection.
Indeed, Chait’s book seems more like an argument with the left than with the right. “The yawning chasm between the scale of Obama’s achievements and the mood of his supporters presents one of the mysteries of the era,” he writes. “Its resolution also helps us understand how to judge the Obama Presidency. What would a successful presidency even look like? Would Democrats recognize one if they saw it?”
While Chait agrees that “Obama has not done the job perfectly,” he echoes Michael Grunwald in “The New New Deal” by making the case that his programs will have long-lasting if often overlooked impact. Obama’s fiscal stimulus package, for instance, was “a gigantic success,” not only by helping stanch job losses but also by investing in the future in the form of renewable energy, transportation infrastructure and scientific research.
Likewise, Obama’s health care program covered 20 million more Americans while also producing an “economic miracle,” Chait says, in slowing the rise of medical costs even though premiums for some continued to rise sharply. Obama’s green energy revolution, he adds, has already brought down climate change emissions and “changed the economic calculus irreversibly.” While Obama’s foreign policy may not have transformed the world, Chait concludes, he made incremental progress and avoided catastrophic mistakes.
For disenchanted Obama supporters, this appraisal may seem like a surprise. The Obama who leaves office has traveled a long way from the hope-and-change moment eight years ago. In his early days, he was likened to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, even Ronald Reagan. When things turned dark, he was compared unfavorably with Johnson, Jimmy Carter, even George W. Bush.
“The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline,” Chait says. “Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president — either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.”
Now he will be compared with his successor, and that is a comparison Chait thinks favors Obama. “Trump is the poisoned chalice of a failed ideology,” he writes. “Obama, not Trump, is destined to supply the model for American governance in the decades to come.”
Chait’s argument probably will not persuade many on the right, who still see a president who expanded the size and reach of government at home while undercutting American authority abroad. But it may encourage those on the left and in the middle to come around again to a president they once believed in.
For Obama, that may be enough for now. Deprived of the valediction he had sought in November, Obama may want to keep a copy of Chait’s volume on the night stand in his new home in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood.