Obama: An Oral History 2009–2017
by Brian Abrams
Little A, 2018, 526 pp.
West Winging It: An Un-presidential Memoir
by Pat Cunnane
Gallery Books, 2018, 320 pp.
Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward
by Valerie Jarrett
Viking, 2019, 320 pp.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House
by Alyssa Mastromonaco with Lauren Oyler
Twelve, 2017, 256 pp.
Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump
by Dan Pfeiffer
Twelve, 2018, 304 pp.
The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House
by Ben Rhodes
Random House, 2018, 480 pp.
We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama
ed. by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid
Bloomsbury, 2017, 384 pp.
West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House
ed. by Gautam Raghavan
Penguin, 2018, 336 pp.
What is the defining achievement of Barack Obama? For a time, it seemed it would be his foreign policy: the Paris Agreement, diplomatic relations with Cuba, and getting Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. When Trump got elected and those deals got undone, it seemed it would be the Affordable Care Act. But after plummeting for several years, the uninsured rate among adults has begun to creep back up. Obama did avert a second Great Depression, but history is not kind to averters: with time, what didn’t happen tends to get eclipsed by what did. And what did happen under Obama is a recovery that was slow and weak. Black homeownership rates, which took a major hit during the financial crisis, are the lowest they’ve ever been.
Maybe, then, Obama will be remembered for the fact of his election (though he and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett claim that getting a black man elected was nothing compared to getting the healthcare bill passed) and creating a brand of neoliberal multiculturalism for party elites to use and enjoy in years to come. Yet the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the failure of Kamala Harris to dominate the 2020 campaign threaten that inheritance. So perhaps Obama’s most important legacy will be one of productive disappointment: energizing a multiracial coalition of young voters whose subsequent disaffections with Obamaism and inclinations toward socialism are today remaking the left.
Since the 2016 election, many members of the Obama administration have written their memoirs in the hope of defining that legacy. In addition, more than a hundred men and women who worked in and around the White House have given their reminiscences to Brian Abrams, who has composed a remarkably fluid oral history of the Obama years. We’ve not yet heard from the man himself. While it’s not unprecedented for the president’s men and women to get the first word, the effect of his silence and their volubility is to decenter a presidency that, more than most, was centered on one man and his words. Obama had an uncanny ability to make sense of his place in history, to narrate what it was that he was doing. His politics had its limits, but they were often, and often knowingly, self-imposed. No matter how circumscribed the view, Obama managed to conjure a sense of what lay beyond it. With one exception, none of his people has that sense of time or place. They’re bound by a perimeter that is not of their making and that lies beyond their ken.
At the same time, not only do the Obamanauts wish to salvage Obama’s legacy from Donald Trump; they also believe Obama’s legacy can save us from Donald Trump. “My hope in writing this book,” says Dan Pfeiffer, who ran communications in the White House, is that “if we learn the right lessons” from Obama, “we can ensure that Donald Trump is an aberration.” That puts Obama’s legacy at a double disadvantage: defended by some of its least persuasive advocates and defined by what it is not. Burdened by a future he had a hand in making but no intention of creating, Obama gets reimagined in these memoirs and reminiscences in light of everything he sought to avoid: the destructiveness of the president who came after him, and the irresponsibility of the Republicans who came before him and dogged him throughout his time in office. Instead of a clear outline of the man, we get the shadow of his enemies. That’s not fair to Obama, but as he’s the one who chose these people to speak for him while he was in office, they are the ones who’ve chosen to speak for him when he’s out. So it will remain, until he writes his memoirs.
The Obamanauts have an argument that they think can be used to defeat the Republicans. It is an argument that sets out what liberals and Democrats should be saying, and how they should be saying it, in the next election and beyond. It is part sense—about economic policy, foreign policy, and so on—and part sensibility: about norms, the presidency, and how our public life should be conducted. Because the sense is so thin in these memoirs, the sensibility winds up mattering more. Which is probably for the best. For it’s that sensibility that gives us the clearest view of what Obamaism, beneath and beyond Obama, was all about. It’s the style of leading sectors in the Democratic Party, currently embattled against the left, though we hear little mention of that battle here. But most of all, it’s that style that answers the question: What is Obama’s legacy? For better or worse, and at least for now, it’s the Obamanauts themselves.
Leftists often dismiss liberals and Democrats as bloodless technocrats and pallid wonks. But that’s not true of the Obamanauts. Theirs is a libidinal attachment. Not to science, reason, or Harvard but to an incongruous sense of history—dopey and epochal, encyclopedic yet uninformed. Obamanauts think of themselves as a “storied band of brothers.” They grill five-year-olds on the facts of presidential history. They speak of history lying in “our hands.” Yet many of them know little of consequence about the past. Pfeiffer thinks the demand for politicians to be authentic is a “new rule,” but Nixon was dogged by the charge of inauthenticity all the time. Virtually all of the Obamanauts are dumbfounded by the Republicans’ hatred of the Affordable Care Act, even though opposition to universal healthcare has been a rallying cry of conservatives since Harry Truman first proposed it in 1945. But Obamanauts do know that, with the exception of Harold Stassen, Obama was the first presidential candidate to campaign outside the United States and that John Kerry’s three-week trip to Vienna was “the longest any secretary of state had ever remained in any single city outside the United States in the history of the country.”
Obamanauts have a passion for office and state, a calling for power distilled of all impurities. Pfeiffer may have wanted to help Obama “achieve his place in history,” but his ultimate intention in the White House was to serve “not just my president but the presidency itself.” Even so, theirs is an agile sense of service that bends to more self-serving claims. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says that after 9/11 he was so compelled by patriotism—and repelled by the New York left’s “preemptive protests against American military intervention” and “reflexive distrust of Bush”—that he made the trek uptown to talk to an Army recruiter under the Queensboro Bridge. After giving the matter some thought, he decided that army life wasn’t for him; he could better serve his country by joining a think tank in DC.
Obamanauts have a range of references to demonstrate their devotion. Hogwarts and St. Elmo’s Fire loom large. The West Wing is clearly the touchstone, however. Gautam Raghavan, who began working for Obama during the 2008 campaign, writes, “Working in Barack Obama’s White House was like watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing brought to life. It had all the necessary elements: the brilliant, articulate professor in chief with an unapologetically progressive vision of America; a narrative arc rooted in ongoing themes of idealism and public service; but most importantly, a cast of patriotic Americans who labored every day, as members of the President’s staff, to serve the country they loved.” One collection of testimonials, edited by Raghavan, is called West Wingers; another memoir is called West Winging It.
The Obamanauts live in that sweet spot where Hollywood is history and history is Hollywood, where celebrities are the secret sauce of social policy and producers are aides-de-camp to politicians. A staffer careens, in the very same sentence, from memories of a “world-famous reporter” telling tales of Tiananmen Square to a recollected vision of Anna Wintour sweeping past her desk. Election night in Grant Park is made more magical by the presence of Oprah and Brad Pitt. There’s nothing new about mixing politics and the culture industry. But where Reagan summoned Hollywood to recall the glamor of an older age, the main effect of having these Obamanauts float among the stars is to bring them down to earth. When Rhodes lets slip that UN Ambassador Samantha Power listened to Eminem just before announcing a global treaty on landmines, when Mastromonaco sets out her typical day in the White House, with one hour blocked off for conversations with Pfeiffer about Girls “(seriously),” what they’re telling us is that for all the windy and wince-inducing high-mindedness, Obamanauts really don’t take themselves seriously. They’re just like you and me.
Virtually all of these memoirs open with one of two set pieces: either Obama’s last days in power, inevitably flavored with clichés of “more bitter than sweet” due to the impending arrival of Trump, or the memoirist’s first days with Obama, usually rendered as a moment of undeserved preferment. Some of the latter stories have a genuine quality about them. Many of Obama’s staffers were women, queer, and/or of color, with little expectation of ever serving in the White House. If the promiscuity of Obama’s idealism was grating—as when he claimed the killing of Osama bin Laden as one more instance of yes we can, part of a pageant of American achievements that included the struggle for equality of all citizens—it did find a generous if narrowed application in his hiring policies.
Yet so many white men in the Obama administration start out with the same “how did little ol’ me wind up here?” shtick that the trope quickly becomes an unacknowledged confession of privilege masquerading as an inexplicable rise to power. Pfeiffer claims he never worked in high school to get into Georgetown; all he did was bullshit his way through an interview. Unlike the grinds and nerds in college, he was too louche to lay the groundwork for a political career. He just got drunk and played basketball. He never watched Obama’s 2004 speech at the DNC or read Obama’s books until he was being considered for a job with the campaign. Yet despite his putative lack of preparation or qualifications, Pfeiffer always gets the call from a higher-up with an offer of a job. Somehow the je ne sais quoi of his work manages to attract the attention of his (inevitably white male) superior.
Pfeiffer’s self-presentation doesn’t fit with his obvious careerism. He brags about not missing a day of work since freshman year of high school. He was able to intern with Al Gore because he earned enough credits to graduate from college early. He worked for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle before jumping onboard with Obama. But the self-styling is a tell: of how a supposed unfitness for politics makes you all too fit for politics, of the conflation between insiders and outsiders that is common to the Obamanauts, regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Outsiders are supposed to be good because they bring the perspective of, well, outsiders. Before he worked in the Office of the White House Counsel, Shomik Dutta was pressing his street cred to the fundraising arm of the Obama campaign. His pitch? “You need someone who really understands the mid-Atlantic—the less established donors, the real-estate-developer folks.” That’s what passes for heterodoxy in these quarters. So does promising to take out Osama bin Laden, says Rhodes, who recalls “the purity of [that] event” and notes wistfully how “nothing would ever feel this right.” Outsiders are also good because they’re unstuffy; they have ordinary people problems. Which is why Mastromonaco devotes eleven pages to her diarrhea, Pfeiffer has an entire chapter on the time he was in the White House and the seat of his pants split open (“Something Pants-Splittingly Funny”), and Rhodes opens his memoir with a story about riding in the presidential limousine with no socks. There’s a word for people like this. My eleven-year-old tells me it’s “try-hard.”
The rosebud moment in these memoirs is the day Zach Galifianakis saved Obamacare.
Obamacare had many parts and pieces. Extend Medicaid to individuals above the poverty line; require employers of a certain size to provide insurance to their employees; raise the age of dependent coverage to twenty-six; prohibit caps on essential benefits and denials of coverage for preexisting conditions. But the signature component was the insurance exchange, an online marketplace where people would browse plans, buy the one that made the most sense for them, and get a subsidy if they were eligible.
The exchange was built on Obama’s commitment to access, markets, and voluntarism. Instead of being automatically enrolled in a government program, the uninsured would enroll themselves in mostly private plans. For the financing to work, however, lots of people, particularly young, healthy people, had to enroll right away. A website would make it easy: sixty federal contracts, valued at $1.7 billion, went into the design and construction of Healthcare.gov and similar sites at the state level. Celebrities would make it fun. On October 1, 2013, the day of the website’s launch, a cast of hundreds, from Lady Gaga to Kerry Washington, was virtually assembled to post and tweet #Getcovered to their millions of followers on social media.
Healthcare.gov was supposed to be nimble, cool, and there. It wasn’t. Instead of signing in and signing up, people got stuck in the digital equivalent of endless lines. For two months, the website didn’t work. Republicans were gleeful. Democrats were apoplectic. Celebrities were pissed. Publicists sent emails; managers made calls. It “was a nightmare,” says Brad Jenkins, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement. “Rashida Jones hated me. And it was only nine thirty a.m.” When the website finally got fixed, there was still the question of how to lure millennials back for a second try. Jenkins wanted to make another go of it with his “heroes from Hollywood.” But he didn’t dare return to Gaga and the others. What to do?
Here the details get fuzzy, the claims for authorship conflict. Pfeiffer says it was the actor Bradley Cooper’s idea. Kori Schulman, Deputy Digital Director, says it was her team’s idea. Jenkins claims the idea came from his team. (There’s a lot of “team” talk in these memoirs.) Months before the failed launch, Jenkins’s team had flown Jarrett out to Los Angeles. She took a meeting with will.i.am to see if the musician might reprise “Yes We Can” but for Obamacare. That didn’t pan out. She took a meeting with Galifianakis and a producer, who Jenkins calls “the Hollywood version of a community organizer.” The two men pitched the idea of Obama coming on Between Two Ferns, the faux public-access-style talk show hosted by Galifianakis on the website Funny Or Die. Jarrett came away unconvinced; Between Two Ferns wasn’t up to the gravitas of the White House. But now Obama was demanding that his staff “shake things up.” Jarrett’s office called Jenkins: “Brad. Can you talk Ferns?”
Jenkins prepared a “decision memo” setting out the pros and cons of the president appearing on Ferns. But it got buried in an inbox. As luck would have it, Cooper, who’s a friend and co-star of Galifianakis, was dining at the White House. Before the night was over, Cooper had called Galifianakis, who said he’d do it, and made a personal plea to Obama, who also said he’d do it.
The day of the taping, Jenkins had a vision. He and his team were “going to fucking save Obamacare,” and Galifianakis and his team were going “to make comedy history.” The only thing more absurd than the statement is that it turned out to be true. The show aired and immediately got 30 million views. Healthcare.gov got a 40 percent bump in traffic, mostly from people who had never been to the website. Jenkins was called into the Oval Office to brief the president. He wondered if he’d get a fist bump, maybe even a friend. Obama simply said, “Let’s make sure we keep doing things like Two Ferns.” Jenkins had a second realization. “No president ever went on a program like this.”
Pfeiffer, who now co-hosts Pod Save America with Obama chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, wasn’t surprised. “Comedy is Obama’s superpower.” At the peak of the financial crisis, Pfeiffer had pushed hard, over the objections of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, for Obama to go on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He won that battle. Now a grizzled veteran of the Obama comedy wars, he still can summon the tumescent enthusiasm of a teenage recruit: “Of course, Obama was going to kill it on Between Two Ferns. It’s just what he does. And it’s exactly the sort of approach we need to beat Donald Trump.” Left unmentioned: Hillary Clinton went on Ferns, too.
There’s one person in the entourage who’s not a try-hard, who sounds like a grownup, avoids glibness and clichés, and doesn’t have a nickname for everyone. It’s Valerie Jarrett. Everyone agrees that Jarrett played a leading role in orchestrating Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns and resolving the Healthcare.gov crisis. Obama even says to her, in that Oval Office debriefing after the show, “Val, I thought this was your idea.” (In contrast to what Obama says when staffers make decisions that displease him: “Who thought this was a good idea?” Which gives Mastromonaco the title of her book.) Yet of all the people involved in The Day Zach Galifianakis Saved Obamacare, Jarrett is the only one who never mentions it. Unlike her colleagues, she has an actual story to tell—one that shows historical awareness, a felt apprehension of politics past and present, a sense of society—and knows how to tell it.
Jarrett was born in Iran in 1956 and lived the first five years of her life in the 4,000-year-old city of Shiraz, in a gated compound where a jackal was “allowed to roam free” and “take toys and hide them from time to time.” The backstory is complicated. Under Jim Crow, black PhDs from elite universities sometimes had no choice but to teach in segregated secondary schools. Ironically, that enabled black students like Jarrett’s father to get an excellent education at one of the top public schools in DC, which was followed by undergraduate and medical degrees from Howard University. Despite his qualifications, he had difficulty landing a position at a hospital in the United States. Before desegregation, even black hospitals, which often were owned by white people, refused to hire black doctors and nurses. Hospitals weren’t desegregated until 1965, Jarrett points out, when the passage of Medicare and Medicaid “threatened to strip federal funding from any hospital that engaged in racial discrimination.” But through a program typical of the Cold War, when the United States sought to promote its image abroad, Jarrett’s father was able to get a post as chair of pathology at the Nemazee Hospital in Shiraz.
This casual interweaving of public history and private story is one of the many appealing features of Jarrett’s memoir, which opens at the intersection of second-class status at home and first-class status abroad. Jim Crow America was also imperial America, and Jarrett does not shy from talking about how, for a time, the privileges of the second saved her from the indignities of the first. “While black people in America were marching for the right to enjoy public pools and parks, our neighborhood had lush green spaces where I could run and play and a big blue swimming pool, where people stared only when my dog jumped in the pool with me.” At home, she’d have been at the bottom of the social order; in Iran, she’s free to kick the family maid (much to horror of Jarrett’s mother). Before she’s out of diapers, Jarrett has eaten caviar and traveled to Uganda, Britain, Russia, India, and the Yucatán. When she returns to the United States, she’s fluent in Farsi, French, and English, speaks with a British accent, and is bullied for her light skin by the other black girls in her Chicago public school. For the first time in her life, she’s in a black community—and feels like a complete outsider.
For liberal Jews of a certain generation—think Philip Roth—the passion of the American state begins and ends with FDR. Jarrett’s generation of black Chicagoans also have an origin story, she says, only it’s not rooted in the New Deal or even the civil rights movement. It derives from the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Up until then, Jarrett had been an apolitical corporate lawyer, juggling single parenthood and a miserable job. But Washington inspired in her and her cohort an intertwined vision of black empowerment and government service. She went to work for him and, after he died suddenly in his second term, stayed on in the administrations of his two successors.
The vision Washington inspired was as much habitus as it was ethos, reflecting the disposition of upwardly mobile African-American professionals who thought the election of a black mayor proved that “our voices mattered.” The outsider to the black community was now an insider in that community and in the larger community of Chicago elites—by the end of her ascendancy, Jarrett is chairing or co-chairing the boards of top hospitals and universities and the Chicago Stock Exchange, and serving on even more. Here, at last, is the social specificity behind the insider-outsider talk we hear so much of in the other memoirs. It’s also the poison pill from which all manner of affliction and atrophy follow.
Long before Washington’s victory, black activists had begun reckoning with the fact that the promise of the freedom struggle could not be realized by the election of black politicians or appointment of black officials. The power of capital was too great. As early as 1972, when Jarrett was still in high school, Richard Hatcher, the first black mayor of Gary, Indiana, was disabusing the thousands of activists assembled at the Gary Convention of their illusions about black politicians: “There is much talk about black control of the ghetto. What does it mean? I am mayor of a city of roughly 90,000 black people, but we do not control the possibilities of jobs for them, of money for their schools, or state-funded social services. These things are in the hands of the U.S. Steel Corporation, the county department of welfare, and the State of Indiana.”
Jarrett sees matters differently: capital is an ally and instrument of political power—especially when that power is wielded by, and in the name of, African Americans. Over the course of three mayoralties, she works tirelessly on issues of housing, jobs, and race, confident that she is “fighting for the powerless from inside government.” A Robert Moses of the neoliberal age, she cuts ruthlessly through red tape, not to convert public resources into government action, but to siphon them off to businessmen and real-estate developers, who she sees as the true agents of progress. She conjures vast subsidies from federal, state, and local agencies and puts them in the hands of private equity. She’s firmly convinced that the failures of public housing are government failures, and to the extent that race plays a role in those failures, it’s that black people have simply not exercised sufficient political power to force government to do better. She pushes for the demolition of existing public housing—including the Robert Taylor Homes, named after her grandfather, a pioneering housing and civil rights activist—and replaces it with publicly subsidized, privately owned development. All of this in the name of her grandfather, a larger vision of civil rights, and learning “how to trust my own voice.” When she leaves government and takes a job with a real-estate development firm, she’s convinced that she will “continue my public service” through her work in the private sector. Given what she’s done in the public sector, she’s probably not wrong.
There’s nothing particular about Jarrett’s narrowed vision of politics and political economy; it’s in keeping with larger shifts in liberalism and the Democratic Party since the 1970s. (It also recalls an earlier shift in postwar liberalism, as Joshua B. Freeman recently suggested on the Dissent website, when activists in the CIO turned a Popular Front–inspired vision of cultural politics into more professionalized, Madison Avenue–style ad campaigns.) The narrowness is obscured, however, by the amplitude of the rhetoric, which is borrowed from the freedom struggle of the 1960s. Jarrett has little difficulty translating the motifs of that struggle—participation, solidarity, empowerment—into a vision of politics that looks nothing like that struggle. There’s conflict, but it’s resolved by conversation. There’s contention, but it’s handled in conference.
The more she recounts the dialogue of her political formation in the mayor’s office, the more proleptic it sounds:
Chicago has brought together black and white, Asian and Hispanic, male and female, the young, the old, the disabled, gays and lesbians, Muslims, Christians and Jews, business leaders and neighborhood activists, bankers and trade unionists—all have come together to mix and contend, to argue and to reason, to confront our problems and not merely to contain them. We didn’t come together out of love for one another. Where that is lacking, that will follow. A civil society, a civilization, a city that works, requires simply that we behave well toward each other.
That’s Washington delivering his second inaugural address in 1987. The syntax is different, but the substance is pure Obamaism: the easy pivot from unionists to bankers, activists to developers, as if they occupy equal and interchangeable seats at the table; the hardheaded disavowal of love tempered by an unwarranted faith in reason; the adult-like admission of conflict that gets eclipsed by exasperating claims of inclusion; the gathering of everyone and everything under a tent of appeals to civitas and civility. Jarrett says that it’s not “until twenty-five years later, on election night in 2008, when people of all kinds and all races gathered in Grant Park to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory,” that Washington’s vision gets truly realized. She’s right, but for the wrong reasons.
It is by now a commonplace that the Obamanauts were unprepared for the obstruction of the Republican Party. Abrams’s oral history takes us significantly beyond that assumption, however, by demonstrating that from Day One—before Day One, in fact—they knew that the Republicans had no intention of playing Obama’s game of reasoned dialogue and bipartisan compromise. Jim Messina was Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff before Mastromonaco; he also ran Obama’s reelection campaign. Not long after Obama was elected in 2008, Messina sat down with a key Republican staffer on the Hill to discuss Obama’s stimulus plans. The staffer, whom Messina once dated, tells him, “Jim, we’re not going to compromise with you on anything. We’re going to fight Obama on everything.” He plaintively replies, “That’s not what we did for Bush.” She says, “We don’t care. We’re just going to fight.”
So it goes, from the stimulus package to the healthcare bill to Dodd–Frank to the debt ceiling to Merrick Garland. Each time, the Obamanauts waste precious time and resources trying to placate the Republicans with concessions of policy or appointment. Each time, the Republicans do exactly what that staffer promised they’d do. Each time, the Obamanauts seem surprised, even hurt. Each time, they kick themselves: not only did they not win the cooperation of the Republicans; they got no credit for trying. Lesson learned. And then they do it all over again.
Liberals tear their hair out when they read accounts like these. How did these people not see how they were adding to the Republican arsenal of intransigence? Why did they turn eight years of hope and change into Groundhog Day? But that assessment—that the Obamanuts made an error of judgment—fails to reckon with three elements of Obama’s public philosophy that render his refusal to confront the Republicans not a failure of tactics or strategy but a faithful reflection of his commitments.
The failure begins with a misunderstanding of Obama’s radical-sounding rhetoric. To his most hopeful followers, Obama’s unique gift was being able to turn soaring statements of principle into simple truths of politics, marrying a national inheritance of social movements from below to a plainspoken pragmatism from above. There was something to that view, but it never reckoned with the fact that Obama’s radicalism was, from the very beginning, bound up with a narrow notion of what politics was about. His was a vision less of power than of process, the culmination of twenty years of political theory journals where democracy was deliberation and deliberation was democracy. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan won election by promising to crush a systemic social malignancy: the slaveocracy, economic royalists, a parasitic class of liberal elites. Unlike these transformative presidents of left and right, Obama disavowed any structural transformations of society or the economy. Even when it came to race, as Obama’s most electrifying speech (on Jeremiah Wright) made clear, his vision of change was almost completely divorced from the social bases of power. His goal was to help both sides understand each other, to make our conversations better. Obama was hardly naive, as his critics often claim. His perception of the task followed directly from his realpolitik, from his well-honed sense that the limited hand he had to play rested upon at least a notional commitment to playing by the rules.
The second element of Obama’s philosophy, well known to the left, was his neoliberalism. Less well known is that Obama pursued that neoliberalism not in ignorance or denial of the economic situation of American workers but in full knowledge of it. “We are working harder for less,” he declared at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 2007. “We’ve never paid more for health-care or for college. It’s harder to save and it’s harder to retire.” While many Democrats blamed the Republicans, Obama rightly pointed out that these conditions “festered long before George Bush ever took office.” In the White House, Obama never let up on this point. “The defining issue of our time,” he said in 2011, is the economic catastrophe that has been visited upon the middle class and “all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”
Yet these mournful observations pale in comparison to the hosannas to the market that Obama offered in response. As men and women watched their life savings go up in smoke and their homes disappear into foreclosure, Obama hailed the “power” of the market, declaring in his first inaugural address that capitalism’s capacity “to generate wealth and expand freedom” was “unmatched.” Encouraging free enterprise and rewarding individual initiative, he said in his 2013 State of the Union address, was the “unfinished task” of government. That was the positive vision. Just as often, he was reminding the left and reassuring the right of his belief in the limitations of government. Even as he affirmed his commitment to enforcing federal laws against discrimination, he was convinced “that a transformation of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part of the nation’s CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion of lawyers.” His famous phrase, “Hard things are hard,” which was made into a plaque he kept on his desk, was not a reference to the Affordable Care Act, as is commonly believed. According to top strategist David Axelrod, it was a reference to entitlement cuts, to Obama’s genuine desire to impose some kind of austerity on Social Security and Medicare in return for a deal with the Republicans on taxes and the debt. Thankfully, the Republicans refused it.
Fulsome as it is, however, Obama’s neoliberalism can’t entirely explain his commitment to compromise. Across the globe, neoliberalism has been marked more by a ruthless ambition to impose a new order than a genial willingness to cut a deal. It was Margaret Thatcher who said, “Whoever won a battle under the banner ‘I Stand for Consensus’?” Even Bill Clinton, with his desire to be loved, could crack heads in pursuit of NAFTA, welfare reform, the crime bill, and deregulation. That’s because his aim was not to please or accommodate Republicans; it was to change the terms of liberalism.
By the time Obama assumed the presidency, however, that element of the neoliberal project was complete. It requires an especially baroque theory of politics to claim that Obama took up the call for universal healthcare and financial regulation, pushed hard on them in his campaign, expended time and energy on their behalf while in office, and made compromises when it looked like he couldn’t get all that he hoped for—simply because of a neoliberalism that predetermined the outcome from the outset. Neoliberalism can explain why Obama’s commitments to universal healthcare and financial regulation were never as robust as his progressive admirers claimed them to be. It doesn’t explain the final result or elaborate dance along the way.
For that, we need the third element of Obama’s public philosophy: a moral minimalism that rendered him not so much ill-prepared for a fight with the Republicans as ideologically indisposed to the very idea of a fight. “Yes we can” was a sonorous but empty phrase: yes we can what? When Obama got concrete, he might stay in that register of grandness—there was that moment when the rise of the oceans would begin to slow, and so on—but more often than not he opted for unapologetic avowals of smallness. “The true genius of America,” he told the DNC in 2004, is “an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm.” No one-off, that turn to the slight but simple truth of children being safe was a recurring theme of Obama’s presidency, arguably its epistemological ground. “There’s only one thing we can be sure of,” he said after Sandy Hook, “and that is the love that we have for our children. . . . The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.” These were not just comforting words to a grief-stricken nation. They emanated from the idiom of bare life, the wariness of deep foundations that had come to characterize liberalism in the wake of the New Deal order and the end of the Cold War.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that such a smallness of vision could never withstand the largeness of the right. But, for Obama, opposing largeness with smallness was the point. In this age of Trump and Twitter, it’s easy to forget the exhaustion of the electorate after the foreign wars of Bush and the domestic wars of Rove. Obama was keenly attuned to it. Rather than depict the Republicans as revanchists, he chose to describe them as irresponsible and grandiose, reckless adventurers who fought extravagant wars they didn’t pay for and squandered a surplus they hadn’t earned. Theirs was a “politics of anything goes,” he said, a bacchanal of waste and war. They were dangerous and dumb and out of control; he was safe and smart and in control. After eight years of operatic conflict, the last thing Americans wanted was more. What they wanted was less. That’s what Obama promised them—action that was “imperfect,” victories that were “partial”—and no amount of Republican wilding would stop him from keeping that promise. Even if it meant the peace of a graveyard, the quiet of a tomb.
That this was a vise of his own making, Obama seems never to have realized, at least not that we know. Neither have the Obamanauts. That we do know. Who thought this was a good idea? They did. They still do.
Corey Robin is the author, most recently, of The Enigma of Clarence Thomas. He is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Alyssa Mastromonaco had erred in claiming there was a Cultural Revolution in Iran. The error was the author’s and ours.