Obama’s legacy in a na­tion di­vided by race

The switch from Barack Obama to Don­ald Trump raises im­por­tant ques­tions for the US, writes An­drew Broert­jes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In Jan­uary last year, the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries be­gan in the US. For the Democrats, the suc­ces­sor to Barack Obama looked to be Hil­lary Clin­ton. De­nied the crown in 2008, it was hers for the tak­ing eight years later. On the Repub­li­can side, 17 can­di­dates from a range of back­grounds and ex­pe­ri­ences in gov­ern­ment fought to be the nom­i­nee.

The pres­ence of real-es­tate ty­coon and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion star Don­ald Trump seemed just a sideshow that dis­tracted at­ten­tion from the nom­i­na­tion of a vet­ted, es­tab­lish­ment-ap­proved can­di­date: if not Jeb Bush, then John Ka­sich or Marco Ru­bio.

Trump, how­ever, de­fied the con­ven­tional rules of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment, sav­aging his pri­mary op­po­nents and then, af­ter win­ning the GOP nom­i­na­tion, Clin­ton in the con­test for the White House. Their vit­ri­olic race ri­valled that be­tween John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son in 1800, long viewed as the stan­dard in ugly pres­i­den­tial bouts.

By the time it was over, Trump, to the as­ton­ish­ment of po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors, had won the pres­i­dency. He had tapped into twin dis­con­tents in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal psy­che: an an­tipa­thy to the forces of glob­al­i­sa­tion that had stripped lower-in­come and blue-col­lar Amer­i­cans of their liveli­hoods over a 40-year pe­riod, and a re­jec­tion of a vi­brant, multi-eth­nic so­ci­ety, of a “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” cul­ture ex­em­pli­fied by Obama.

As the first months of the Trump pres­i­dency have un­folded, a num­ber of books have been re­leased re­flect­ing on the end of the Obama pres­i­dency. Two in­ter­est­ing works that ap­proach this de­bate from dif­fer­ent an­gles are Jonathan Chait’s Au­dac­ity: How Barack Obama De­fied His Crit­ics and Trans­formed Amer­ica and Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Can­not Stop: A Ser­mon to White Amer­ica.

Chait’s book is a ro­bust de­fence of Obama, ar­gu­ing for his place in the up­per ranks of US pres­i­dents. Dyson’s is an im­pas­sioned cri­tique of race relations in the US, spurred by events dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency and by thoughts on what Trump’s elec­tion means for a na­tion frac­tured along the colour line.

Chait is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The New Repub­lic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal. In Au­dac­ity he cri­tiques the emerg­ing nar­ra­tive re­gard­ing the Obama pres­i­dency: that of a well-in­ten­tioned cen­trist try­ing to make gains against the ob­struc­tion­ism of an in­creas­ingly right-wing GOP. This is the view of a pres­i­dent who in many re­spects promised more than he could de­liver.

The anger that faced Obama from the right was matched by dis­ap­point­ment from the left and sup­port­ers who “spent most of his pres­i­dency in a state rang­ing from res­ig­na­tion to de­spair”. But Chait is hav­ing none of that, claim­ing Obama “ac­com­plished nearly ev­ery­thing he set out to do, and he set out to do an enor­mous amount”.

Chait fo­cuses on four key policy ar­eas where Obama at­tempted to make sig­nif­i­cant gains: fix­ing the econ­omy in the af­ter­math of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, health­care, the en­vi­ron­ment and for­eign policy. The case is more con­vinc­ing for some than oth­ers. With the GFC un­fold­ing as Obama took of­fice, Chait ex­am­ines how, un­like the crises that con­fronted Ge­orge W. Bush with 9/11, or Lyn­don John­son in the af­ter­math of the John F. Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion, the fi­nan­cial melt­down “did not invest the pres­i­dent with new agenda-set­ting pow­ers”.

While Obama helped pre­vent an­other De­pres­sion, the po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, Chait ar­gues, was mi­nus­cule. “Pres­i­dents get credit for re­spond­ing to dis­as­ters, not from keep­ing them from hap­pen­ing in the first place.”

For a pres­i­dent to go from “Yes we can” to “This could have been worse” might be seen as a fail­ure; how­ever, Chait con­tends that Obama

Me­la­nia and Don­ald Trump with Barack and Michelle Obama on the day of Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion

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