Essay — From the June 2015 issue

What Went Wrong

Assessing Obama’s legacy

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A political virtuoso . . . might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home — having spent a very pleasant evening.

 — Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed — there must be millions of us — will feel that this president deserves a kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.

One of the least controversial things you can say about Barack Obama is that he campaigned better than he has governed. The same might be said about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but with Obama the contrast is very marked. Governing has no relish for him. Yet he works hard at his public statements, and he wishes his words to have a large effect. Even before he ascended to the presidency, Obama enjoyed the admiration of diverse audiences, especially within black communities and the media. The presidency afforded the ideal platform for creating a permanent class of listeners.

Winning has always been important to Obama: to win and be known as a winner. (Better, in fact, to withdraw from a worthwhile venture than be seen not to succeed.) Alongside this trait, he has exhibited a peculiar avoidance of the business of politics. The pattern was set by the summer of 2009. It came out in the way he shunned the company of his own party, the invitations that didn’t issue from the White House, the phone calls that weren’t made, the curiosity that never showed. Much of politics is a game, and a party leader must enter into the mood of the game; it is something you either do or don’t have an appetite for. Of our recent presidents, only Eisenhower revealed a comparable distaste.

Photographs from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign by Ron Antonelli

Photographs from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign by Ron Antonelli

Obama has sometimes talked as if he imagined that, once he moved to the White House, the climb would be in the past. Indeed, some major drawbacks of his first year as president — the slowness in explaining policies and nominating persons to the federal judiciary and other important posts — may be traced to his special understanding of that year’s purpose. It was intended as a time for the country to get to know him. According to a tally published by the CBS correspondent Mark Knoller, the twelve months between January 2009 and January 2010 included 411 occasions for speeches, comments, or remarks by Obama, forty-two news conferences, and 158 interviews. The theory seemed to be that once the public trust was sealed, persuasion and agreement would follow. Mastery of the levers of government was desirable, of course, but it could be postponed to another day.

Meanwhile, Obama’s hesitation in assuming his practical responsibilities was unmistakable; it could be glimpsed at unguarded moments. There was his comment in response to a peevish remark by John McCain during the February 2010 health-care summit, which the president moderated. “Let me just make this point, John,” he said, “because we are not campaigning anymore.” He meant: there are lots of things that we shouldn’t argue about anymore. McCain looked more bewildered than affronted, and his emotion was shared by others who noticed the curt finality of the reply.

Obama meant that the game was over. Now was the time for putting his policies into practice (doubtless with suitable modifications). We had heard enough about those policies during the campaign itself. Postelection, we had left discussion behind and entered the phase of implementation. In the same vein and with the same confidence, he told Republicans on Capitol Hill three days after his inauguration: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” But they could, and they did. The Republicans had an appetite for politics in its rawest form; for them, the game had barely begun.

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has written on civil liberties and America’s wars for the New York Review of Books and other publications. His most recent book is Moral Imagination (Princeton University Press).

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