Thursday, December 09, 2010

Who is Barack Obama?

I met Jonathan Alter in 1977, I believe, when he was a sophomore and I was a junior faculty member at Harvard. In 1978-9, his senior year, I advised his senior thesis, which rather eerily paralleled a critical part of the book I was going to write twenty years later on the origins of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most successful theses of that year. At that time he was hesitating between politics and journalism, and he chose the latter and has been at Newsweek for most of the time since. He has now written three books, the second, The Defining Moment, about the beginning of FDR's Presidency, and the third, The Promise, on the first year of Barack Obama's, which has only just appeared. It is surely the most thorough book we have on Obama and his works, although the tone of restrained optimism on which Jon managed to end it now seems sadly out of date.

Jon hails from Chicago, his subject's adopted home, and the book is dominated by midwestern restraint. His FDR book, as I understand it, was cut back significantly by his editor and was in some respects, I thought, a bit thin; this one is about as detailed as a piece of contemporary history can be. Like Bob Woodward, he has relied largely on interviews, but without letting the interview become the story in the way that Woodward so often does. The book alternates chapters on the major policy issues of Obama's first year, including the stimulus, the auto industry rescue, relations with the financial community, foreign policy issues, and health care, with chapters on Obama the man, his life in the White House, and a few other key figures like the Clintons and Rahm Emmanuel. Democratic Congressional leaders get less attention, and Republicans get almost none. Essentially the book treats the growth of the Republican opposition the way the White House did--as unfortunate background that occasionally intrudes. Neither Obama nor Emmanuel nor Alter seems to have understood, when Alter finished the manuscript in the early spring of this year, how devastating the November elections would be.

Anyone who wants to understand Barack Obama in action should read the book. However his Presidency turns out, Obama, like Bill Clinton and, I suppose, Ronald Reagan, is an extraordinary American success story, rising from genuinely modest origins and a broken home to become the first black President. He reached the top almost exactly as quickly as Clinton but he had a much shorter political career (much to the Clintons' disgust.) The book deepens, rather than altering, our understanding of him. He is both extremely intelligent and very careful, and his equanimity is genuinely legendary. (In one of his more daring moments, Alter suggests that every successful black man still has to take care not to seem too angry, although there are certainly exceptions to this rule in academia, at least.) On the other hand, Obama has a disturbing weakness for overbearing men around him--Larry Summers and Rahm Eammanuel both come to mind--which suggests he may be relying on others to act out the tacit parts of his own psyche. He has a real sense of justice and wants to do good. Yet I came away feeling more than ever that this remarkable man has a truly tragic flaw: he trusts the system. And because our system desperately needs fixing, that alone, I am afraid, makes him the wrong man in the White House at this moment in American history--even though he certainly still looks to me as good as any of the other major candidates in the year 2008.

Barack Obama was certainly capable and dedicated enough to have risen through our educational system without affirmative action, but I cannot help but wonder if it had an effect on him nonetheless. In generations past, those like W. E. B. Dubois or Thurgood Marshall whose skin color denied them certain educational or professional opportunities inevitably became skeptics dedicated, for better or worse, to fundamental change. In the same way, although a combination of ability, birth and circumstance gave me every possible educational advantage, my professional life has instilled me with eternal skepticism about the "best and the brightest" of many eras, but especially of my own. To put it bluntly, Obama seems to have a good deal more respect for the leading economists, bankers, and even politicians of our time than I do either for those same people or for my fellow historians. In the economic sphere, especially, he surrounded himself with very conventional thinkers, led by Larry Summers, whose previous record of creating havoc at Harvard did not disturb him. "[Treasury Secretary] Geithner," Alter writes, "didn't beliee in punishing Goldman or anyone else. And he didn't back fundamental restructuring of the banking industry because at bottom, he didn't think the system was broken." There are no Harry Hopkinses or Harold Ickeses in the upper ranks of this Administration, men with backgrounds as social workers who felt the system had to be changed. The same is true in foreign policy, where Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an entirely conventional secretary of state. If one thinks that the status quo in domestic and foreign policy just needed a little fine tuning, this would make sense. If on the other hand you believe that the economic and foreign policies of the last 10-20 years have led us to the brink of disaster, then Barack Obama is not your man.

To a considerable extent Alter accepted the Obama Administration's own view of its actual accomplishments. He gives them generous credit for the simulus, for the rescues that avoided the collapse of the banking system and the auto industry (both of which, to be sure, had begun under George W. Bush), and even for health care reform. Indeed, some of the most interesting passages of the book suggest that the health care bill will allow for a real transformation of American medicine, including the end of fee-for-service compensation. If that is true the Administration was very careful indeed not to tell us about it, though, and the changes in our political life that have taken place in the last year do not make it seem more likely. But having studied FDR, Alter is only too keenly aware of Obama's nearly complete failure to emulate FDR's greatest achievement, his ability to make the American people feel, in much worse times than these, that he was on their side and would lead them to safety.

A few weeks ago I heard FDR's grandson Curtis Roosevelt, who has become a good amateur historian himself, discuss the didfferences between Obama and his grandfather. He too had read Alter's book, and he emphasized Obama's isolation within the White House and his trust of the experts. Like Obama, FDR heard from the leading economists of the day that public works programs wouldn't help the economy in the long run, but unlike Obama, he didn't care. "[The Obama White House's] disconnection from the world," Jon writes, "was the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved fro a mere culture to something approaching a cult. Obama was skeptical of cant but still in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a 'right answer' to everything. But a right answer for whom?" By 2010, Alter writes, Obama was moving towards new job creation moves, but it turned out to be much too late.

Our leadership, both Democratic and Republican, has failed us, just as it did in the 1920s and for a long time in the aftermath of the civil war. Having grown up in the secure world created by our grandparents and parents, the Boom generation has blithely torn it apart, drawing perhaps on the evidence of our childhood and youth that nothing we did could do lasting damage to existing structures. Unfortunately, it has. I am delighted that my old student declined to jump on any particular bandwagon. He has given us an unusually detailed and balanced account of a key moment in recent history, far more informative per page than any of Bob Woodward's, and I like to think that the intense year we spent putting his thesis together might have had at least a little to do with it.


Anonymous said...

Nice critique. I will definitely read Alter's book. I agree with you that Barack Obama is not the present for this moment in history. While I believed him to be quite moderate, I believed he would be much stronger in defending his stances instead if conceding too much ground in the name of bipartisanship. On the other hand, without the crisis he have never been elected.

While it may contribute, I'm not sure if the existence of affirmative action is needed to explain Obama's "trust" in the system. I believe that Obama trusts the system largely because of his background. Namely, he was raised by his WWII era white grandparents including a grandmother who moved from being a secretary to being a vp. He was probably told from the start "work hard" and everything will fall in place -- and it did. By contrast, blacks growing up in even the most conventional and conservative households tend to develop a healthy skepticism of the system and some awareness of structural inequality. Most differences lie in the response to this awareness.

Side note: as a black man in academia, I think being perceived as "angry" is trouble except in certain cases. Specifically, when one has tenure or where there is a constituency that responds to such anger. For example, among liberals from the 60's and 70's there is less alarm. Outside of academia, being perceived as angry is a near death sentence.

Anonymous said...

It's a little hard to square Obama's prep school background with "an extraordinary American success story, rising from genuinely modest origins and a broken home". Fredrick Douglass, or even Bill Clinton, this merit class baby is not.

I'm afraid that your earlier assessment is correct: G.W. "Man-Child" Bush will prove to be a vastly more influential and "historic" president. God save us. Obama's heading straight for the James Buchanan league. I'll be voting Green from here on out.
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

I kept the faith about as long as anyone, but with this most recent caving in on the tax cuts, I find I'm disappointed.

I had visions of an alternative energy program that would rejuvenate the economy, and yet that was left in the dust. And now, the country has handed the reigns over to the very people who believe government intrudes upon their right to make and keep money no matter who is harmed in the process.

A look at the list of who will be in leadership positions once the new Congress is seated is chilling, to say the least. We'll be stepping back a century as they dismantle every safety regulation and every consumer protection department. Once again, we'll all be at the mercy of business, but by God, we won't have the government telling us what to do with our money any more!

Molly said...

As skeptical as I am about the recent tax fiasco, I still strongly believe that Obama is giving this country exactly what it needs... REAL leadership. Although things aren't moving as fast as we may think, nothing can be fixed fast and that way of thinking (act now, think later) is what got us here in the first place.

The government needs to compromise. There are those of us who think the tax bill is a disgusting example of corporate control and the power of those in the top 2%. Yet, there are people who are not in the top 2% who still agree with the tax cuts. Many Americans believe strongly that these tax cuts for the wealthy are necessary, I am not one of them, but I do not want to quiet the opinions of these people. Their opinions, although so different from my own, are important. For me to look down on them assuming they must not know what I know is elitist and completely diminishes any chance of real dialogue. People may strongly oppose my opinion on taxes, etc. but I want to be heard.

I do not believe Obama has too much trust in the system, I believe he appreciates that the system only works with compromise and the future of our government relies on compromise (collaboration would be ideal but I don't think we're there yet). Americans are looking for some big flashy moment where Obama saves the day and we all rejoice that he is the man we hoped he would be.
But the Obama I voted for is a thinker, he knows each bill inside and out and has thought through the consequences. He's a leader, respectful to foreign diplomats, understanding the importance of our connection to those outside America (a concept so obvious yet apparently easily forgotten by other presidents). He understands that by discounting the ideas of those around him, not only does he make enemies, but he could be missing out on some great ideas because, most importantly, he doesn't judge an idea by what party it came from, but instead by the merit of the idea itself! This is the president I voted for and this is the president I see in the White House. He doesn't have TOO much trust in the system, he has just enough to believe he can change it for the better.