Dec/Jan 2017

Top of Barack

Tom Carson


In one of the few waggish moments of Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America (Custom House, $28), Jonathan Chait gently mocks presidential speechwriter Ben Rhodes for having an unrealistic idea of how much text can fit on a bumper sticker. Even so, look who's talking. Audacity itself is pretty darn windy, at least as rock-star souvenir merch goes.

Timed to hit bookstores three days before Obama leaves office, Chait's book is the polemical equivalent of a T-shirt marketed to capitalize on some iconic performer's farewell tour—bragging, in this case, "I was right all along," more or less. (In one way or another, that's what they all say.) Odds are it won't survive a half-dozen trips to the laundromat, by which I mean posterity's eventual judgment of Obama's presidency, but we all know these tchotchkes aren't designed to last.

To whatever extent Obama "transformed" America, future chief executives—and Congresses—could easily untransform it right back, meaning it's a mug's game to try telling snowflakes from cement as yet. That makes Audacity's big claims more than a bit premature except as advocacy for the author's idea of brainy government, with our forty-fourth president getting praised whenever he conforms to it.

Refuting Obama's right-wing calumniators, who won't go near this book with tongs anyway, isn't Chait's main purpose. His real beef is with the liberal purists disappointed that Obama didn't live up to their fantasy ideal of him. That lets New York magazine's house politico play the practical-minded meliorist agog at his own cohort's na´vete.

Yes, it's politics-as-the-art-of-the-possible time again. But we're a forgetful people, so Chait marches his readers through the Greatest Hits, starting with the obvious fact that electing our first African American president was a BFD. If Obama's presence in the White House brought America's racial pathologies back into the open instead of proving we'd eradicated them, as his supporters once fondly if fatuously hoped, it's nonetheless true that younger white voters are now likely to think of their elders' racial prisms as real dinosaur stuff—and "Obama was not only the effect of a new, more progressive generation," as Chait somewhat awkwardly puts it. "He was also its cause."

Next comes Obama's handling of the 2008 financial meltdown he inherited. If that piece of crisis management is seldom remembered as one of his achievements, one reason, as Chait points out, is that presidents seldom get credit for averting a disaster, or even mitigating one—which Obama's $800 billion stimulus bill, passed in the teeth of Republican opposition and media scaremongering, certainly did. (It didn't help that most Americans soon got it confused with the highly unpopular bank bailout rammed through on George W. Bush's watch.) Then it's on to, of course, Obamacare, the signature initiative that even his own advisers were ready to give up on right up until it became the law of the land. And mostly stayed that way, rollout glitches, hair's-breadth Supreme Court approval, and all.

Nonetheless, the stimulus bill and Obamacare only squeaked by because the Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress. Since 2010's Tea Party midterms—six long years ago—Obama hasn't had any comparable legislative victories, thanks to a GOP ostentatiously determined to deny him any by whatever means come to hand, including using "catastrophe as leverage." But Chait wants us to focus on the incremental ways Obama has prevailed, not the big-picture ways he's been stymied. Citing Paul Ryan's eventual concessions in the face of the administration's refusal to yield to debt-ceiling blackmail, he even writes that, as of last year, "the era of crisis and showdowns had ended. Normal, functional governing had quietly returned." That "quietly" is a very nice touch, but tell it to Merrick Garland.

In fact, in his eagerness to contradict Leftworld's bummed-out idealists, Chait's own ostensibly sobersided evaluations of Obama's successes can verge on the Panglossian. Admitting that "wage gains were largely confined to the rich" during most of Obama's term, he points to modest income growth across the board in 2015 to declare that "broad-based prosperity . . . had finally returned," news sure to win the huzzahs of fast-food workers and Uber drivers nationwide. No less bewildering is Chait's assessment of the useful—but hardly decisive—Dodd-Frank bill's efficacy in curbing Wall Street's excesses: "Government worked. The good guys won." (You can safely retire now, Elizabeth Warren: Your work here is finished.)

When Chait can't laud Obama, he doesn't say much at all. Coming to the fairly lame conclusion that "not being George W. Bush may not qualify as the pinnacle of historic achievement, but it certainly beats the alternative," his chapter on foreign policy is the book's shortest. Plainly, that's because Libya, Syria, ISIS, and so on don't exactly shimmer with triumph—although Chait could have made much more of the Iran nuclear deal, a major achievement, and the opening to Cuba, an important symbolic breakthrough. Meanwhile, Obama's vexed relationship with Israel—and specifically, with Bibi Netanyahu—is hardly discussed. The same goes for the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

On its own terms, Audacity isn't a terrible book. After all, Chait is no dummy. But it is a rushed and overhasty one, even to a reader more likely to agree with him than not—too abstract to evoke the flavor of the Obama years, but too sketchy and tendentious to be a valuable analysis of his presidency. Chait seems to have mistaken beating everyone else to the punch for having the last word, which this inflated magazine article in insta-book disguise obviously won't be. Until then, Obama partisans in search of a validating keepsake as their hero exits stage left might do better shopping for something terser and more wearable.

Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan's Daughter (Paycock, 2011).

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