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
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