The era of Barack Obama is over. Eight years of liberal governance yielding a surprisingly comprehensive list of achievements. A stimulus program that stanched the bleeding of the Great Recession and set the stage for an extended period of job growth and rapid innovation in key sectors of the economy. A bailout of the automotive industry that rescued millions of jobs and saved an entire region from economic ruin. A health reform law that, despite its flaws and problems, patched critical gaps in the U.S. health care system and extended coverage to millions of Americans. A financial reform law that established strict new requirements for banks and made consumer financial protection a key priority of the federal government. And an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions and spare the world from the worst consequences of global climate change. Within each of these, you could find smaller programs that brought outsize impact, seemingly modest initiatives that, if they happened under any other Democratic president, would be praised as major achievements.
Or at least, that’s the argument New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait makes in his early retrospective on the Obama presidency, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail. And in the wake of recent events—the election of Donald Trump, his inauguration, and his rapid move to implement an ethno-nationalist, plutocratic agenda—it’s almost a comforting argument. As Chait writes, “Barack Obama’s presidency represented one of those great bursts. It was a vision and incarnation of an American future. His enemies rage against and long to restore a past of rigid social hierarchy or a threadbare state that yields to the economically powerful. But he, not they, represents the values of the youngest Americans and the world they will one day inhabit.”
There is no doubt that some portion of Obama’s presidency will endure. Republicans are just now, for example, beginning to see the massive political challenge involved in repealing the Affordable Care Act and upending the health care system as it presently exists. But Chait, in his optimism, understates the force of backlash, of the fierce reaction that always meets progress and often overtakes it, both as it exists and as it can exist. And his confidence that Obama’s legacy will survive gives short shrift to how backlash isn’t just a bump on the road to a better future. It is a lived experience, one that can consume entire lives—whole generations—before the “arc of the universe” begins to move back toward progress.
What’s missing from Chait’s analysis, put simply, is a sense of tragedy. In that he’s not too different from Obama himself, whose soaring invocations of a “more perfect union” often understated the costs of backlash, even as he acknowledged the possibility. Given his place in the landscape of political journalism, however, it’s no surprise Chait makes the same omission. Writing from first the New Republic and later New York magazine, Chait has long been a strong defender of the Obama administration and Obama-style liberalism, not just from the right, but from the left as well. Wary of the dogmatism (and increasingly illiberalism) that now defines movement conservatism, Chait also critiques what he sees as the same when it emerges on the left (or more precisely, to his left).
You could see all of this—his affinity for Obama and support of mainstream liberalism, his optimistic view of the present course of American life, and his wariness toward left-wing critiques—in his 2014 exchange with the Atlantic magazine’s Ta-Nehisi Coates that ranged over topics including welfare reform, the New Republic’s racial history, the notion of a “culture of poverty,” and the question of racial optimism. In that debate, which he recapitulates in somewhat veiled form at the beginning of Audacity, he endorses Obama’s view of racial progress against Coates’ more skeptical and circumspect position. “It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress,” wrote Chait, a line echoed in the book, as he contends that Obama made substantive progress on advancing racial equality. “The growing awareness of racism among liberals during his presidency gave new force and prestige to a belief that racism was endemic not only to [America’s] history but its very character,” he observes. “When liberals bring up the history of American race relations, they usually emphasize how little has changed, rather than how much.”
Chait’s self-positioning in the ecosystem of American politics isn’t mindless contrarianism. It comes from a sincere belief that liberals (and the left more broadly) are too stubbornly fatalistic to see that Democratic presidents, and Obama in particular, make real headway on their goals and priorities, despite inevitable obstacles, setbacks, and failures. “The American state of the present day has a dramatically more progressive cast than it did a half century ago, and it had a more progressive cast a half century ago than it did fifty years before, and on and on. Yet the progressives who produced these victories have lived them as deflating failures. They have made the same errors of perception again and again,” writes Chait.
Audacity is his attempt to correct this error. To show progressives that their pessimism and fatalism is unfounded, and to show that—pace their view of the present—Obama was a success. A huge one. “Obama presented a new vision of America, to the world and to itself. And he had, to a degree hardly anybody recognized at the time, made his vision of a new America real,” writes Chait. But here’s where the problems begin. It’s not that Chait doesn’t have a point—although, this point may have been stronger had Hillary Clinton prevailed in the presidential contest—but that he overcorrects, understating the real political and policy failures that marked Obama’s tenure. He fails to tackle the more sophisticated critiques of the administration, from both the left and the right, typically aiming his counterarguments at Obama’s weakest critics instead.
And so, on the recession and housing crash, Chait spends his time dueling with tendentious and partisan opponents like Amity Shlaes and Charles Krauthammer—who slammed any stimulus as unnecessary and harmful—rather than critics like journalist David Dayen, who argues that the administration dropped the ball on housing relief in a way that prolonged economic pain, undermined the recovery, and contributed to the discontent that nearly derailed Obama’s presidency at several points, and may yet derail his legacy.
You could lodge a similar complaint about Chait’s own treatment of heath care reform in this book. For as much as the Affordable Care Act has been a success—and Chait details all the ways that is true—he gives short shift to glaring problems like inadequate subsidies (premiums and deductibles are still too high for many millions of Americans) and the absence of actual universal coverage. Chait is correct to argue that all major social programs are inadequate at the start (Social Security was threadbare and designed to appease Southern segregationists in the Roosevelt coalition), but that doesn’t erase the impact of what that means in the moment for actual people.
This gets to the general problem with triumphalist narratives, and Chait’s brand of triumphalism in particular. A teleological framing of history tends to discount what it actually means to live through and experience setbacks. The eight-year administration of Ulysses S. Grant saw genuine progress for black Americans. They secured voting rights and won federal protection from racist vigilantes; they elected leaders to the House and Senate, and built thriving communities for themselves. This was dismantled in fairly swift fashion by a backlash of conservative politics and while vigilantism. One way to look at this is to say that, in the long run, Grant’s legacy—and that of those black Americans—survived. The story since that period has been one of slow progress built on those gains and experiences. But the other way to describe it is as a long twilight, where black Americans struggled under the weight of oppression until circumstances and events allowed them to recover and reassert earlier gains. Yes, there was progress, but at the cost of generations of pain and suffering.
Chait’s triumphalism, his teleological view of American history, discounts what it means to experience that twilight. Put in more concrete terms, the fact that Obama’s accomplishments will likely endure—the fact that Donald Trump cannot blot them from the record—will not console the Americans who see family deported, who see children killed by unaccountable police officers, who see the richest Americans siphoning the nation’s wealth for themselves. Even if we recover from the policies of the Trump administration—even if a new liberal era emerges in response—it won’t change what ordinary people suffered through; it won’t restore the loss.
Audacity is a work of triumphalism, hardly diminished by the outcome of the presidential election. And in its confident defense of the mainstream liberal consensus, it fits comfortably into Chait’s oeuvre as a writer and a thinker. Which is to say it suffers from the same overconfidence that led those same liberals—Obama included—to discount the threat of Donald Trump. Committed to a teleology of progress, albeit open to the reality of historical irony, this liberalism lacks a visceral sense of the tragic. That sense of tragedy—that sense that those inevitable reversals engender real pain for real people—is vital. It puts confidence in its proper context, revealing that—even if we are right about the direction of the world—we cannot forget the suffering that comes in those “zigs” and “zags” of history. Perhaps, if liberals like Chait—or even myself—were more attuned to that possibility of profound loss, then maybe we would have better anticipated the present moment and all the pain it promises.
Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail by Jonathan Chait. Custom House.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.
Check out this great listen on Audible.com. An unassailable case that, in the eyes of history, Barack Obama will be viewed as one of America's best and most accomplished presidents. Over the course of eight years, Barack Obama has amassed an array of outstanding achievements. His administration s...