Jeff’s Blog, Volume 18
The final day of Barack Obama’s presidency deserves a moment of consideration. Over the past month, I’ve read a bunch of essays that review the Obama years, define his legacy, and try to imagine how future historians will rank him. Jonathan Chait, in several essays and a new book, goes for apologia: a resolute defense of Obama as one of the greatest presidents of all time. Chait’s elevator pitch is three-pronged: Obama rescued us from the Great Recession, passed the most important safety net program since the New Deal, and did a bunch of little things, culminating in the Paris Agreement, to turn the tide against climate change. Of these, I think the Affordable Care Act still, even now, has the best chance to stand the test of time. And it was a major accomplishment: mostly for the Medicaid expansion, but more subtly for proving that exchanges don’t really work and thus building the long-term case for single payer. Chait also defends Obama’s grand political philosophy: a flexible, technocratic pragmatism best associated with Rockefeller Republicans (see also Emmett Rensin skewering Chait’s excessive enthusiasm).
Chris Hayes’ review, while mostly positive, suggests a slightly darker angle on Obama’s laudable tendency to be the most reasonable adult in the room. Hayes’ 2012 book Twilight of the Elites is one of the most important texts for understanding the roots of the pessimism and nihilism that led to Trump. During a period when faith in institutions was plummeting, Obama was the consummate institutionalist. He continually preached keeping the faith in the inexorable arc of national progress. The Republican Party’s decision to become the Party of No–“insurrectionists,” as Hayes calls them–was perfectly tailored for this historical moment. They caught a populace with such low expectations that gridlock was tolerable. Candidate Obama–the one with the “hopey-changey stuff”–seemed like the right savior for this era of lost faith. I’m not sure that President Obama, the reasonable centrist, actually was.
Now, it’s important to note that in his second term, once the Republican gambit was fully apparent, Obama was more aggressive in using executive action to circumvent Congress on issues like immigration and climate policy. But he found his progressive footing far too late. Matt Stoller reminds us that by far Obama’s biggest opportunity to help poor and middle-class Americans came in 2009 during the response to the financial crisis. Led along by Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department, the administration put most of the burden on borrowers, encouraged nine million foreclosures that might have been prevented by a HOLC-like cost-sharing program, and put creditors (the banks) first in line for recovery.
There were other failings. An under-discussed development is that the Democratic Party fell apart during the Obama years. The curse of Obama’s unique charisma was that, as Keith Ellison has noted, the DNC became a presidential campaigning tool instead of a national party apparatus. In the last eight years, Democrats lost 12 governors, 13 Senators, 69 House seats, and over 900 state legislative seats. Obama’s Middle Eastern policies inspired praise from few, not even Chait. Jeffrey Goldberg’s long Atlantic article was the best exploration of how Obama thought about when and how to intervene abroad (with great subtlety, as you might expect, and perhaps not enough decisiveness). Finally, most ominously for the future, Obama expanded the power of the state. He continued the Bush administration policy whereby NSA wiretapping is not subject to a warrant. And the practice of killing by drone strike, while cumulatively less lethal than traditional acts of war, is uniquely removed from human guilt and accountability.
For all this criticism, I am conflicted. Like many of us who cast our first ballot in his name, I will always be sentimental about Barack Obama. He holds a unique spot among public figures I’ve followed: the most analytical, the most self-aware, the most literary, the most inquisitive. Those are some of the adjectives I admire most in a person. On a human level, I want to be like him. But take a second look: those are words with which you praise a writer, not a statesman. I predict that the best Obama biography will be one that uses his identity as a reader and writer as the central frame. And so the best way I’ve found to settle the ambivalence I feel about Obama’s legacy is to decide that there are two Barack Obamas: the president and the sage. The sage was on full display in his final address in Chicago last week. He preached open-mindedness, participation, and the obligations of citizenship. He was, as always, funny, insightful, and humane. The silver lining, I think, is that Obama can continue to play his best role–public philosopher–in the post-presidency.
I expect that Obama the president will go down as a tragic figure in American history. Like all great tragic heroes, he was noble, possessed a fatal flaw, was subject to unfair circumstances that compounded it, and suffered worse than he deserved. The flaw, as Stephen Skowronek writes, was his “rational, sensible approach to problem-solving.” Americans don’t want pragmatism. They want the “old Jacksonian idea of redemptive politics, of reconstruction, the idea that we have to make America great again.” I would add a second fatal flaw, rooted in the deepest, most shameful threads of our history: he was black. The more you study American history, the more you realize that slavery and its aftermath are waiting around every corner. In 1998, Tupac said “although it seems heaven-sent, we ain’t ready to see a black president.” In 2008, Nas respectfully rebutted him. Maybe one day the historians will tell us who was right.
Skowronek’s theory of the cycles of presidential history is the most interesting thing I’ve read in Obama’s last days. It is a theory (adapted from a 1997 book) that has roughly characterized the past 200 years (but don’t take it too literally). Presidents come in sets of six:
“Reconstructive” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (to take only the last two cycles) transform American politics in their own image, clearing the field of viable competition and setting the terms of political debate. They are followed by hand-picked successors (Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush) who continue their predecessors’ policies and do little more than articulate an updated version of their ideas. They are usually succeeded in turn by presidents whom Skowronek calls “pre-emptive”—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton—who represent the opposite party but adopt the basic framework of the reigning orthodoxy. Next comes another faithful servant of that orthodoxy (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson; George W. Bush), followed by another preemptive opposition leader (Richard Nixon, Barack Obama) who again fails to overturn it. The final step in the sequence is a “disjunctive” president—usually somebody with little allegiance to the orthodoxy who is unable to hold it together in the face of the escalating crises it created and to which it has no response. The last disjunctive president, in Skowronek’s schema, was Jimmy Carter.
Skowronek’s framework reminds us that Obama was still a hostage of the Reagan era–but he didn’t know it. He was trapped in a world where government is the problem and big business runs the show. The tragic thing about Obama, if you accept Skowronek’s premises, is that he tried to end the cycle of transformation and rebirth. He tried to convince us that we don’t need sweeping ideology, which always divides us; we just need common sense solutions. He may have been right, but we didn’t hear him. He may have been the president we needed, but he wasn’t the president we deserved. The cycle rolls on.
According to Skowronek’s timeline, Trump will preside over a time of crisis. One might expect our society’s towering inequality to buckle under its own weight. Trump won’t look to the Republican orthodoxy to fix the crisis–he doesn’t believe in it:
“The kind of president who reigns over the end of his party’s own orthodoxy is always a guy with no relationship to his party establishment, someone who catches popular mood and says he is going to do it all by himself. Someone like Herbert Hoover, who carefully cultivated his own political brand and image as a “wonder boy”—the guy who can fix anything. Disjunctive presidents are always loners.”
After Trump fails, there may be yet another opportunity for transformation. The question is how much will be lost on the way.
The essay for the moment:
Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within. We are Athens, we are Rome — we are, more than anything, Paris in the 1930s, another society divided against itself, living in what one historian described as “the age of unreason.”
And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown.
We will face a great moment of crisis, after the next major terrorist attack in the U.S. (something no American President could prevent), which will present something like a perfect storm: a thin-skinned, impulsive leader with authoritarian instincts, a frightened public, an environment of permissive racism, and a post-fact information environment. In such a moment basic civil liberties will be at risk: due process will be assailed as “protecting terrorists”; free speech will be challenged as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And that will be the moment when each of us must stand up and be counted, and never forget Tolstoy’s admonition: “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.” Our portion is to make sure that never comes to pass.