Book Review: Jonathan Chait’s Audacity


January 22, 2017

Review by Peter Baker

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AUDACITY
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

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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.

Image result for hillary clinton defeated by trumpThe Gung-ho POTUS  who thinks everything is a piece of cake

“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.

Image result for Hillary Clinton the vanquishedThe Facial Expression that may have caused her the Presidency

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.

John Kerry–We got it right


January 20, 2017

We got it right–John Kerry

“Diplomacy requires creativity, patience and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight. Results are rarely immediate or reducible to 140-character bites. But it has helped build a world our ancestors would envy — a world in which children in most places are more likely than ever before to be born healthy, to receive an education and to live free from extreme poverty”–Secretary of State John Kerry.

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the old.

There are some who see nightmares wherever they look and insist that the entire global system is unraveling and that America’s position as world leader is in precipitous decline.

As the departing Secretary of State, I cannot claim objectivity. But I will leave office convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America’s leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever.

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A major reason is that President Obama has restored assertive diplomacy as our foreign policy tool of first resort and deployed it time and again to advance our security and prosperity.

This is evident, first of all, in our campaign to defeat the Islamic State, also known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. Two and a half years ago, these murderers were on the march across Iraq and Syria. Instead of rushing into a unilateral war, we responded by quietly helping Iraq form a new and more inclusive government, and then assembling a 68-member coalition to support a rehabilitated Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga and other local partners to liberate territory once occupied by Daesh.

We are engaged in a climactic effort to free the largest remaining strongholds in Iraq (Mosul) and Syria (Raqqa). These military steps depended on the diplomatic cooperation we brokered to cut off Daesh’s finances, slow its recruiting and rebut its poisonous propaganda on social media and within the region.

President Obama took office with Iran’s nuclear program racing ahead and our nation under mounting pressure to take military action. While making clear we would do whatever it took to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we started with diplomacy, building the strongest international sanctions regime the world has ever seen, and testing whether Iran would negotiate a deal that could ensure its nuclear program was exclusively peaceful. As a result, without firing a shot or putting troops in harm’s way, the United States and our partners reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which blocked Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and made our nation, our allies and the world safer.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the United States could have responded as we had six years earlier, when Russian intervention in Georgia was largely met with rhetoric alone. But having repaired diplomatic ties badly damaged by the Iraq war, the Obama administration was able to defy skeptics by working with our European Union partners to impose sanctions that have isolated Russia and badly damaged its economy. We also bolstered NATO with a major expansion of our security assistance to allies in the Baltics and Central Europe.

Throughout, we continued to work with Russia when it was in our interest to do so. But because we have stood firm, Russia is now — despite the boasts of its leaders — plagued by dwindling financial reserves, a historically weak ruble and poor international relations.

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Love or Hate Him–Obama served America with distinction, making friends around the world through diplomacy with his charisma, charm and Harvard elegance.

President Obama has made clear to our allies and potential adversaries in Asia that the United States will remain a major force for stability and prosperity in their region. We have rallied the world behind unprecedented sanctions against a menacing North Korea, increased our naval presence in the Pacific, worked with regional actors to support the rule of law in the South China Sea and forged a strategic partnership with India. We also united key partners behind a landmark, high-standard trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that we still believe should be ratified by Congress — all while maintaining an often mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing.

When President Obama took office, efforts to protect our planet from the catastrophic impacts of climate change were going nowhere, stymied by decades of division between developed and developing countries. But our outreach to China led to a series of breakthroughs that made last year the most consequential in the history of climate diplomacy. Building on, rather than backing away from, that progress would allow a historic shift toward clean energy and a chance of saving the planet from the worst ravages of climate change.

The fruits of this administration’s diplomacy can also been seen in our own hemisphere, where we strengthened our position by normalizing relations with Cuba and helped end Colombia’s decades-long civil war. In Africa, we gained friends by training young leaders and led a successful global effort to contain Ebola.

Obviously, we haven’t solved every problem, particularly in the chronically combustible Middle East. But the United States was absolutely justified in stressing the need for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

I also remain convinced that the formula we pursued to end the agonizing conflict in Syria was, and remains, the only one with a realistic chance to end the war — using diplomacy to align key countries behind establishing a nationwide cease-fire, providing humanitarian access, marginalizing terrorists and promoting Syrian-led talks on creating a constitution and democratic government.

The response of the international community to the tragedy in Syria will long be debated. For years, United States officials had those same debates in the Situation Room. Some options, such as an enormous deployment of ground troops, were rightly dismissed. Others, including deploying additional special forces in limited operations, were closer calls. Month after month, we weighed the deteriorating conditions and uncertain benefits of intervention against the very real risks, including deeper involvement in a widening war. While I did not win every argument — no policy maker does — I can testify that all viable ideas received a fair hearing.

I am not a pacifist. But I learned as a young man who fought in Vietnam that before resorting to war, those in positions of responsibility should do everything in their power to achieve their objectives by other means.

I just returned from Vietnam, where smart and sustained diplomacy has accomplished what a decade of war never could: developing a dynamic capitalist society, opening an American-style university with the promise of academic freedom and, perhaps most improbably, strengthening ties not just between our people, but also between militaries that once saw each other as enemies.

Looking ahead, my hope is that the turbulence still evident in the world does not obscure the extraordinary gains that diplomacy has made on President Obama’s watch or lead to the abandonment of approaches that have served our nation well.

Diplomacy requires creativity, patience and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight. Results are rarely immediate or reducible to 140-character bites. But it has helped build a world our ancestors would envy — a world in which children in most places are more likely than ever before to be born healthy, to receive an education and to live free from extreme poverty.

The new administration will face many challenges, like every administration before it. But it will take office this week armed with enormous advantages in addressing them. America’s economy and military are the strongest in the world, and diplomacy has helped put the wind at our back, our adversaries on notice about our resolve and our friends by our side.

Thank You, Mr. President and God Bless You and Michelle Obama


January 9, 2017

President Barack H. Obama–Farewell Message to the American People

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The 44th President Barack H. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

My Fellow Americans,

It’s a long-standing tradition for the sitting President of the United States to leave a parting letter in the Oval Office for the American elected to take his or her place. It’s a letter meant to share what we know, what we’ve learned, and what small wisdom may help our successor bear the great responsibility that comes with the highest office in our land, and the leadership of the free world.

But before I leave my note for our 45th president, I wanted to say one final thank you for the honor of serving as your 44th. Because all that I’ve learned in my time in office, I’ve learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

Throughout these eight years, you have been the source of goodness, resilience, and hope from which I’ve pulled strength. I’ve seen neighbors and communities take care of each other during the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers — and found grace in a Charleston church.

I’ve taken heart from the hope of young graduates and our newest military officers. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch, and wounded warriors once given up for dead walk again. I’ve seen Americans whose lives have been saved because they finally have access to medical care, and families whose lives have been changed because their marriages are recognized as equal to our own. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees, or work for peace, and, above all, to look out for each other.

I’ve seen you, the American people, in all your decency, determination, good humor, and kindness. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I’ve seen our future unfolding.

All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into that work — the joyous work of citizenship. Not just when there’s an election, not just when our own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.

I’ll be right there with you every step of the way.

And when the arc of progress seems slow, remember: America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People.’ ‘We shall overcome.’

Yes, we can.

President Barack Obama

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Ben Rhodes sums up Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy–Engagement


January 19, 2017

Mag - Ben Rhodes - Print Issue

Washington And The World

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/obama-foreign-policy-legacy-ben-rhodes-donald-trump-china-iran-214642

Ben Rhodes sums up Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy–Engagement

Obama’s Foreign Policy Messenger opens up about the world the outgoing President leaves behind—and what Trump could do with it.– Engagement

Michael Crowley: Is there any way to sum up on a bumper sticker—or at least a postcard—what the foreign policy legacy of the last eight years is?

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Obama’s Foreign Policy is Engagement with Beautiful and Brilliant Michelle by his side. She kept him sober, calm, humble and saane. Behind every guy in power is Women greater than himself. Some like Michelle are like Caesar’s wife while others like Malaysia’s Rosmah Mansor are in the image of Lady Macbeth.

Ben Rhodes: A single word I would apply is Engagement. We’ve engaged diplomatically around the world. We’ve engaged former adversaries. We’ve engaged publics. We’ve sought to work through multilateral coalitions and institutions with the purpose of repositioning the United States to lead.

When we came into office, the confidence in U.S. global leadership had severely eroded because of two events: the Iraq War and the financial crisis. This is underappreciated, that the global financial crisis almost did more than the Iraq War to erode confidence in the United States. But the one thing people could always count on us for, even if they disagreed with our foreign policies, was our centrality to the global economic order.

A lot of what we did was to restore the United States at the center of the international order. People have criticized us for presiding over a decline. I think we make the opposite argument: that we were in decline and that we—by both husbanding our resources, investing in our economy, and being opportunistic diplomatically—tried to set the United States up for being in a stronger position in a changing world than where we were when we came in.

Crowley: What surprised you most along the way?

Rhodes: I would say a couple of things. One, the Arab Spring obviously overwhelmed the circuits. There’s an intensity [to the period from] 2011 to 2014, when a 100-year storm took place in three years.1 Two, there is a discordance between the nature of power in the current moment and how Washington thinks about foreign policy that you can only appreciate if you’re in these jobs. A lot of thinking in both political parties was understandably shaped by the 1990 to 2002 window, when the United States had a great deal of freedom of action. We could get anything through the U.N. Security Council that we wanted, with some small exceptions. We could, frankly, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries in a host of different ways. We could count on Russia being on its back foot as we enlarged NATO. We had some time before the Chinese started to try to shape events in their neighborhoods. And we could even have the hubris to think that it made sense to invade and occupy Iraq. What hasn’t changed is the United States is still, by far, the most powerful country. But what has changed is there are other power centers that are going to ensure that there are limits on certain things that the United States wants to do.

Crowley: How do you think history is going to judge the administration’s record on Syria?2 People say it in the same breath as Rwanda. That may or not be fair, but what’s it like to hear that on a personal level?

Rhodes: I went through an evolution on Syria. I came into this job shaped by the post-Rwanda view of liberal interventionism3—suspicious of some amount of U.S. military intervention, but also seized with the necessity of acting in certain situations. I was a vocal advocate of [going into] Libya,4 and in the early days of the Syrian conflict, I was an advocate for military action in Syria. And I believe that I was wrong about that. Everything that I have learned about watching that conflict unfold suggests to me that the president’s refusal to get into a military conflict with the Assad regime was actually one of his best decisions. And I don’t expect that view to be the popular view for a long time, if ever. But he tested every possible option, and at no time was there a viable military option to make things better in Syria.

Crowley: Does that imply that his mistake in the “red line” episode5 was drawing the line in the first place?

Rhodes: Well, drawing the line actually did provide the basis for a diplomatic effort to remove the chemical weapons program peacefully.6 I don’t know how we could have started a military conflict with Assad that we didn’t feel compelled to try to finish by taking out Assad. Even if you do that, there’s no reason to believe that people would have simply reconciled with one another because the United States was a party to the conflict. And never mind the fact that we had no international support. The only country in the world that was prepared to join us was France. And we had no domestic legal basis. We actually had Congress warning us against taking action without congressional authorization, which we interpreted as the president could face impeachment.

Crowley: Really? Was the prospect of impeachment actually a factor in your conversations?

Rhodes: That was a factor. Go back and read the letters from Boehner7, letters from the Republican members of Congress. They laid down markers that this would not be constitutional. If we got drawn into a conflict in Syria without congressional authorization, without international authorization, without international support, you can see very clearly how that could have completely derailed this entire presidency.

Crowley: In the ’90s, Clinton White House officials were basically hugged on the street and kissed by Kosovar Muslims.8 You were confronted by some Syrian activists after a dinner and, reportedly, said that you’re not proud of our policy in Syria.9 On a personal level, what is it like to have people say to you, “Your country has so much power and you have let us down.”

Rhodes: It’s difficult. And again, I’ve thought a lot about the Balkans10 because that is the one example of military intervention that, while complicated, succeeded. But that was in the middle of Europe. You had NATO and the investment of Europeans in seeing it through. We notified Russia as we were bombing. Syria could not be more different. And what I found in general in the Middle East is you aren’t going to make people happy. We cannot resolve the issues internal to these countries. What I feel bad about is the fact that they’re just ordinary people who are caught in the middle of this.

What’s strange is, I met with the Syrian opposition, and often they would argue that we should work with al-Nusra, who we know is Al Qaeda.11 And I’m sympathetic if you’re in a neighborhood where al-Nusra is defending you against Assad. You want us to work with them. But let’s say a U.S. president does that, and then al-Nusra is using weapons that we gave them against us. That’s something you never recover from, right?

Crowley: So with Donald Trump, you worked really hard on the Iran deal, the relationship with China, climate, all kinds of things—and here comes a wrecking ball. That must be an incredibly frustrating feeling.

Rhodes: There are concerns. The world order and American actions in the world have deep wiring. We found that when we came into office. It took us a long time to turn the ocean liner around. If you look at something like climate change, the Paris agreement12 is the framework through which the world is going to deal with climate change, and we built that over seven years. And countries have redesigned their entire energy plans around it. China is not going to, I think, stop its conversion to a clean energy economy because Donald Trump lifts some restrictions on coal plants. The Cuba opening,13 we broke a psychological hurdle that is never going to be fully restored. Our hope is that they continue the Iran deal. If they don’t, the tragedy will not be that we lose a legacy in two minutes.

Crowley: Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a big deal about Trump and the nuclear button. Is that something you’ll leave here worrying about at night?

Rhodes: What concerns me is the things that happen every week. I don’t think people realize how many decisions the president of the United States makes about military action. The Iranians harass some vessel of ours in the Persian Gulf: What do we do in response? There’s shelling around our diplomatic facility in X Middle Eastern country. The Chinese pass too close for comfort by a U.S. Navy ship in the South China Sea. These decisions come all the time, and they’re going to come from Day One. I would be more focused on that. Because a dust-up with the Iranians or the Chinese could get out of hand very fast.

Crowley: You’d never been in government before 2009 and have had this incredible eight-year journey. What was your most amazing or surreal moment?

Rhodes: On Cuba, when I went to the Vatican,14 the cardinal [Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state] and his staff did not know what we were coming there to do. We told them that we were going to restore diplomatic relations and begin normalizing relations. One of the guys who worked for the cardinal, I’ll never forget, started literally crying. And I remember we had this long ceremony in this ornate room, and then I remember walking out into the streets of Rome and being anonymous and thinking, “I know something nobody else knows except for like 15 people. But it’s going to blow everybody’s mind.”

Crowley: You started as a speechwriter but also became a diplomat and a policymaker. But you’ve also become a lightning rod for people who don’t like Obama’s foreign policy.15 You symbolize everything he does wrong in their view. Why do you think that is? And is there something you think people misunderstand about you?

Rhodes: No. 1, part of my job is to be the lightning rod and to take the hits so he doesn’t take them or [national security adviser] Susan [Rice] doesn’t take them, although she took her share. I always volunteered to go out on the worst days.

Crowley: Like when?

Rhodes: Our first declaration that Syria used chemical weapons and after the [November 2015] Paris attacks. I saw that as my job.

Two, I would have the fights that I knew were going to be the most difficult fights. So we challenged convention and we touched the rails in making a deal with Iran or opening to Cuba, and those were the portfolios I took on precisely because I knew they were important to the president. And it was going to be harder for a conventional person to take them on. I had a certain freedom of movement because I’m not thinking about whether I’m going to be confirmable as the deputy secretary of state in four years. I’m thinking about implementing Barack Obama’s agenda.

Third, I guess I’m just young and a different profile and I know that that upsets people, but I always felt that I represented the people who elected President Obama, who were young people and they should have a voice and their worldview is our worldview. They think it’s stupid not to engage people. They don’t know why we wouldn’t make a deal with Iran.

I didn’t come here from fiction-writing grad school. I came here from six years working on the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group with Lee Hamilton.16 But the president wanted a mix of people. And Bob Gates gave him one view and Hillary Clinton gave him one view and John Kerry gave him one view, and I was just one of many different views. It’s not like he stocked his whole administration with people like me. But I think he wanted somebody who hadn’t been shaped by the same amount of immersion in the conventional ways of doing things.

What I take issue with is that we were spinning. We believed in these things. There are very few things I’ve ever been a part of that I believe in more than the Iran deal, and everything I said I believe to be true, and I was trying to make a case about the facts. So this notion of trying to spin things … I’m accused of being political. The issues I worked on were not the politically popular things. If I was political, I would go out there and talk about killing the terrorists. Anybody who knows me knows I spent more time on Burma and Laos. Where’s the political benefit in that?

This is an important thing for people to understand. I became very close to a lot of the under-40 people who are the professionals in the government—foreign service officers, civil servants, intelligence analysts. I think one of the critiques of me is that I thought I knew it all. But I was learning from the enormous resources available within the U.S. government who have a very different view of the world than many of the people commenting on foreign policy from outside of the government. And I’m struck by the disconnect between the people who’ve staffed this enterprise, U.S. foreign policy since 9/11—and some of the people who comment on it.17

Crowley: What are you going to do now?

Rhodes: I’ll write some form of a memoir, one that will also be an argument on behalf of what we were doing. And I’m going to be a Senior Adviser to the President on his international work, including at his foundation.

 

Obama’s Legacy–Optimism


January 15, 2017

The Optimism of Barack H. Obama

Americans will miss Mr. Obama’s negotiating skills on tough issues and the dignity and character that he and his family brought to the White House.–New York Times

Barack Obama is leaving the White House with polls showing him to be one of the most popular presidents in recent decades. This makes sense. His achievements, not least pulling the nation back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, have been remarkable — all the more so because they were bitterly opposed from the outset by Republicans who made it their top priority to ensure that his presidency would fail.

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Many Americans celebrated the election of the first African-American President as a welcome milestone in the history of a nation conceived in slavery and afflicted by institutional racism. Yet the bigotry that president-elect Donald Trump capitalized on during his run for office confirmed a point that Mr. Obama himself made from the start: that simply electing a black president would not magically dispel the prejudices that have dogged the country since its inception. Even now, these stubborn biases and beliefs, amplified by a divisive and hostile campaign that appealed not to people’s better instincts but their worst, have blinded many Americans to their own good fortune, fortune that flowed from policies set in motion by this President.

That story begins on Inauguration Day in 2009. That’s when Mr. Obama inherited a ravaged economy that was rapidly shedding jobs and forcing millions of people from their homes. The Obama stimulus, which staved off a 1930s-vintage economic collapse by pumping money into infrastructure, transportation and other areas, passed the House without a single Republican vote. Republican gospel holds that government spending does not create jobs or boost employment. The stimulus did both — preserving or creating an average of 1.6 millions jobs a year for four years. (A timely federal investment in General Motors and Chrysler, both pushed to the brink during the recession, achieved similarly salutary results, preserving more than a million jobs.)

Mr. Obama’s opponents have had trouble accepting that any of this actually happened. They have not learned the simple truth — a truth clear in the New Deal and just as clear now — that timely and significant federal investment can make a real difference in people’s lives. Or accepted that compassionate and well-designed government programs can do the same. Driven by ideology or envy, or maybe both, Republican leaders have now pounced upon the demonstrably successful Affordable Care Act of 2010, a law that has improved the way medical care is delivered in the United States, providing affordable care for millions and driving the percentage of Americans without insurance to a record low 9.1 percent in 2015. Despite the law’s clear successes, Mr. Trump and Republican congressional leaders have nevertheless declared it a failure, hoping to justify a repeal that would rob an estimated 22 million people of health insurance. The point of following this destructive course can only be to destroy a central Obama legacy — even though doing so will drive up costs and cause havoc in the lives of the newly uninsured.

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With no help from Congress, Mr. Obama has also managed to make progress on issues where nobody gave him much of a chance, notably climate change, which both he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, placed very near the top of their to-do list. Against heavy odds, Mr. Obama first managed to persuade the Chinese to join the effort. This demolished the critics’ argument that he was asking America to do all the heavy lifting. It also made possible the Paris agreement in December 2015, in which 195 nations agreed on a plan that they hope will reduce greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere and threatening the viability of the planet itself.

Americans will miss Mr. Obama’s negotiating skills on tough issues and the dignity and character that he and his family brought to the White House. Beyond that, they will also miss an impassioned speaker whose eloquence ranks with that of Abraham Lincoln. The way he has defended the founding precepts of the United States while also arguing that those precepts have to be broadened to achieve a new inclusiveness has been especially striking, as have his remarks delivered at moments of national tragedy.

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His 2015 eulogy in Charleston, S.C., after a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist slaughtered nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was redolent with history. As always, he viewed the horror through the prism of a seemingly innate optimism about the country’s ability to set aside hatred and move toward a more perfect union.

Mr. Obama never would have gained the office without that unflagging optimism, which inspired a generation of young voters who saw in him a new kind of leader. So it seemed fitting that he would end his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday with them in mind:

“Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair and just and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace; you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”