Could Obama Have Been Great?

1

Barack Obama came into his presidency as a good guy with good intentions who over the course of eight years made some good decisions. Now he has written a good book about the first four of those years.

Is that good enough?

No. At least it is not for Obama himself and those who believed in him most ardently. Their stated aspiration was not goodness but greatness. At the moment, on the basis of the record as currently understood—and even on the basis of Obama’s own words in A Promised Land, the first volume of his planned two-volume presidential memoir—one has to squint through a lot of haze to perceive that the 44th president has earned a place on the roster of White House occupants with outsize legacies.

Of course, with many presidents, historic status is achieved only over time, as new understandings and arguments emerge. This is one reason presidential memoirs are important. This book is an important primary document on his presidency in a way Obama intended—offering his version of events—and in a way he may or may not have intended, as a window into his mind both as leader and as writer.

The intelligence and earnestness and self-probing mind are obvious on every page. But by the time the 700 pages of narrative conclude—with the remaining five years of his administration still awaiting a subsequent volume—it is clear that these traits don’t always lead to the kind of presidency he wanted. They may even be a mild impediment.

There’s no doubt the kind of presidency he wanted. In his rise to power, Obama and his surrogates frequently invoked Lincoln language and imagery and encouraged the belief that one Illinois politician was a kind of historical descendant of the other. The suggestion was that the president who freed African Americans from bondage was linked in some mystical way with the first African American to rise to the presidency.

In this book, there are again occasional Lincoln references, as well as a helpful reminder from Obama himself of how, in the 2008 contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he taunted the Clintons with his definition of presidential greatness. Bill Clinton had been a fine but faintly consequential president, unlike Ronald Reagan, who had “changed the trajectory of America” in ways that outlasted his term.

Obama set the high bar for himself in A Promised Land in a second way: s a writer. No president since Lincoln had risen to the office so tightly harnessed to the power of words. Just as the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas and the 1860 Cooper Union speech vaulted Lincoln to national power, Obama’s 2004 Democratic keynote address turned him almost instantly into a global celebrity. He was also the first president since John F. Kennedy whose national reputation was so linked to his reputation as a book author. JFK shaped and edited Profiles in Courage, but we now know he wasn’t actually at the keyboard. But Obama’s pre-presidential Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope emphatically bear his rhetorical signature.

All this puts a heavy weight of anticipation on his first post-presidential book, more so than those for George W. Bush’s tightly written Decision Points, from 2010, or Bill Clinton’s sprawling My Life, from 2004. These expectations offer an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between leadership and writing: Both are windows into character.

The greatest Civil War historian of his generation, James M. McPherson, a couple of decades ago wrote an illuminating essay about the greatest memoirs ever written by an American president. The “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” didn’t touch on his presidency. They were about his Civil War experience. In a brilliant piece for the New York Review of Books, McPherson showed how the memoirs helped explain why the North won the war. It wasn’t merely what Grant revealed about Union strategy; it was how he wrote about it. Despite his laconic public reputation, Grant’s late-in-life emergence as a writer “revealed a previously unsuspected talent for pithy, vivid narrative exposition.” This talent, as it happens, was closely linked to the traits of mind and character that made Grant the right commander to lead a Union cause that previously had languished under the wrong generals.

Describing how he prepared the terms of surrender for Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Grant wrote: “When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it.”

“No better advice could be given to any aspiring writer,” McPherson said. (His entire essay is worth reading in full, and worth paying for to gain access to NYRB’s addictive archives.) What’s more, this clarity of purpose is precisely the same trait that made Grant a better commander than others who were more polished or who at the beginning of the war had more illustrious records. As a writer, even as he was ravaged by the cancer that would soon kill him, Grant’s “sentences bristle with verbs of action,” an echo of his instinct for action and intolerance of delay as a commander. The precision of his language as memoirist was foreshadowed by the precision of his battlefield orders to subordinates. That was “no small thing,” McPherson said, since the war “had many instances of vague, ambiguous, or confusing orders that affected the outcome of a campaign or battle.”

How does Obama compare to the Grant standard?

Obama as a writer makes clear: He spends a lot of time in his own head, and Obama as politician and president did the same. He plainly believes if he can adequately explain himself—how smart he is, how conscientiously he agonized over questions, and with such keen perceptiveness about differing points of view—this will cause people to look sympathetically at the decisions he did make.

It worked on me. But fellow writers might not be the most representative audience. The record of his two terms showed that a lot of people—implacable and remorseless Republicans on Capitol Hill, most of all—didn’t give a damn how smart and earnest and conscientious he thought he was.

This opposition became clear in his opening days in office, when Republicans would not pass rescue measures to deal with the cratering economy caused by the failure of the financial system late in 2008 during the closing months of Bush’s term. Once those Republicans rode backlash to Obama—to the financial bailout, to the Affordable Care Act, to pent-up resentment of a Black man in the White House—to big gains in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama never had a fully adequate strategy to regain what he’d hoped would be history-changing power.

He writes that he had expected that passage of the Affordable Care Act, “an item that most affected people’s day-to-day lives,” would be his best shot at “building momentum for the rest of my legislative agenda.” Instead it was his last big legislative victory on a big public policy program. After 2010 he had to rely on the kind of artful improvisation and incrementalism he had once patronizingly attributed to Bill Clinton.

This experience leaves him with a lot to explain. And his determination to explain has indelibly colored the writing process. As he writes in the preface, Obama assumed he could accomplish what he wanted in a memoir “in maybe 500 pages.” He adds, “I expected to be done in a year, but despite my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope.” Now he’s got a whole second book to write.

“He’s a superb writer, but no one would accuse him of being succinct,” said Rachel Klayman, his editor at Crown, told the New York Times, in a quote that sounded a little edgy.

Was it worth it?

There is no doubt he has ratified his status as a writer. This is an absorbing, if somewhat exhausting, tale. His sketches of colleagues like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and Valerie Jarrett, as well as those of adversaries like Mitch McConnell, are stylishly turned. At times the earnestness sounds a bit like a bright student on a college admissions essay—in which the standard art form is to introduce moral crisis and deftly resolve it. So we read of his immersion in Marx and radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, along with acknowledgments that this was partly to impress young women, and how he had always chafed at books which “dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism.” He nods to his efforts to (partially) overcome “a preference for navel-gazing over action.” Sometimes his self-criticism about being too cerebral or detail-oriented in speeches or debates comes off sounding a bit superior, like those people who, when asked to describe weakness, say they care too much or are too impatient with colleagues whose standards are not as high. More appealingly, he almost always demonstrates that he understands the perspective even of those who criticize him.

The one place he never sounds stagey is when talking about his family. He writes often of his devotion to Michelle Obama and his trepidation at the strain his political career and travel commitments sometimes put on his marriage. His joy in time with daughters is fun to read.

These are engaging personal insights, but the success of A Promised Land ultimately will turn on how it affects the historic light in which Obama is viewed.

The book is a reminder of how astonishing Obama’s rise was. He went from a losing congressional campaign in 2002, when he pondered leaving politics, to U.S. senator to a reelected president in just 10 years. Perhaps part of the reason the narrative took so long to write, and plunged into such detail, was Obama needed to process for himself episodes that had cascaded one to the other with such breathtaking speed.

By my lights, the book also narrows the ground on which the long-term debate over Obama will be waged. It would be hard to argue—without being tendentiously ideological or partisan—that Obama was not at least a good president. He coolly handled an economic crisis that, if poorly handled, would have been catastrophic, followed through on his promise to expand health care access to millions of people, ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

It is not hard, though, to construct an argument that in historical terms he is something of a shrug. Of his signature achievement, it is at best a transition. Democrats are divided between believing the Affordable Care Act was only a modest start and needs to be expanded significantly (Joe Biden) and those who believe it should be scrapped and replaced with Medicare for All (most progressives to Biden’s left). He was stymied in his plans to lead a far-reaching response to climate change, and went from calling in a major Prague speech in 2009 for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons to witnessing an effective new Cold War with Russia, complete with an expensive new plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal. The unique circumstances of his multi-racial upbringing gave him special ability to understand America’s racial and class divisions. But these divisions seemed to become only more raw during his time. Far from transforming politics, he was succeeded by Donald Trump—his opposite in values, temperament and aspirations for the country and its place in the world.

It’s also possible to construct an argument that Obama will in due course be seen as a great president. This perception would not rely narrowly on his concrete policy achievements, but would see these as a launching pad for something longer-lasting and more consequential. Theodore Roosevelt is seen as an outstanding Progressive Era president even though many of the actual policies were passed and implemented by William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Might Obama eventually be seen as apostle and evangelizer for a new political era driven by people who were young or even not born yet during his administration?

This era might find at last a creative middle ground on race—something more inspiring and sustainable than the angry identity politics of the Trump era or the naïve fiction that the United States is yet anywhere close to being a color-blind society. It might also build on Obama’s thwarted vision for addressing climate change or restoring American moral leadership in a turbulent world. The nuanced approach to thinking through difficult problems on display in A Promised Land, which sometimes comes across as temporizing, might come to be embraced as the only honest way to engage a complex world.

If so, there is strong reason to hope that Obama comes to be seen eventually as a great president. The alternative to his reasonable, rational, relativistic way of thinking—the alternative to the pluralistic world he seeks—is an angry world driven by people who think like absolutists and haters and zealots.

Making sense of this choice is probably one reason this fluid writer needed still more time for the second volume. It will need to be tighter and more forcefully argued than the first. Let’s hope for that book Obama knows exactly what is in his mind, and expresses it clearly for future generations, so there could be no mistaking his meaning.

View original post