Maybe We Can’t
The query in the title of David Bromwich’s meditation on Barack Obama’s presidency [“What Went Wrong?,” Essay, June] cannot be satisfactorily explored without reckoning with the many liberal Democrats who believed that Obama would be a transformative or uniquely beneficent political figure in the first place.
Obama’s distaste for controversy, his conventionality, and the banal divergence of his actions and words were apparent from the beginning of his center-left campaign. Certain observers at that time were not enchanted by the candidate whom Advertising Age, without apparent irony, dubbed Marketer of the Year in 2008. Ralph Nader noted that Obama had “raised far more money than John McCain from Wall Street interests, corporate interests, and, above all, corporate lawyers,” and then wisely admonished Obama’s voters to “prepare to be disappointed.” Nothing “went wrong” with Obama’s presidency — the mystery worth investigating is why there were not more skeptics on the scene.
New York City
David Bromwich’s essay on the president’s many failures contains some truth, but fails to acknowledge two points: first, the many challenges that Obama faced as a leader attempting to work by consensus rather than decree; second, the impact of a lifetime as a black American. The decisiveness of George W. Bush or Lyndon B. Johnson was missing from this presidency, but how easy would it have been for a person with Obama’s history to act from a position of strength? Obama came to office by building consensus, and his moderate-minded approach to governing is now a critical legacy.
Jennifer Riedl Cross
David Bromwich responds:
Racism is one source of the relentless opposition that many of Obama’s proposals and policies have faced. But whatever the content of the insults, Bill Clinton met with a political opposition comparable in its ferocity. If Obama studied this recent history, he seems not to have learned from it. He referred to the impeachment of Clinton as mere partisan bickering, and in 2010, 2012, and 2014 affirmed his trust that the Republican “fever” soon would “break.” The evasion points to something more unusual than the moderate temperament of a consensus-builder. It suggests a delusion — a fixed false belief. Though Obama gave early signs of his tendency to placate opponents on all sides, nobody could have guessed how thorough a pattern it would become. And the record is contradictory. He showed a prudential respect for the Wall Street orthodoxy in naming his economic team, but he instructed that team to devise a plan for dissolving Citigroup, and then neglected to follow up when his directive was ignored. He carried forward George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates — a step beyond prudence — but later appointed Chuck Hagel. He had lawyers draw up sophisticated rationales for drone killings and the NATO war on Libya that did not depend on congressional approval, and yet he originally nominated Dawn Johnsen (a person very unlikely to have agreed to those rationales) to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Obama withdrew support for her only when the confirmation looked like a hard fight. Why pretend that the extent of his reluctance to fight for things he said he believed in was somehow in the cards all along? It seems to have surprised even him.
Rachel Nolan’s story, “Displaced in the D.R.” [Letter from the Dominican Republic, May], was well researched and important, but I question whether it was best served by a non-Latino writer. Nolan admits that her ethnic identity was problematic when she says that locals found it “rich” that a white American was traveling to the Dominican Republic to write about an act of racial injustice. Are there no Latino or Dominican-American writers qualified to handle such an assignment? In the ethnicity and nationality of its writer, Nolan’s article subtly embodies the culturally sanctioned racial myopia that it critiques.
Considering that we do not live in a world where “color blindness” leads to actual diversity, I encourage publications such as Harper’s to make a more conscious effort to foster that diversity.
New York City
Rachel Nolan responds:
While reporting in the Dominican Republic, I dropped by a bookstore in Santo Domingo and began chatting with the store clerk about the court decision that made 210,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless. I told him it was a topic that I, as an outsider, approached with some caution. The clerk recommended that I handle it “with pincers” or, better yet, avoid it altogether. Dominicans, many of whom travel back and forth to visit family in the United States, are well aware of stop-and-frisk, the pervasiveness of U.S. police brutality, and racial profiling for the purposes of deportation. They asked, why come all the way to the Dominican Republic to write about racism?
A Latin American writer might not have attracted the same hostility or puzzlement during the reporting. The story, however, was about denationalized Dominicans, not the race of the author. I am aware of how I’m perceived when I report stories abroad, but I am much more aware that white North Americans are too often the protagonists of stories about Latin America.