Barack Obama’s America began in 2004 in Boston with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston – there’s not a red America, there’s not a blue America, there’s the United States of America. He brought the house down, even if he was officially nominating John Kerry. Kerry wouldn’t become president. He would, and the following twelve years were variations on that theme – we’re all in this together – we all want the best for the country – we question others’ ideas but never their motives. Americans disagree, loudly and sometimes crudely, but Americans are good decent people. It’s the same with nations too. They only want the best for their people and for the world, even if they are dangerously wrong about this and that. That can mean war, but not necessarily. Iran can give up its nukes, for a time, while we argue about the rest. We can open relations with Cuba as we argue about what we see as their awful deeds. Question others’ ideas but never their motives – they think they’re doing the right thing. Disagree. But don’t walk away. Consider the world as it is. Everyone is trying to do the right thing.
Donald Trump’s America began in 2015 when he floated down that gold escalator at Trump Tower with his third trophy wife at his side and told America that Mexico was sending us rapists and murderers and drug dealers – but some of them might be good people – he really didn’t know – so he’d build that wall and Mexico would pay for it. Now he calls them “animals” – not people at all – and he has done his variations on that theme. There were the iterations of his travel ban – Muslims were out to get us, all of them, even any refugee children others might want us to accept. Kneeling black football players hated America – that was their motive. Don’t question their ideas, question their motives. And on trade matters, understand that all other nations were out to get us, even our allies. There’d be new tariffs. We’d hit them back ten times harder. We’d walk away from Cuba again too. The nuclear deal with Iran was crap too. We walked away – there was nothing to talk about – even if they’d stop developing nukes their motives were unclean. Consider the world as it is. No one is trying to do the right thing.
The world as it is had changed, but not really. People have disagreed about how the world is before Obama and Trump. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote The Leviathan – arguing that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That was his premise. It’s a dog eat dog world, and Hobbes’ idea was that the best we can hope for is a massive authoritarian state – a leviathan – to make things at least bearable for us all, by smoothing out the rough edges with some quick justice. In short, people are just awful. You need a strong king, and strong institutions that answer to him alone, to keep folks from destroying each other.
Perhaps Donald Trump is what Hobbes had in mind, but that ran counter to the concept of the Noble Savage – the natural man, unencumbered by either civilization or divine revelation, inherently good, who doesn’t need any authoritarian state. Hobbes had it all wrong. People are naturally good. They can work things out on their own. Rousseau wrote about that on his Theory of Natural Man – the Enlightenment idea. We can work things out. We’re not inherently evil – quite the opposite – but maybe authoritarian government is. Rousseau despised Hobbes.
And then there was John Locke and his Tabula Rasa notion. Man is neither good nor bad. We’re born a blank slate, so it is best that we build what institutions we need, by mutual agreement, but keep it simple and change those institutions by agreement when needed. Disagree. But don’t walk away. Jefferson and those who wrote our Constitution all agreed with John Locke explicitly – they said so. The whole king thing had been a bust. George III across the pond shouldn’t matter. He didn’t matter, but those who wrote our Constitution had all read Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide too – mindless goofy optimism was also a trap. This wasn’t going to be easy.
This dispute has been going on since 1651 or so. Why stop now? There’s Ben Rhodes’ new book The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House – to be published next week. The clover-blurb is this – “From one of Barack Obama’s closest aides comes a revelatory behind-the-scenes account of his presidency – and how idealism can confront harsh reality and still survive – in the tradition of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.”
That’s marketing, marketing to liberals who miss Jack and Jackie and Camelot. Conservatives miss Ronald Regan. See TAKE A BOW! Ben Rhodes manages to make Obama sound EVEN MORE insufferably arrogant – because Obama knows nothing about how the world really is. Liberals know nothing about how the world really is.
But Obama knows something. The New York Times’ Peter Baker got his advance review-copy of the Rhodes book. Baker sees no arrogance:
Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
Maybe Thomas Hobbes was right – the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” leaving many behind. They become tribal. They want an authoritarian leader to make things at least bearable for them, by smoothing out the rough edges of their lives with some quick justice of some sort:
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early,” he said.
He knew that others didn’t yet see the world as it is, or will be later, which may be wishful thinking:
At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure that cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history… Few moments shook Mr. Obama more than the decision by voters to replace him with a candidate who had questioned his very birth.
And there are the details of that:
In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to “The Godfather” mafia movie: “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”
Mr. Rhodes describes the reaction of foreign leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan apologized for breaching protocol by meeting with Mr. Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan after the election. Mr. Obama urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada to take on a more vocal role defending the values they shared.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama that she felt more obliged to run for another term because of Mr. Trump’s election to defend the liberal international order. When they parted for the final time, Ms. Merkel had a single tear in her eye. “She’s all alone,” Mr. Obama noted.
That was the world as it now was, but he already knew that:
Despite criticism even from former advisers to Mr. Obama, Mr. Rhodes offers little sense that the former president thought he could have done more to counter Russian involvement in the election. Mr. Obama had authorized a statement to be issued by intelligence agency leaders a month before the election warning of Russian interference, but was thwarted from doing more because Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, refused to go along with a bipartisan statement.
Mr. Rhodes called Mr. McConnell’s refusal “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.” But Mr. Obama, whose Supreme Court nomination had been blocked by Mr. McConnell for months, seemed less surprised.
“What else did you expect from McConnell?” he asked. “He won’t even give us a hearing on Merrick Garland.”
Still, in preparatory sessions before meetings with the news media before the election, aides pressed Mr. Obama to respond to criticism that he should speak out more about Russian meddling. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” he responded. “What else are we going to do? We’ve warned folks.”
This is a man who was defeated:
On election night, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone with Cody Keenan, his chief speechwriter, and Mr. Rhodes to figure out what he should say. Mr. Rhodes asked if he should offer reassurance to allies. “No, I don’t think that I’m the one to tell them that,” the president said.
Trump would later tell them that NATO had to pay up or it was over, and now it’s the new tariffs that will ruin their economies – because they’re the enemy now. Obama knew that was Trump’s call, not his, and there’s this:
“I don’t know,” he told aides. “Maybe this is what people want. I’ve got the economy set up well for him. No facts. No consequences. They can just have a cartoon.”
He added that “we’re about to find out just how resilient our institutions are, at home and around the world.”
That doesn’t sound hopeful, nor does this:
The day Mr. Obama hosted Mr. Trump at the White House after the election seemed surreal. Mr. Trump kept steering the conversation back to the size of his rallies, noting that he and Mr. Obama could draw big crowds, but Mrs. Clinton could not, Mr. Rhodes writes.
Afterward, Mr. Obama called a few aides to the Oval Office to ruminate on the encounter. “I’m trying to place him in American history,” he said.
“He peddles” bull, Mr. Rhodes answered. “That character has always been part of the American story. You can see it right back to some of the characters in Huckleberry Finn.”
“Maybe,” Mr. Obama answered, “that’s the best we can hope for.”
The best we can hope for is some comic but harmless flim-flam huckster from a Mark Twain novel? That’s not Donald Trump. This is Donald Trump’s America now. Andrew Sullivan recently argued that Obama’s legacy is gone now:
In economic policy, Obama’s slow winnowing of the deficit even in times of sluggish growth has been completely reversed. We too easily forget that the biggest accomplishment of Trump’s term in office so far – a massive increase in debt in a time of robust economic growth – is the inverse of Obama’s studied sense of fiscal responsibility. Nothing in modern fiscal history can match Trump’s recklessness – neither Reagan’s leap of faith nor George W. Bush’s profligacy – and it’s telling that the Democrats and the liberal intelligentsia have accommodated so swiftly to it. Nothing is so unfashionable right now as worrying about debt.
But it’s more than that:
The fiscal vandalism is also a massive U-turn in terms of redistribution. If Obama managed to shift resources, ever so incrementally, toward the middle class and the poor (by allowing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, by bringing millions of the working poor into health insurance), Trump has done the opposite, by doubling down on unprecedented economic inequality, and borrowing unimaginable sums to disproportionately benefit the unimaginably wealthy. On trade, Trump ended Obama’s central initiative in Asia, the TPP.
But it’s more than that:
On the environment, the issue I suspect that will loom far, far larger in retrospect, Obama used his executive regulatory powers in an attempt to nudge and coax the economy away from carbon. Almost all of that regulation has now gone out the window, thanks to Scott Pruitt’s diligent fanaticism. Yes, there is no undoing of the deeper market and technological trends that are making renewable energy more affordable; but if you take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seriously, even Obama’s energy legacy was insufficient to the scale of the task. The window for keeping the planet from ecological catastrophe was only barely ajar in 2016; the Paris Agreement was the most minimal of gestures toward keeping it open; now, it’s all but sealed shut. Trump’s championing of environmental destruction, his active reveling in it, his plan to open up the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling, his near-religious fealty to fossil fuels: Unless some technological miracle occurs, the odds of restraining, let alone reversing, climate catastrophe are vanishingly low.
And then there’s foreign policy:
In less than two years, Trump has wrecked an Atlantic alliance that every president has defended and advanced since the Second World War, and that Obama nurtured. No European government can or should trust America from now on: They know they’re on their own. And then there is the volte-face in the Middle East. Obama’s core achievement in foreign policy was to shift America from embattled enmeshment in the region to a more offshore balancing role. By getting out of Iraq, and reaching out to Tehran, as well as maintaining our links to Jerusalem and the Saudi theocracy, the U.S. increased its options and leverage, while bringing Europe into the mix through the Iran deal. There was even, believe it or not, an attempt at first to restrain the Greater Israel lobby, to use what leverage the American president has to restrain the settlements project.
Now look where we are: a U.S. policy clearly committed de facto to the Israeli goal of annexation of the entire West Bank, and of intensified apartheid. The “peace plan” is essentially a way to force Palestinians into ever tighter Bantustans in an ever-more theocratic and authoritarian Jewish state. And the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has more deeply entangled the U.S. in the Muslim religious war, by throwing in our lot completely with the Sunnis. We are now committed to a permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, if only to resist Iran’s proxies and the Taliban. Yes, our forces are smaller. But if an avowedly isolationist president has accepted an unending presence in the countries we invaded in 2001 and 2003, we are there forever.
And then there’s the matter of torture:
With Gina Haspel as CIA director and Mike Pompeo at the State Department, we have again placed it very much on the table. Obama believed he could draw a line under torture, leave the CIA alone and somehow quarantine the barbarism. Haspel’s ascent – enabled by key Democrats no less – reveals just how blurry that line has become.
And then there’s health care:
Again, we’d like to believe that the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare means that Obama wins in the end. In fact, he loses. The GOP would have had to face electoral calamity if they were clearly seen as the party gleefully throwing tens of millions off their insurance. They somehow ducked this form of accountability (despite themselves), and were yet able to so cripple the ACA afterwards that it is now headed toward a death spiral they will escape the blame for. By ending the individual mandate, by allowing for more bare-bones insurance policies, and by narrowing the time window to apply for Obamacare policies, Trump has rendered the ACA unstable and unaffordable.
That’s just a bit of what Sullivan sees – there’s much more – and he ends with this:
If Trump has destroyed Obama’s substantive legacy at home and abroad, the left has gutted Obama’s post-racial cultural vision. And those of us who saw him as an integrative bridge to the future, who still cling to the bare bones of a gradually more inclusive liberal order, find ourselves on a fast-eroding peninsula, as cultural and political climate change erases the very environment we once called hope.
Sullivan sees the world as it is now. He sees Trump’s America, not Obama’s. Obama introduced hope on Boston in 2004 but there’s no hope now.
Jonathan Chait thinks this is shortsighted:
Presidents are normally measured by what they accomplished, rather than how their successors managed their legacy. That the South created a feudal system of quasi-slavery after Reconstruction is not usually counted against Abraham Lincoln’s achievements in abolishing slavery. Modern Republican presidents have neutered enforcement of labor law, but you don’t usually encounter that fact when you read about how Franklin Roosevelt established the National Labor Relations Board.
It may be fair to consider the durability of legacy achievements. But in this bitter partisan age, they will inevitably swing back and forth. A still photo of the Obama legacy under Trump, as if the political clock has stopped forever, is the opposite of a long-term approach. Will Trump’s vision of health care have prevailed over Obama’s, 50 years from now, or his ideas about democracy and tolerance? Will textbooks afford Trump more reverence than Obama? That story remains to be written by us all. But I suspect it will not be the one the angry, jealous old man in the Oval Office hopes for.
Obama did wonder if he was ten or twenty years too early. He may have been right. Wait. The world as it is isn’t really the world as it is. It’s only the world as it seems to be now. That angry, jealous old man in the Oval Office may end up with no legacy at all one day. Of course we’ll all be dead by then. That’s a bit of a problem. We all live in the now.