JANUARY 18, 2017
THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, when I first accepted an assignment to review Jonathan Chait’s forthcoming book, then titled Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America, I came up with what you’ll have to admit was a very good plan. Chait and I had a minor history. We’d disagreed in the past, sometimes in public, and sometimes in a manner unbecoming of professional norms of civility. Readers would expect a sneering takedown, a harangue to leave leftists cheering, liberal eyes rolling, and no minds changed. I was going to disappoint them.
Instead, the plan went, I would take the review as an opportunity to strike a measured tone. The election would be over. Hillary Clinton would be assembling her transition team. As I sat down to read a book no doubt conceived as both a defense of the past eight years and a moral blueprint of the years to come, I would put all my differences with Chait out of mind. I would consider his arguments fully and fairly, and find myself either a convert or, perhaps more likely, discovering anew where we differed. Through this supremely fair review, with its evenhandedness and poignancy, I would demonstrate not only my peerless charity of spirit and unassailable humility, but also prove once and for all that, on every point of moral and political salience on which we have ever differed, I am right and Jonathan Chait is wrong.
But then the people elected Donald J. Trump the next president of the United States, and the plan went to shit. Now, we have a new Audacity on our hands, with a new, predictive subtitle: “How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail.” It is an apology, in the classical sense, coupled with Chait’s vision of a pragmatic, post-Trump liberal program, modeled on the legacy of President Obama. It is not a bad book, precisely, but it is a myopic one, more concerned with salvaging the reputation of liberal technocrats like Chait himself than with advancing a model for future politics.
So here we are, in 2017, without the luxury of calm moral consideration. What, then, does Jonathan Chait believe? More importantly, what does he want?
Audacity, Chait tells us in his introduction, is “not a history of the Obama administration. Nor is it a real-time repository of juicy inside accounts.” It contains no reporting, and is not an “official account of the administration,” but a long-form editorial that “builds its case from information that was already available to the public,” “hiding in plain sight,” often failing to be “understood or appreciated.” It is, Chait says, “a book that makes an argument.” The argument is that Barack Obama was not only successful in many of his major policy goals but audacious, an ambitious risk-taker concealed behind a calm Vulcan exterior. This fact, says Chait, has been ignored by conservative and liberal critics alike, but he intends to set the record straight: Obama “vindicated” the faith of his most optimistic supporters, and his presidency provides nothing less than a template for anyone looking to pass “sensible progressive reforms” in the future.
Chait makes his case in three broad, unofficial sections. The first of these sections is a single chapter on race, “America’s Primal Sin,” and has no evident relationship to the argument that Barack Obama has been profoundly successful in office. It begins with the obvious point that racial attitudes were intensified by the election of the first black president, but then goes further, claiming (by way of a mountain of survey data) that before Obama “racial conservatism and conservatism [were] similar things” but that “during the Obama era, they became the same thing.” “The mental chasm between red and blue America,” Chait tells us, “is, at bottom, an irreconcilable difference over the definition of racial justice.” He then veers off of the implications of that argument in order to remind the reader that, yes, liberals do sometimes allege racism in unprovable cases, so perhaps some degree of conservative resentment and paranoia is justified.
The chapter wraps up with the plausible but not terribly novel argument that, while heightened racial tensions played a major role in the reactionary momentum of Donald Trump, Obama’s presidency has nonetheless had a net positive effect on American racial politics, especially among young people. “Obama was not only the effect of a new, more progressive generation,” Chait claims, “He was also its cause.” Perhaps Chait felt, reasonably enough, that some mention of race must be included in any serious case for Obama’s legacy, but the placement of this chapter (which, despite its extraordinarily strong causal account of racism in the Obama era, does not come up again in the following 200 pages) remains inexplicable. Racial politics are essential to any understanding of the past eight years, and have been explored ably and at length by a variety of authors. But in Chait’s hands they become, so far as I can tell, an occasion to get out in front of routine allegations that he is not particularly sensitive to “identity politics.” He seems to have settled his years-old debate with African-American critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates by recapitulating a kind of Coates-lite account of racial plunder, translated into a cautious Chaitian vernacular.
Audacity’s second section picks up the argument proper. Chait devotes four chapters — the bulk of the text — to reviewing and assessing four elements of Obama’s legacy: surviving the financial crisis, passing the Affordable Care Act, combatting climate change, and navigating foreign policy. The first three of these chapters follow a straightforward plot: we learn that Barack Obama set his mind to reforming some element of American life, despite heavy partisan opposition. After carefully weighing his options, the president proposes a plan: almost always something cribbed from the moderate Republican agenda of decades past. We follow Obama as the GOP launches a borderline psychotic opposition campaign that marshals junk economics, deficit hysteria, red baiting, and frequent hypocrisy in order to justify a level of brinksmanship and intransigence unprecedented in recent history. The walls begin closing in. The press declares Obama’s ambitions dead; advisors and allies urge him to settle. Instead, Obama shifts tactics, cutting a deal or utilizing executive power to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The end result, while not always perfect, is nonetheless “immense,” “bold,” “staggering,” “revolutionary,” “unprecedented.” Time and again, the president pulls off something big, something real, while despairing critics fail to appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishment.
The last chapter in this central section, meanwhile — a quick review of Obama’s foreign policy — deviates from the script. This is the place where Chait makes good on his introductory assurance that his judgment of Obama, “while strongly favorable, is not entirely so.” While it is clear that Chait does not believe Obama’s foreign policy to be a triumph comparable to his domestic achievements (it was not, he says, “transformative”), it is less clear what he does think of it. Chait is not a foreign policy writer and does not purport to be, but even still, the shift in quality and purpose in this chapter is startling. The earlier chapters, at least, are well sourced and amply quoted. Chait is clearly familiar with the past eight years of Capitol Hill intrigue, and it shows in his accounts of, for example, the economics and debate surrounding the stimulus package. Even if his Obama-bests-his-critics tales border on the pat, they do have a predictable and satisfying momentum, from inciting incidents to struggle and resolutions. Here, we find Chait wandering through what often feels like a Wikipedia summary of Middle East policy, landing solid blows on the Nobel Committee (“Obama had been awarded the Nobel Prize for the achievement of not being George W. Bush”) before issuing a mumbly paean to the “widespread admiration for America’s system of government, prosperity, culture, and technological know-how” across the globe. He surveys the administration’s response to Libya and Syria critically only to issue a definitive shrug, unable to articulate what the president could have done differently, offering only that these were “at best, disasters he failed to avert,” “episodes unlikely to be admired or emulated by a future president.” Only a section on the Iran nuclear deal moves with any kind of purpose. Otherwise, the president’s foreign policy legacy is found to be vaguely “corrective”: superior to George W. Bush’s calamities and certainly better than the forthcoming international misadventures of Donald Trump. There is no mention at all of extrajudicial assassination by drone strike.
Finally, Chait enters his final section, the vast majority of which consists of a 40-page chapter called “The Inevitability of Disappointment.” This is where he attempts to flesh out and explain the animating assertion of his whole project: that the Obama legacy has been disparaged not just by conservatives but by liberals and leftists who have experienced his presidency as a “continuous disappointment, frequently spiking onto outright panic” despite the “historic success” of the administration. “A wave of critics from the left cast Obama as helpless before the forces of reaction, or even complicit with them” Chait writes, “While Obama’s supporters may view him more sympathetically, they have tended to adopt an apologetic tone rather than a boastful one, blaming Republicans for his shortcomings rather than crediting his success.” Why? Chait asks. Why can’t they see the obvious?
The answer, Chait believes, is that left and liberal criticism of Barack Obama stems mainly from psychological damage. Liberals, he says,
can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president […] but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president — either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
Left-wing criticism of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it constituted a massive giveaway to the insurance industry, for example, “made no sense from a liberal standpoint, or even a socialist standpoint. Instead, it reflected a kind of infantile rejection of the compromises inherent in governing.” Nowhere does Chait attempt to engage, or even seriously represent the liberal or left cases against Barack Obama. As for comparisons with past presidents, after a long slog through the legacies of Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Lincoln — all of whom, he thinks, succeeded the same way Obama did, in the face of contemporary critics similarly blinded by their purism — Chait concludes what anybody familiar with this work would expect him to conclude. The politics of technocracy and compromise are not only the preferable method of sensible progressives, Chait claims; they are the only methods that have ever brought about significant change. Anybody who does not understand that — even if they were, for example, instrumental in the years of organizing and radical agitation and “unrealistic demands” which made many of these historical victories possible in the first place — is simply not serious about politics. His critics dispensed with, Chait moves on to a final chapter, “Obama’s America,” that functions as a kind of valedictory: Obama was excellent, his legacy will endure, and the young people raised under his exceptional stewardship will be the ones who make it happen. Trump is a setback. The future is with the children. Good night, and good luck.
Although Audacity has grand ambitions, starting with its publication date — Chait is the first in the door with a full-throated defense of the Obama administration — the book is largely an extension of familiar arguments Chait has been developing for years, first at the New Republic and now at New York Magazine. All his usual tendencies and tics are there. For Chait, nearly all important political action occurs in Washington. The stories of health care reform, climate change, et cetera, are the stories of presidents and senators and lobbyists, dueling it out in the major, respectable magazines. When the world outside exists, it is strange and vaguely menacing: the barbarian hordes of Tea Party activists massing in the summer of 2010, or the “surprisingly” numerous supporters of Bernie Sanders. They are “people who don’t watch conventions or follow political news closely,” of whom “there are a lot more […] than you might think.” (Than who might think, precisely?)
Throughout Audacity, we find Chait’s usual dismissal of left-wing politics, and the “cynical, fashionable” types that aren’t satisfied with the wonders technocracy has wrought. The book is full of digs at the likes of Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders, at “despairing” and “powerless” leftists and liberals incentivized to “downplay progress for fear of encouraging complacency.” Some are merely cynics without the president’s “keen understanding of history,” stupidly “mocking” Obama’s invocation of Martin Luther King on the moral arc of the universe. Others, like those in the environmental community who argue that the Paris Agreement is not nearly adequate to the task of averting catastrophic global warming, are once again the victims of self-inflicted psychological dysfunction: “glass half-empty” types, as you might expect “of people who spend their days contemplating mass extinctions, the flooding of major coastal cities, deadly heat waves, and other unspeakable horrors.”
Such damaged souls are never worthy debating partners for Chait; how could they be? They haven’t even got a Senate majority. Moreover, their proposals tend to rely on a degree of political imagination that Chait has always found suspect, part of the churning mass of Marxists, socialists, PC college kids, and overly idealistic bloggers he has been conflating for years. Political possibility is confined to the eminently feasible. History always works itself out to correspond with the sensibilities that govern contemporary American politics. The terms are set within a narrow corridor of debate, where tiny tactical victories — not transcendence or revolution — are the essence of audacity.
Republicans, who do have political power to be reckoned with, receive the same condescending treatment Chait has always given them. Conservatives, he says, “have been strangers to doubt, immune to self correction, and able to maintain unwavering opposition.” Whether this stems from their ideological blindness, stupidity, duplicity, or some combination of the three depends on what story Chait is telling, but the basic account — that political conflict is reducible to epistemological differences, with moderate-liberals possessing a monopoly on empirical reason — dates back to at least his notorious 2005 essay “Fact Finders” and has continued through his election post-mortems this year.
There is also the question of style which, I know, is not really the point of a book like Audacity, but so long as political pundits are going to keep getting these publishing deals, somebody must, for the sake of our collective sanity, make them develop a style capable of sustaining an entire book. The dry, slogging, immediate-but-not-intimate voice that works so well in 800-word bursts of workaday wonkery is just unbearable when stretched over hundreds of pages. I do not need Jonathan Chait to be James Baldwin, but I am not exaggerating when I say that every chapter in Audacity save one begins with a variation on “On DATE, YEAR, Barack Obama did something, in general, that is relevant to our next topic.” Throughout, Chait asserts, explains, and condescends, but cannot really sing enough to even hector. I do not believe I am being petty. Chait faults Obama for failing to find adequate “poetry” for conveying his accomplishments, but it’s telling that Chait cannot find such poetry either.
Audacity is at its best in those central chapters documenting Obama’s efforts to save the economy, pass the Affordable Care Act, and protect the environment. For the most part, these stories play to Chait’s strengths. They are about Washington politics. Their villains are Republican leadership, a group familiar enough for Chait to understand but mendacious enough that even his centrist trepidations don’t stand in the way of his fury. The story, we’ve seen, is a little pat, bordering on the superficial, but as a defense of the Obama administration at 200 pages, these vignettes make a fine entry into the canon of a liberal editorialist. Those of us with alternative political convictions might object that Chait’s focus is too narrow (why are the left-wing activists who made even those reforms possible excluded from credit?), that he glosses over major shortcomings in the Obama legacy without even bothering to defend them (drones, detention centers, mass surveillance, a hostility toward whistleblowers and press bordering on paranoia), or that he paints an unjustifiably rosy picture of those accomplishments (despite claims that Obama saved the economy in an unprecedented manner and blew away even the wildest expectations for job growth, over 90 percent of new jobs have been temporary while unions grow weaker every day). But he would still be left with an account comfortably within the mainstream of center-left punditry, the story of how, despite massive opposition, Barack Obama accomplished several important and broadly positive goals. He could’ve called it Liberalism is Working.
But Chait wants more. He does not want to prove that President Obama was a pretty good president on the whole, or even that, once we have become mired in the nightmare of the Trump administration, he will be remembered fondly even by his critics. Chait wants to demonstrate Obama’s audacity, to show us that we are wrong to count him as anything less than a historically peerless president. This is what necessitates the long denouncement of unrealistic liberals that ends the book: Chait needs to define down what counts as success. But it also requires an odd move that comes at the end of every one of the central chapters, one that spoils whatever inkling of sobriety came before. After running us through the pageantry of proposal and opposition, skepticism, and triumph, Chait winds up each of his tales with an account of how while it might not have been perfect — the stimulus was on the small side, the Medicaid expansion got gutted, Paris only accounted for 50 percent of the necessary carbon reductions — Obama managed to achieve the spirit of his original intentions every time. Then, without fail, he turns around and calls whatever that achievement was a smashing, radical, revolutionary, unprecedented, colossal success.
Consider Chait’s treatment of the financial crisis. After spending pages laying out how the $787 billion stimulus that Congress ultimately passed fell short of the trillion-plus dollars needed for maximum effect, then (rightfully) abusing Republican leaders whose failure to grasp simple Keynesianism made them balk at the unprecedented absolute size of the package, Chait turns around and casts the helpful but suboptimal stimulus as an unparalleled achievement in precisely the same terms he has just spent half a chapter disparaging. “No President in American history had ever proposed or enacted an anti-depression program remotely as aggressive,” he writes. Perhaps this is true in absolute terms, but then, as Chait has just explained to us, that’s hardly the point: the fact that no one had enacted something remotely as aggressive does not mean that it was aggressive enough.
Chait does this goalpost shuffle again and again. When discussing unemployment, he explains, sensibly enough, that despite job growth, “in many parts of the country, it did not feel like prosperity had returned.” Obama could hardly be blamed, though, because the decline in American manufacturing jobs that could deliver “middle-class wages and a secure pension” had begun in the 1970s, a long-term macroeconomic trend beyond the power of any president to control. But on the very next page, summing up the modest income gains achieved by workers by the end of Obama’s second term, Chait writes that “a broad-based prosperity, and an economy that delivered a better life for average Americans, had finally returned.” Meanwhile, Obama’s victories in rewriting the tax code, “a central point of contention between the two parties since Ronald Reagan,” “reset the balance” after years of Republican advances. But Chait fails to mention that he only reset them to the Clinton-era status quo, not the far more aggressive state of affairs that preceded Reagan.
The claims Chait makes for Obama and his legacy are inflated at every turn, sometimes absurdly so. Obama, we learn, fulfilled Harry Truman’s dream of universal health care (he didn’t). He will “go down in history as the first American president to take up the fight against the planetary catastrophe of global warming” (debatable, at the least). His policies have created “inflection” points, authoring some of “the most ambitious and successful social reforms in the history of the United States.” Chait’s Obama is a radical, a conqueror conveyed in sweeping prose.
One plausible explanation for Chait’s hyperbole is that, without it, he hasn’t got a book. Because, if we are being honest, the premise that Obama has been beset on all sides by universal criticism and disappointment, that Jonathan Chait is among the few men clear-eyed or honest enough to see it: all of this is flimsy bullshit. Yes, Obama has had many critics. Some of them are liberals, some of them are perhaps unduly “despairing.” Chait does an excellent job of curating quotations to create the impression of wolves closing in from all sides. But President Obama is also extraordinarily popular. He is beloved by the bulk of American liberals, even those with reservations about him. Very few liberals would deny that the Affordable Care Act was a major accomplishment, or that the president’s deals in Iran and Paris were coups, or even that all of this is made more impressive given the nature of the Republican opposition. If the majority of American liberals were seriously misguided about Barack Obama on any front, it was their faith that his legacy would prevail in the form of Hillary Clinton. But then, Chait too was blind on that front: thus the last-minute rebrand and the sporadically grafted-on Trump material that now appears throughout. The acknowledgments give a better sense of Chait’s self-conception here: “I am not always right,” he writes,
But Barack Obama is a subject I believe I got right, right from the beginning. I concluded early on in Obama’s presidential campaign that he possessed a keen mind, oratorical gifts, and just the right combination of idealism and skeptical, analytical thinking to identify the best methods to achieve those goals.
But Jonathan Chait is not the only observer to have discerned by 2008 that Barack Obama is very smart and good at talking.
Moderate Success: How Barack Obama Defied a Dedicated Opposition and Did Some Basically Good Stuff would have been a more honest book, but of course it might have been a harder sell. So instead we have Audacity, a book that recapitulates the liberal consensus on Obama that anybody can pick up from the daily output of our national content mines and throws in a little world-historical razzle-dazzle for the cheap seats. We have a book where the “astonishingly ambitious” nature of Obama’s agenda was a “rare point of universal agreement,” but where even “many important thought leaders” on the American left became blind to his accomplishments, choosing instead to “excuse his failures.” It is worth “placing [these sentiments] in a time capsule now,” Chait says, because “in the not very distant future, it will be hard to believe people predisposed to agree with Obama thought this way.” Never considered is the possibility that some left critics of Barack Obama had substantial policy differences with the president. Erased entirely are the organizers and writers and citizens who never found the Democrat’s ambitions particularly radical in the first place. A more honest book might have to contend with those forces in service of shoring up Obama’s real, defensible legacy. But if you’ve cooked up a fantasy world where revolutionary accomplishment has been met with universal condemnation, the stakes are high enough already.
There is a more troubling possibility, but one that we ought to take seriously during the coming fight over the politics we will need to defeat Donald Trump. Throughout Audacity, it is difficult to escape the impression that Chait is engaged in a bit of projection. He has turned Barack Obama, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, into a version of himself: a hardworking, realistic center-liberal wonk who can’t get no respect. To a certain extent this is unavoidable: apologetics verging on hagiography require their authors to psychologically identify with the glory of their subjects. If Chait did not see himself in Obama, then he would not be crafting a monument to his legacy. But the danger lurks in what the book has become in its post-electoral iteration. Because Chait does not simply want to remake Barack Obama in his own image: he wants to suggest that the future of the Democratic Party be cast in that image, too.
I have always respected Jonathan Chait. That may come as a surprise, but he possesses a quality that is rare among liberal pundits. Most will lie to you about the politics of their hearts. They will tell you that they’re all for the left’s ambitions, or at least for a United States more like the benevolent states of Europe. They will assure you that when the time is right, they’ll throw their weight behind the moral cause of socialism; it’s just that it isn’t practical right now. It’s just that you’ve got to be reasonable, compromise, capitulate to the demands of the Democratic Party without protest, or else we’ll never get anywhere. Chait does not do this. He believes that the mild welfare state championed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is not merely an acceptable form of government, but very nearly an ideal one. When he scolds the left for their hostility toward business, or lectures college students over their inadequate reverence for liberal free speech norms, or endorses the Iraq War and later cops only to an inadequate consideration of its logistical prospects, Chait is telling you precisely what he thinks. I’ve often, almost always, taken issue with his conclusions. But I have never gotten the sense that Chait is operating in bad faith. He’s a liberal capitalist, a technocrat, what any sane assessment of the political spectrum would rate a conservative centrist, and he does not pretend otherwise.
It should come as no surprise then that when Chait looks toward the future of the Democratic Party, he sees the necessity for his own worldview. Despite the catastrophe of Trump, there cannot be a significant move to the left: no economic solidarity, no populism, not even a whisper of class warfare. The future, he says, must look like his version of Barack Obama, a “model of what pragmatic and liberal Americans ought to believe in, how they can achieve it, and a standard around which they can rally in the dark years that lie ahead.”
But there is a problem. Moderation and technocracy are not the subjects of any folk songs. Soaring speeches are rarely given in their name. They don’t excite people; they haven’t got that revolutionary feel about them, and we are in a time, more suddenly and more severely than many of us expected, where revolutionary spirit is getting hotter every day. On one side, Donald Trump leads the forces of reaction in an effort to seize the authenticity of the soil and remake society in the image of some herrenvolk nostalgia. On the other, movements from Black Lives Matter to the growing American socialist movement have taken to the streets, demanding extraordinary reconstitutions of American justice. Is there a place for sensible technocrats in such a world? How can they hope to retain a following, even with all the institutional credibility and venture capital behind them?
One way, I suppose, is to cast Third Way Democratic politics as a radical movement all its own, led by a revolutionary president — if only people could see it! Even if nobody does, it can at least help sort out the psychodrama that comes from waking up in a world where more and more people suspect you are not even really aligned with the ambitions of mainstream progressives, at least until the inevitable occurs and Chait’s “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me” essay drops. Indeed, Obama, in Chait’s eyes, is already a Democrat in name only: his accomplishment has been to turn “the ethos of the banished moderate and liberal Republican wing — with its support for civil rights and openness to well-designed, market-friendly public solutions to social problems — into a highly effective blueprint for Democratic governance.” Obama, he writes, “gravitated toward the liberal Republican tradition, whose ideas […] shaped most of his program.” It is the most honest sentence in this whole assessment of the president’s legacy. This is what Jonathan Chait wants, the future he sees for himself, for Obama, and for the young people of the United States: the audacious ambitions of liberal Republicanism.
Chait believes that the future belongs to Obama, because young people believe in Obama’s vision of the future. I am not so confident. It was young people, after all, who pushed Bernie Sanders to the brink of the Democratic nomination. “Sanders told supporters it was ‘too late for establishment politics,’” Chait writes, “his term for the political style employed by Obama as well as Hillary Clinton, which Sanders and his supporters believed had accomplished pathetically little.” Bernie Sanders won every demographic group under 30 years old. Where are these kids, clamoring for a Chaitian future?
They do not exist, of course, because the future Chait envisions will not be the future of the American left. Despite Barack Obama’s accomplishments, he oversaw the loss of more statehouses and governorships than any incumbent president in recent history. On his watch, we lost the House, then the Senate, and finally the White House. That is Obama’s legacy, at least for the short- to medium-term — and things are too dire to start thinking much beyond that just yet. A politics that surrenders every level of government to its opposition cannot win the future. It has already lost the present.