Requiem for a Great America
Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail
(Custom House, 2017)
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election amounted to a cataclysm for American institutions and the norms that underpin the integrity of a liberal republic. History comes on slowly, like an asteroid traveling millions of miles towards a tiny blue dot, and then arrives suddenly. Jonathan Chait wrote a book originally titled Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America. Its new title replaces triumph with optimistic defiance, a feeling liberals should hold fast to for however long it takes. Chait made a few changes to reflect the election outcome, but his fundamental thesis appears to be unchanged. Therefore, I’ve decided to present my review as I wrote it before the election, with only a few light line edits. My review is now an insignificant relic of an era that, for the moment, is eclipsed. In its indifference, history sometimes bequeaths an unexpected depth to inconsequential things. My review now reads much differently than I intended, sometimes at the expense of my slightly younger self. It reads naively, ironically, tragically, and sometimes with newfound prescience. Some facts are still true (e.g. the first sentence of the essay), others are now irrelevant, and others are terrifyingly relevant. Chait’s book, originally meant as a lively tribute to a great presidency and an era of promise, may end up serving as an urn holding its ashes. I hope it also reminds us of what America was capable of doing, and, if we’re willing to fight for it, can do again.
Original draft, written 11/4/16, with light line edits on 11/30/16
As his presidency draws to a close, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are nearly as high as when he was first inaugurated in January 2009. Which is too bad for Jonathan Chait, who thought he was making a contrarian argument with his new book, Audacity. Chait, a liberal political columnist for New York and previously an editor at The New Republic, correctly points out that, in addition to the dogmatic criticism and dismissal from conservatives and Republicans, liberals and Democrats expressed disappointment and even despair through most of Obama’s tenure. Chait writes, “A remarkably substantial number of critics and saddened supporters alike have described Obama and his era as a time of unfulfilled promise, poetry without prose.” Obama was great at giving speeches but ineffective at passing and enacting policy, the consensus opinion went. Chait argues, convincingly, that precisely the opposite is true: “He amassed a record of substantial accomplishment far deeper than even many of his supporters give him credit for,” Chait writes. “It is his poetic qualities that have been found wanting.” Obama was great, even exceptional, at the prose of governing and enacting policy; he disdained, to his own detriment, the poetry of both publicizing those achievements and refuting the crazed, paranoid right-wing propaganda that incessantly mischaracterized and maligned his goals and intentions. Audacity is meant to persuade those tenaciously dispirited liberals to celebrate instead a president that history, Chait believes, will designate as one of America’s best ever. I’m inclined to agree, and I actively rooted for him to make a robust case.
Chait promises that he is writing not as “a lawyer, who brushes aside any inconvenient facts that might damn his client, but as an opinion journalist who takes intellectual standards seriously.” This is a necessary precondition for an honest conversation. Yet he omits enough of Obama’s precedents and actions that should be—probably will be—criticized by liberals for years to come, that I was left with the troubling thought that Chait merely sounded out those words and did not fully take up their meaning.
But first, where Obama succeeded. Coming in for praise are the Obama administration’s actions during the financial crisis, which prevented a second Great Depression; the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, which was originally meant as a derisive tag that Republicans may soon come to regret applying; the administration’s investments in green energy and the Paris Climate Agreement; the restoration of America’s international reputation; the diplomatic efforts with Iran and Cuba; and anti-nuclear proliferation initiatives. Chait also extols some of his lesser-known victories, like ending the corrupt, government-subsidized program of private lending to undergraduate students and the Race To The Top public education program, which achieved substantially more than President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program did at a fraction of the cost.
Those are real accomplishments that will be felt, and likely appreciated, for years to come. But Chait hardly gives equal, or at times any, measure to Obama’s actions that should trouble liberals. For instance, he does not mention the administration’s unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state, its promiscuous use of armed drones (including against an American citizen in Yemen) despite growing evidence of their cruelty and ineffectiveness, the punitive crackdown on whistleblowers and leakers, and, most surprising given Chait’s profession, the administration’s failed efforts to make journalists fair game for prosecution if they report leaked information, which is inherent to investigative journalism. This is a matter of public record. It’s been widely reported, accurately, that the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the archaic 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Edward Snowden does not warrant a mention in Chait’s book, nor Jeffrey Sterling, the now incarcerated ex-CIA officer who told New York Times reporter James Risen—who was also threatened with prosecution—about a stupendously idiotic CIA operation that may have accelerated Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And there is no recollection of the Justice Department secretly obtaining phone records from Associated Press offices and secretly monitoring Fox News reporter James Rosen, whom it ominously labeled a “co-conspirator” for receiving classified information from a source in the State Department. I cannot remember a single mention of Guantanamo Bay, which candidate Obama explicitly promised to close as president.
Additionally, Chait only lightly considers the impact Obama had on the office of the presidency itself, which is pretty standard fare for any presidential legacy assessment. Inarguably, Obama continued where George W. Bush left off and continued to expand the power of the executive branch. As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote in a June 2013 essay, “Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant’s checklist that [Presidents Bush and Obama] provided their successors:
- A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review
- The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial
- Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027
- Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan’s blessing
- Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret—and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations
- The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing
- The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven’t been convicted of anything
- A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order”
Chait does, justifiably, lay a good deal of blame for Obama’s expansion of powers with Congress, which has been under Republican control—control not being exactly the right word for a schizophrenic, self-destructive party—since the disastrous 2010 midterm elections when young liberals, mired in the perception that Obama was failing, did not show up to vote. But an honest conversation would have weighed these detrimental contributions against his beneficial achievements.
Chait is strongest when he lacerates wimpish liberals and the duplicitous cynics on the right. He points out, over and over again, that, ideologically speaking, Obama’s policies were largely derived from a liberal Republican tradition: his healthcare plan was borrowed from Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation, his energy policy ideas were once championed by Romney and Newt Gingrich, and his economic recovery plan was, until he proposed it, the consensus opinion of the GOP. At every turn, the GOP fled from their own ideas rather than work with the president. And this gets at what is perhaps Obama’s most immediate and tragic legacy. Tragic, because it was decided for him the moment he took the oath of office eight years ago, before he made a single proposal. We’ve learned the hard way that we don’t get a black president without white resentment, and Chait deftly traces the “racialization” of our politics to a GOP beset by willful ignorance, obliviousness, and craven myopia. “Obama did not provoke a backlash by passing health care reform or other measures, nor did he fail to consummate possible deals with the Republican Party,” writes Chait. “The revulsion of Obama by the party base was a racialized backlash, rooted more in the president’s identity than his policies [. . .] no different set of policies could have avoided it,” Chait writes. This might partially explain why Obama, a cold-blooded pragmatist, did not bother with the poetry part of the presidency. In any case he was the president this country needed and, even after all the disgraces his opponents have inflicted upon us, the one it still deserves.
Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn. He is currently a graduate student in New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.