Tuesday, February 21, 2017



By Jonathan Chait

Custom House, $27.99, 240 pages

In the great swirl of people and ideas and the high winds of political rhetoric and journalistic overkill howling through Washington during the early days of the Trump administration, it’s hard to remember just what preceded it all — an extended period of not much presided over by a somewhat detached figure with an academic sense of irony who did no irreparable damage, presided over no catastrophes, quietly turned over the keys to the White House when the moment arrived, and just as quietly, seemed almost to fade away.

He’ll be back, of course, still young and superbly articulate, post-White House wealthy, with greater sums yet to be harvested, and apparently no thoughts for the present of leaving Washington, where the money grows.

But legacy? That was tested pretty thoroughly during the campaign, when Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s secretary of State (in which capacity, incidentally, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the destructive Arab Spring and the subsequent upheaval in American foreign policy) carried the Obama record into battle.

The result: Great swaths of the country populated by former Democrats saw nothing at all to applaud in that legacy; nor did there seem to be hope for normal American working people in future programs and policies, many of which seemed involved with race or exotic sexual irregularities, of interest primarily to organs of the perceived new amorality like The New York Times. (In this regard, perhaps one of the most memorable accomplishments of the Obama legacy will be a nation of public restrooms integrated by gender — all four of them.)

But to be fair to Mr. Chait, a highly regarded leftist journalist in a shrinking profession, he couldn’t be expected to know that his book was being written at the moment in history when the myth of liberal-left hegemony long spun by the major media was collapsing.

With the extraordinary growth of a new social media and alternative press, the older media has steadily lost audiences, advertisers and influence. And when candidate Donald Trump appeared, proclaiming himself the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter and communicating directly with his audiences, the writing was on the wall; and the nearly hysterical adversarial press reaction to President Trump might be seen in part as desperate attempts by the major media to recapture status and authority.

There’s no hysteria in Mr. Chait’s reaction, although there may be a touch of bitterness. He’s a liberal-left journalist of the old school, and things weren’t supposed to turn out this way. He covered Barack Obama for eight years, and his book is made up largely of revised and updated material from writings of that period. As such, it was intended to appear simultaneously with the election results, wedding the new Clinton administration to the Obama, with principles intact.

Mr. Chait divides his book into seven chapters, one titled “America’s Primal Sin,” a somewhat confused and confusing discussion of race in which he concludes that “the Obama phenomenon had made American politics more starkly racial, and it had also made racial sentiments more liberal.” (It also, others might say, has left race relations at their lowest point in decades.)

Other chapters deal with Obamacare, “the triumph of the vision of generations of activists and intellectuals consummated by the vision of Barack Obama”; and environmentalism, the title of the chapter — “To Halt the Rise of Oceans” — is taken from one of his more pretentious speeches. There’s a chapter praising his handling of the economic crisis, which awaited him in his first term, and absolving him of blame for the period of extended gridlock that followed.

And that, in large part, is pretty much it.

In the end, writes Mr. Chait, having been badly let down by the election and perhaps looking for scapegoats, people expected too much. Mr. Obama hadn’t promised to bring about a revolution or a post-racial society, he tells us. What he had promised was to “unleash structural transformation in American health care and education, to bring down the country’s carbon dioxide emissions,” and spare the country another economic crisis.

And according to Mr. Chait, his promises were kept. But those successes were at best temporary, and with significant rollbacks underway, while civil war rages among Democrats, talk of an Obama legacy seems as empty as a discussion of the Carter legacy.

But then, as Mr. Chait tells us in his post-election afterword, “I am not always right.”

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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