Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy that Will Prevail
US: Jan 2017
I am right, I swear I’m right
I swear I knew it all all along.
—Dashboard Confessional, “Vindicated”
In one way, the January 2017 release date of Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy that Will Prevail is ideal for Jonathan Chait. With Donald Trump set to take the oath of office just three days after Audacity‘s release, plenty of people— especially those likely to purchase or at least thumb through Chait’s book—are going to be predisposed to a rose-colored view of the departing president. Obama’s achievements and failures will be debated for decades to come, but in the immediacy of Trump’s election, Obama—who, unlike Trump, has not threatened to keep a registry from Muslims or bragged about sexually assaulting women—looks like the archetype of a great president.
One example from Obama’s last full week in office can serve as synecdoche for the gap in perception between him and Trump. On the same day that Obama gave a thoughtful and tearful speech to reflect on his presidency, a scandal involving Trump allegedly ordering prostitutes for “golden showers” in Russia was reported on by Buzzfeed. The report is unverified, but its juxtaposition with Obama’s speech is illuminating, irrespective of its truth or falsity.
Cast in another light, Chait’s subtitle for Audacity, which emphasizes a “legacy that will prevail”, is suspect. Chait wrote the book before Obama left office, which renders any attempt to predict the probable outcomes of Obama’s legacy highly speculative. More importantly, the most immediate matter following the end of Obama’s second term is the ascendancy of Trump. Were Obama’s legacy so audacious, one wonders how his presidency could have resulted in the election of someone so diametrically opposed to his worldview. Trump can count on the House and Senate, which are run by Republicans, to further his agenda, which largely involves repudiating the Obama legacy.
The terror and fear harnessed by Trump to win the election—which he continues to use to this day—make short-term evaluations of Obama’s legacy prone to two extremes: total adoration or unbridled anger. Comparisons between Obama and Trump will inevitably result in the favoring of the former, but many will (rightly) wonder how, if Obama was so effective at instilling a legacy of good politics, the anti-politics of the Republican party and Trump prevailed in 2016.
Chait’s argument does its best to avoid either extreme. Some overinflated language on the book’s dust jacket belies the slightly moderated but still enthusiastic case therein: “An unassailable case that, in the eyes of history, Barack Obama will be viewed as one of America’s best and most accomplished presidents.” From the outset, Chait frames his case as a balanced one, rather than an attempt to produce an “official history” of the Obama administration. He explains, “My conclusion, while strongly favorable is not entirely so. Obama, like any elected official, made mistakes and endured setbacks.” Building on his legacy of defending Obama in the pages of New York Magazine, Chait posits, “Obama’s presidency is a model of what pragmatic and liberal Americans ought to believe in, how they can achieve it, and a standard around which they can rally in the dark years that lie ahead.”
The “pragmatic liberal”—also known as “incrementalist” or “gradualist” liberal—is a trope that played a major role in the 2016 election. “Pragmatic liberal” is how Hillary Clinton chose to frame herself against the aspirational Democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders. Although successful in securing her the Democratic nomination, it proved ineffective in the general election. Crestfallen Democrats point to Clinton’s nearly three million vote lead in the popular vote as a sign that their messaging isn’t the issue, but if pragmatic liberalism can’t win the Electoral College—as outmoded and faulty an institution as it is—then the concept needs some serious reformulation, which Chait does not do.
Chait is disheartened by Trump’s 2016 victory, but in his view, the election of an administration so diametrically opposed to Obama is just a slight deviation in the arc of history. At one point, Chait brings up the example of “Nader costing Gore the 2000 election”, a favorite (and false) point of centrist liberals looking to deflect blame in the wake of a lost election. Without saying it explicitly, Chait adopts the perilous view that Democrats cannot fail; they can only be failed.
The uncertain success story behind “pragmatic liberal” politics is not merely asserted by Chait, however. Over the course of seven chapters organized by major issues dealt with by the Obama administration—race relations, the 2008 financial crisis, health care, global warming, and international relations—Chait lays out an argument that he believes thoroughly vindicates Obama’s politics. “Obama presented a new vision of America, to the world and to itself,” he says at the conclusion of the book, before then walking back that sentence a paragraph later by saying that Obama never promised (or achieved) a political revolution. Much of Chait’s arguments for Obama’s successful vision vacillate in a similar fashion.
In his concluding chapter, Chait argues, “The revulsion of Obama by the [Republican] party base was a racialized backlash rooted more in the president’s identity than his policies, and despite the hand-wringing of his centrist critics, no different set of policies could have avoided it.” This pointed claim is undercut by much of the first chapter of the book—on the status of race relations under Obama—which is over-cautious in its attempt to wrestle with the dynamics of race in the public sphere during Obama’s presidency.
Chait says that Barry Goldwater was not “personally a racist”, and that “Republican race obsession under Obama is not actual racism… it is, rather, a belief that race has become a weapon against Republicans.” Chait’s fast-and-loose usage of “racism” in arbitrarily distinguished forms—not “personally” racist, but “politically” racist; “actual” versus, presumably, “fake” racism—makes it unclear what he means when he says that Obama faced a “racialized” backlash. The answer is not so hard, despite what these sub-definitions of racism let on. A key sentence is helpful in this regard: “When we see such a disconnect between the depth of the grievances against Obama and the shallowness of their substance, we have to conclude that some other dynamic is at work.” Based on the extent of racialized backlash Chait documents, “racism”—no qualifier needed—looks like a good match for “some other dynamic.”
Chait goes through such lengths to pre-emptively hedge his argument against the “Not all Republicans!” claim that it loses any charge. He states that racial conservatism “is the belief that, at any given period, the balance of actual or threatened power is arrayed against whites”, without providing any sources or historical context for that definition. His definition derives from his argument, a kind of question-begging.
Chait’s struggle with framing the issue of race in Audacity is only one example of a larger issue with framing throughout the whole book. People can debate the data and specifics of the topics he addresses: whether or not Obamacare “worked”, whether current US targets for emission reduction are likely, etc. But many if not most of the issues Chait addresses require much more time to properly evaluate. For example, Chait makes the 2015 Paris Agreement, which he calls “a staggering triumph of co-operative diplomacy” the centerpiece of his chapter on global warming. One can claim that the diplomatic effort itself was successful or unsuccessful to an extent, though of course time will tell if such diplomacy will result in long-term policy change for the countries involved. The actual likelihood that this will help stave off climate disaster, however, is extremely tenuous, insofar as data about climate change continues to roll in.
Dismissively, Chait argues that the Paris Agreement can “...be seen as a glass half full—or, alternatively, half-empty. The environmental community is filled with people who tend toward the latter interpretation, as you might expect of people who spend their days contemplating mass extinction, the flooding of major coastal cities, deadly heat waves, and other unspeakable horrors to be endured by future generations.” If Chait thinks that being pre-occupied with any of those issues—all of which are not just hypothetical but highly plausible outcomes of current climate predictions—amounts to being a glass-half-full cynic, he does not grasp the magnitude of the climate change that has already been set in motion. Here, as in numerous other cases throughout Audacity, Chait seems to be basing his view of Obama’s left critics on the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Prelude / Angry Young Man”. Who this anonymous, apparently uniformly lugubrious “environmental community” is, is anyone’s mystery.
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The best and perhaps only thing a book like Audacity can do is present an argument for a particular framework through which to evaluate Obama’s legacy going forward. Chait does this but takes far too long to do so. He waits until after making the issue-based arguments for Obama’s success, finally introducing his framework in a tellingly titled sixth chapter called “The Inevitability of Disappointment”. In it, he writes, “Eight years of almost continuous disappointment and dismay (or, at best, grudging acceptance), reflect an absence of any plausible standard.” He states this after going through a laundry list of the presidencies since Franklin Roosevelt, in each case showing how each president both never fully lived up to his campaign promises, and also that most Democratic or liberal presidents inevitably drifted rightward to a degree. While “left-wing dissatisfaction produced splinter candidates” like Nader (who he, as previously mentioned, erroneously blames for Bush’s 2000 victory), in reality “only with the perspective of history, and often a series of incremental improvement” does the rightness of the Chait’s centrist and gradualist narrative hold true.
The problems with this exultation of gradualism are many in Chait’s book. First and foremost, he only makes the claim descriptively, rather than normatively; there’s a vast gulf between “This is the way things are done” and “This is how things ought to be done”. Second, he never once entertains a meaningful alternative to politics-as-usual. On the matter of the Trumpish right-wing surge, he argues with doe-eyed utopianism that while the Republicans will undermine some of Obama’s policies, one day “a Democrat [will return] to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and “the legacy of [Obama’s] reforms will be renewed.” Meanwhile, he characterizes the left as a group of “ideological purists” who couldn’t possibly understand the realities of politics. By not entertaining any other vision of politics beyond Republican intransigence and left-wing “contrarianism”, Chait makes it easy for his gradualism to appear comparatively strong, but such is the fate for any argument rooted in straw men.
Third and finally, Chait never grasps with a difficult but convincing argument: perhaps politics in the United States are irretrievably flawed. If the only options by Chait’s characterization are irrationally obstructionist Republicans, starry-eyed idealists on the left, or incrementalist Democrats that continually drift to the right, then what’s needed is not a praising of flawed compromise as revolutionary, but instead a substantial reformulation of politics. Chait provides an excellent quotation to this end, spoken by Jon Stewart: “[Obama] ran on this idea that the system and the methodology are corrupt. It felt like the country was upset enough that he had the momentum needed to reevaluate how business is done. Instead, when he got elected, he acted as though the system is so entrenched that it has to be managed.”
All Chait can muster in response is, “Progressivism developed a century ago out of a desire to cleanse politics of bosses and transactionalism.” He points again to the liberal presidents preceding Obama, including Bill Clinton, who rode in on a wave of hope only to get caught up in Washington’s standard operating procedure. Chait’s argument is anchored on the American liberal’s iteration of the naturalistic fallacy: because politics has been this way, it is good that it remains this way. If this gradualism is unconvincing on the page, it’s even more so in real life. Enough people thought so to elect Trump.
The introduction of this evaluative framework late into Audacity takes whatever momentum Chait could have hoped to build with the preceding chapters and quashes it under a milquetoast defense of politics-as-usual. Incremental liberalism is antithetical to the very title of Chait’s book: there’s nothing audacious about what he concedes has been a predictable pattern in American politics for at least the past century. Chait’s argument can only appear “audacious” if he has an off-the-rails Republican party—which opposed Obama even when he supported policies originated by the Republicans, like The Affordable Care Act—against which he can juxtapose the outgoing president.
On the matter of facts, Chait does admit at times that we must wait for more data to come in, or at least acknowledge that snap judgments post-presidency are impossible: “As with the stimulus,” he says of Obamacare, “it’s unproveable; we cannot know for certain what would have happened to medical costs absent Obamacare.” But when it comes to presenting a bold framework for evaluating Obama in the years to come, Chait mistakes the status quo for progressive politics. This is why it comes as no surprise that he at one point pens the sentence, “Not being George W. Bush may not qualify as the pinnacle of historic achievement, but it certainly beats the alternative.”
In the closing Acknowledgements page of Audacity, Chait writes, “I am not always right. But Barack Obama is a subject I believe I got right, right from the beginning.” This, in the end, is all Chait’s argument amounts to: a book-length rendition of an internet commenter who posts, “First!” In the immediacy of Obama’s departure, all one can say with certainty based on Chait’s account is that Obama did not totally buckle under the pressure of a childish opposition party. That Obama achieved some of his goals in the face of Republican antics is commendable, but it’s not, as Chait would have it, audacious. Perhaps there’s an audacious case for Obama’s legacy out there, but every time Chait tries to find it, all he reveals is how Obama is like the many liberal presidents who came before him.
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