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Can Barack Obama’s legacy survive?

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait on what Obama did right and wrong, and what will last, in this ’moment of peril’
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Jonathan Chait is one of America’s most prominent liberal voices, from his perch as a writer at New York magazine. His new book, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail argues persuasively that history will record Barack Obama as a great president. Chait contends that Obama has a legacy to be proud of, from stopping the second Great Depression and providing health care for 20 million Americans through Obamacare, to being America’s first green president, spearheading 2015’s Paris climate accords.

Audacity argues cogently against Obama’s simplistic leftist critics, as well as those in the right and “centre.” Maclean’s spoke to Chait from his Washington office about the backlash to America’s first black President, liberals fetishizing the past, the serious threat of Donald Trump and his “Marxism,” and why—despite a Republican majority—he’s optimistic about the persistence of Obama’s legacy. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Q: During the 2016 campaign, Barack Obama said, “The problem is that they’ve been riding this tiger for a long time. Republicans have been feeding their base all kinds of crazy for years. Donald Trump, as he’s prone to do, he didn’t build the building himself, but he just slapped his name on it and took credit for it.”

A: I started writing this book last year before it was likely that Trump would be the nominee. It turned out that this book is in large part about Trump. Trump was the logical outcome of the Republican’s irrational, racialized backlash to Obama that had utterly come to dominate the party’s thinking.

Q: In Audacity, you note some prescient words from moderate California Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel, after he was beaten by Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention. He called Goldwater’s movement “a fanatical neo-fascist political cult” and a “strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear”. Where are today’s Kuchels?

A: That’s a great question. The Republicans’ response to Obama confused a lot of people. I really think there’s been a measure of clarity at the end, with Trump’s election, that was not present during the Obama presidency. The story of the Republican Party is of a far-right that has moved from the fringes of the party to a complete domination of the party. The moderate, mainstream and pragmatic leaders of the party have been pushed out or died off.

It dictated that the Republicans denied Obama all co-operation. But because many people remembered a time when the Republican Party was not so extreme, and hadn’t full grasped how much it had changed, people blamed Obama for his failure to get Republicans to agree with him. That blame coloured so much of how the public saw Obama during his presidency. The public thought he was dealing with a brand of Republican leader that just didn’t exist any more.

Q: Obama faced unprecedented scorched-earth opposition. But I think he spent too much energy bending over backwards to find bipartisan ground for already moderate proposals.

A: Yeah, I try to address that in the book. I think there’s some truth to that. On the other hand, he needed Democrats in Congress to do most of what he wanted. These Democrats had their own views. And a lot of those views were shaped by an outdated belief in the possibility of bipartisanship.

Q: What’s Obama like in private?

A: He’s a very impressive human being. He’s extremely smart. He knows a lot about a lot of things.

He’s pretty similar to the person you see in public, at press conferences. He’s a little saltier, a little more sarcastic and cutting. In public, he’s giving the simple version of his beliefs for the mass public. In private, he can discuss it at a really high level. He’s an intellectual.

Q: The KGB, RNC, FBI and WikiLeaks feel like the four shameless horsemen of the Trumpocalypse, giving a conspiracy theory spruiker, Donald Trump, a true conspiracy. Still surreal, isn’t it?

A: It’s extremely surreal, all those things you mention. The larger backdrop is Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate, and her difficulties with the news media, which were larger than those other events. They all added up to swing the election. I think there’s been an implicit line of reasoning in a lot of post-election commentary that treats the election as a repudiation of Obama. I just don’t see any evidence of that all, beginning with his approval ratings, which are very high.

President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave as they appear on stage together on the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave as they appear on stage together on the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Q: Why are you so optimistic about the persistence of Obama’s legacy, given Trump’s majority-fuelled plan to take it apart?

A: I have different levels of optimism on different issues.

To start from the least optimistic, taxes. That’s an important Obama accomplishment: he raised taxes back to Bill Clinton levels, and made a major dent in inequality doing so. That’s certain to be reversed, that’s going to disappear. The Republicans are going to slash the rich’s taxes.

In the environmental section I try to explain how Obama set in motion international forces and economic forces, both domestically and abroad, that are going to make the changes on emissions and green energy technology very difficult to reverse.

On Obamacare, every day that goes by I have more evidence that I wish I could put in my book, on how difficult it is for the Republicans to eliminate this law. They have no real alternative. They’re afraid to take away health care from the 20 million people who now have it. Obama took 20 million people from the category of ignorables and put them into the category of unignorables. No one had to do anything for these 20 million people because they were outside the system. Now they’re inside the system. Taking away their health care imposes all kind of political pain. We don’t know the outcome, but every passing day it show how difficult it is for Trump to deprive them of what they now have.

Obama’s last press conference for the year just flashed across my screen. He just mentioned he had the largest sign-up day for the Affordable Care Act in history, 670,000 people signed up for the exchanges. This high number shows people want Obamacare.

Republicans fighting back against changes Obama made means those changes are important, as with most of the major progress in American history.

MORE: How Donald Trump won the race to become president

Q: Obama didn’t get a fair shake from the media over the health care debate. The Ryanistas’ breathtakingly venal obstruction got treated like serious, intellectual debate.

A: That’s exactly right. That’s almost true of the entire picture of Republican opposition, which was treated as having some good points, especially when it concerned deficits, which was an elite fixation. The media said that the Republicans, and especially Paul Ryan, just wanted to reduce the deficit, which was such awful faith.

With health care, the Republicans never even had a plan. They started without a plan, and reverse engineered that into positions they could take to justify their opposition. They didn’t even understood what the bill did before they voted against it.

Q: Obama bailed out the Rust Belt’s auto industry in 2009, against fierce opposition from the likes of Mike Pence, and saved millions of jobs. Yet Pence and Trump’s very sketchy Carrier deal got great press.

A: Trump is what Obama critics think Obama is: Someone who’s focused on symbolism rather than substance. It’s possible that Trump will have success by staging jobs theatre, rather than creating jobs. It’s the inverse of what Obama did: saving an enormous amount of jobs without having the televised theatre to go along with it.

People sit outside the Jacob Javits Center waiting for election results following a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New York Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
People sit outside the Jacob Javits Center waiting for election results following a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New York Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Q: What do you think the Democratic Party will look like in four years? “Voters under 30,” in 2008, you hearteningly note in Audacity, “are supporting Obama by a staggering margin of more than two to one.”

A: What I think it should look like is an Obama party. That’s part of why I wrote the book. I’m trying to make the case for appreciating what Obama’s done, his policy legacy and his political model. To follow that like Democrats after Roosevelt continued to be a Roosevelt party. I hope they take my advice. I expect they will, but I can’t be sure.

I’m convinced in 100 years Obama will have an important place in the civic pantheon of American life. Donald Trump will be a tragedy, a sad joke in American history. Trump’s not the future; his ideas and his coalition are a dead end. We’re not going to be living in a world of abundant coal power in a hundred years. We’re not going to be living in a world where white identity politics is the basis for a major political party. Obamaism is the future of this country.

Q: We have to be vigilant, though. There’s nothing right with America—or Obama’s ideas—that can’t be destroyed by what’s wrong with America.

A: That’s right. In the short run, there’s an incredible, almost limitless amount of damage that can be done. It’s a moment of extreme and critical peril. But I’m confident of the outcome of that fight. And in the long run, however much damage we come through, Obama’s vision is the one that’s going to be left standing. It’s a question of how much pain and suffering America has to endure in the meantime.

Q: George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Freedom of the Park’: “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” Prescient for the Trump era, isn’t it?

A: Trump has a lot of authoritarian tendencies that need to be a serious concern. I worry about the entire structure of American democracy under Trump. American democracy faces a massive challenge. I don’t think it is a certainty that we’re headed toward Putin’s Russia, as some commentariat does. But people need to mobilize and build up small-d democratic institutions to prepare against that eventuality.

One of the things we’ve learned during the Obama era is how important norms are, because we’ve seen how the Republican Party behaved against Obama. So much of what they did was to smash pre-existing norms, which were nothing more than assumptions of how people would behave, which didn’t have any real basis in rules or limits. In some ways, Trump is just going to continue the trend: by continuing the norm-smashing behaviour that Republicans used in opposition.

Q: Presumably, the Dems have learned not to nominate a right-winger like Joe Lieberman as one of their standard-bearers?

A: Yeah, I would think. It’s pretty clear that Hillary Clinton was a deeply, deeply flawed alternative. She had the wrong combination of the internal political chops to muscle out all the mainstream nominations from the field, leaving only Bernie Sanders, who was unacceptable to the Democrats’ party establishment. But she also had a real lack of political skill that would enable her to win the general election. I don’t think the Democrats need a silver bullet. I think an average candidate would be a tremendous improvement over Clinton.

President Barack Obama speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Q: That leads into one of my big criticisms of Obama: his succession planning. Of course the Republicans were going to use every dirty trick possible. Hillary Clinton was a predictably weak candidate.

A: I think that’s right. I think that’s a fair criticism. You can lay some of that at Obama’s feet. She wasn’t really vetted. He should have played a bigger role.

It was “her turn.” He owed it to her at some level, because of her loyalty, to give her a chance, after she served effectively in his administration.

I don’t think they realised how much she’d degraded as a candidate since ’08, when she was still a rather flawed candidate. With all her speech-giving and fundraising, and this email server that came out basically after the field was cleared. Then it was announced there was going to be monthly releases of her emails, which would keep the story in the news for the entire rest of the campaign.

Q: Establishment Dems and media leaders like Paul Krugman made the case for Clinton on electability. Should there be introspection and self-criticism on getting that wrong?

A: Yes, there should. I never thought she was a very good politician. I just thought she was less flawed as a general election candidate than Bernie Sanders. Of course we didn’t have a test of Sanders’s untested weaknesses in that environment. It’s absolutely true that people who believed Hillary Clinton would be a decent or even strong nominee need to think why that got that wrong. Laying the entire blame at the feet of Russia and the FBI is not sufficient. The biggest reason things went wrong were her own choices and her own weaknesses.

MORE: Scott Gilmore on Russia’s American coup

Q: Liberals make fun of conservatives for fetishizing the past. Yet, as you wryly observe in Audacity, they do it too.

A: Liberals do it, too—to a much larger extent. Conservatives are much more comfortable supporting the leader who’s in power than liberals. Liberals will only support you after you’re gone. That’s what happened with Obama. Liberals tend to romanticize the past, past leaders’ failures. Audacity has a section on that, as you know, from Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Q: I propose that Trump is a Marxist, as in Groucho Marx’s line: “Who are you going to believe, me or you own lying eyes?” He flagrantly contradicts things millions of people saw him say on TV, like that press conference where he called upon Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

A: That’s exactly right. We’re seeing events every day that beggar belief, for which we have no frame of reference to process. People are trying to make sense of what’s going on. We don’t know if we have enough of a handle on it. There’s an element of clowning and entertainment to Trump, that makes it surreal and hard to understand to what extent he is pretending to be a fascist or an authoritarian. Is it a show? To what extent is it something very real?

There’s an assault on our ability to process reality that’s making it especially difficult to comprehend what we’re seeing. And it’s possible that we’ll have overreacted. It’s possible that the clowning and the buffoonery and the entertainment are a bigger part of what’s happening than we’ve allowed. And that Trump is primarily an entertainer who wants ratings, and an undisciplined speaker, and it will all be less than we think. It’s something that we have to consider as a possibility; we don’t know.

Q: There’s no doubting that the likes of Michael Flynn and John Bolton—contrarians on Russia and Iran— are scary, though?

A: They are. At best, Trumpism will be a more right-wing version of the same old Republican Party.

Q: I’m pleased Obama and Eric Holder have said they’re going to get stuck into attacking the Republicans’ undemocratic gerrymandering post his presidency. Anything else you’d like to see Obama do once Trump is in the West Wing?

A: I think he should lead the opposition.

Alexander Bisley is an award-winning journalist who writes about politics, sport, and the arts.