Governing in Prose: Realpolitik and Idealism in Obama’s First TermRoundup
tags: Barack Obama, Great Recession, Eric Foner, financial crisis, presidential memoirs
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University.
They say it is better to be lucky than smart – and better still to be both. Barack Obama is undoubtedly smart. But his rise to the presidency was also marked by instances, large and small, of good luck. Obama was fortunate to come of age in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, when elite educational institutions, including Columbia College, where he received his undergraduate degree, and Harvard University, where he studied law, were actively recruiting Black students after many decades of racial exclusion. He had the ambition and talent to take full advantage of these opportunities. Fortune smiled on his early political campaigns. When he ran for the US Senate in Illinois in 2004 his main opponent in the Democratic primary had his candidacy derailed when his wife went to court alleging domestic abuse. In the election that followed, Obama’s Republican opponent Jack Ryan withdrew when it was alleged that he had forced his wife to accompany him to sex clubs.
Obama was also lucky when he first ran for president. A few weeks before the election of 2008, the global financial crisis struck, not only inspiring a widespread desire for political change but revealing that Obama’s opponent, Senator John McCain, had virtually no grasp of economics. Obama was also fortunate, given the currents that have since been tapped into, that McCain was a decent man who did not seek to whip up racial resentment against a Black candidate whose middle name was Hussein. How long ago 2008 now seems, when McCain gracefully conceded defeat and commentators spoke of Obama’s victory as the dawn of a “postracial” era. And when it comes to Obama’s hopes for a positive historical reputation, he could not have chosen a better successor. The contrast between Donald Trump and Obama confirms the “law of American presidents” devised by the late British scholar of American history, J. R. Pole: every president makes his predecessor look good.
Americans do not choose their leaders based on literary talent. One of Andrew Jackson’s campaign slogans in the election of 1828 was: “Vote for Jackson, who can fight, not John Quincy Adams, who can write”. But after four years of Trump, many people evidently want to read something more elevated than a cascade of insulting tweets. Thus, Obama’s A Promised Land, a long, elegantly written memoir of his first two years in the White House, appears at precisely the right moment. A one-man economic stimulus plan for a publishing and bookselling industry battered by the pandemic, Obama has seen his volume’s global first print run exceed 5 million copies. Books about Trump sell; books by Obama sell even better.
The shift from an idealist committed to structural change to a pragmatist began almost as soon as Obama became president, with his appointment of a team of economic advisers closely tied to the banking institutions and neoliberal policies that had helped to bring about the financial crisis in the first place. The demobilization of the grassroots movement that had put him in the White House soon followed. Had that movement survived, it might have provided a counter to the right-wing (and often nakedly racist) populism of the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009 to combat Obama’s economic and healthcare initiatives.
Obama frequently expresses irritation in these memoirs with progressive Democrats who pressed for what he considers unattainable initiatives, such as single-payer universal health insurance and the nationalization or break up of the largest banks. He refers to their “carping” and “grumbling”, their “starry-eyed plans”, even while noting that he had “some sympathy with the Left’s indictment of the status quo”. He tells us that before his inauguration he perused books on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s celebrated first 100 days in office, to see how FDR responded to public demands for bold action at a time of economic crisis. Yet Obama’s economic stimulus legislation ended up being far smaller than most economists believed necessary. And his administration seemed to spend more energy bailing out banks and other large financial institutions than assisting homeowners facing foreclosure, or Americans who had lost their jobs.
His task, Obama writes, was not to remake the economic order but to prevent an even worse disaster. In this he succeeded. But Obama has to acknowledge that the bailouts seriously damaged his popularity, a situation exacerbated by the behaviour of bankers reluctant to give up their lavish bonuses even as the economy collapsed. In one of the rare instances of the author questioning his original policy decisions, he now wonders about the wisdom of his emphasis on restoring the pre-crisis system without tackling many of its structural flaws, about whether he should have been “bolder”. He does not provide an answer.