When Barack Obama graduated from Columbia College in 1983, he began building his resume. He spent two years working in New York, one in the private sector and the second in a non-profit, whereupon he moved to Chicago and spent the next three, famously, as a community organizer. As he explained in his autobiography, which I reviewed at length here some years ago, he learned about the impact of de-industrialization on working-class communities, but apparently without concluding that anything drastic had to be done change the new directions in U.S. economic development. From there it was off to Harvard Law School, where he cultivated good relations with students of all political factions and won election as editor of the Harvard Law Review. Graduating in 1991, he moved back to Chicago, became a part-time faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School, and joined a law firm. His autobiography, Dreams from my Father, was published in 1995, and he was elected to the Illinois State Senate in the next year. Election to the Senate followed in 2004, the year that he became a national figure by making a spell-binding speech at the Democratic National Convention. During the next four years he published a second book, much less good in my opinion than the first, and in 2011 he launched his miraculously successful campaign for the Presidency. Obama already belongs to a very select group in American history: by the time he leaves the White House, he will have been President longer than he ever held any other full-time job.
Over the last two months or so, Obama sat for a lengthy series of interviews with David Remnick, leading to a very long piece in this week's New Yorker. In 2007, we learn, Obama told Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard that he wanted to be "a President who makes a difference," not a Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce. If the Affordable Health Care Act survives its problems he undoubtedly will. In the last few months the possibility of definite achievements in foreign policy--especially a nuclear deal and even, conceivably, the resumption of normal relations with Iran--has emerged, largely, it would seem, thanks to John Kerry. Yet he will not, as Remnick stresses and Obama must himself acknowledge, have realized his dream of healing the bitter division between red and blue America, and it seems very unlikely that any additional major progressive steps are on the horizon. His advisers, Remnick reports confidently believe that demographics will keep Democrats in the White House for the next two election cycles at least thanks to minority voters, but that, it seems to me, is trusting people to vote based upon who they are, not upon what one party has actually done for them. Time will tell.
If the Affordable Health Care act overcomes its problems it will benefit millions of Americans, and it may build new constituencies for Democrats at the polls, That of course is one reason Republicans have opposed it so fanatically. But it will not have reversed a dangerous trend in American life. We spend much too much money on health care--50% more, at least, than most advanced countries. Under the Affordable Care Act we will spend even more, because more people will be insured through the current system. And that, sadly, is characteristic of every major step Obama has taken in domestic affairs. Nowhere has he really taken on a dangerous trend in American government and begun to reverse it. We will never know whether, flushed with victory and armed with Congressional majorities in 2009, he might have done so. What we do know is that he did not try.
Remnick was in fact rather gentle in his questioning on certain key points. At no time, for instance, does he ask the President why almost no one from a major financial institution has faced criminal charges for steps that led to the crash of 2007-8 and the damage that still remains from it. Faced with that crash, Obama did not, like FDR, cite is as a moral failing in need of a moral solution. “Our distress comes from no failure of substance,” Roosevelt told the nation in his first inaugural. “Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness
and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men . . .The money changers have fl ed from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit." Obama, unlike FDR, immediately surrounded himself with men like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner who had helped create the new financial structure that had broken down. He has spent five years trying to reform it, but it is far from clear that anything fundamental has changed, or that we will not face a new crash--perhaps not as bad, but bad enough--within a few more years. Rather than focus on these policy issues, Remnick returns repeatedly to the President's personal qualities, especially his difficulty engaging with other politicians and finding ways to bend them to his will. The same problem, I think, has been an even greater handicap in foreign policy.
Nor, as Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in a fine article in the current New York Review of Books, has Obama done anything to reverse the long-term trends affecting the federal budget. For the past 30 years--since Ronald Reagan--these have included lower income and corporate taxes, higher payroll taxes, a steadily growing percentage of federal outlays going to social security and health care, a defense budget that dwarfs those of other nations of the world (now also supplemented by a gigantic intelligence budget), and a steadily shrinking share for discretionary spending, especially on infrastructure. Sachs, whose piece, "Our dangerous budget and what to do about it," can be downloaded from his own web page, points out that the net effect of four years of struggle with the Republican Congress was to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for all but a tiny fraction of the population.
And, of course, in foreign policy, Obama has kept more of George W. Bush's initiatives in place than he has dismantled--the exception being the Iraq War. He sent more troops to Afghanistan for four years, evidently, according to Robert Gates, without any great belief that they would accomplish very much. The national security state is as large an intrusive as ever and Obama shows no signs of slowing it down. Talking to Remnick, he justifies drone strikes on the grounds that they are killing people who want to attack America. Remnick did not push him on whether they might be generating even more people who want to do so. In an astonishing statement--to my mind at least--he rates the success of any of his key foreign policy initiatives today--the Iranian nuclear deal, a settlement in Syria, or an Israeli-Palestinian peace--at less than 50%. That may be accurate, although the Iranian deal seems to have a better chance than that, but I think it was far too resigned a statement for a sitting President to make, and hardly a vote of confidence for his Secretary of State. Obama has decided, Remnick argues, that American military force can no longer reshape the world. I agree, but the President has not done much to find useful alternatives.
Franklin Roosevelt, a sailor all his life, delighted in taking the nation on a voyage to new and uncharted waters, and led both the United States and the rest of the world into new territory. Obama wants to steer the ship capably and fairly--but without any fundamental changes of course. Curiously, while he repeatedly refers to Lincoln as his favorite President, FDR never comes up, despite the explicit, public comparisons between the two that were all the rage only five years ago. It is not, to be sure, fair to blame only Obama for not being FDR. Roosevelt drew upon progressive traditions that had been growing up for forty years--the parallel, in the early twentieth century, to the growth of economic conservatism in our own time. He filled his cabinet with strong personalities determined first to transform the United States, and then, beginning in 1940, to make democracy prevail in a world war. Obama would have had trouble finding such men and women today--but I see no evidence that he really looked.
Despite everything he has had to face, especially from the Republican party, Obama still trusts the system. His rather stoic view of life emerges at another point, a discussion of concussions in football. Obama, evidently a devoted NFL fan, shrugs off the issue, remarking that the players knew what they were getting into and accepted the risk. Even if that is true, and in many cases it isn't, it may be an inadequate reason to continue to encourage tens of thousands of high schoolers to risk their long-term health on the gridiron every year. Obama did not have an easy childhood. His family situation was chaotic, at least until he moved in with his grandparents. Like so many members of his generation, he has responded by giving his daughters all the stability that he did not have. In a striking statement, he says he thinks "I'm pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin." That might explain why, when faced with choices between doing too much or too little, he usually picks the latter. "The President of the United States cannot remake our society," he says, "and that's probably a good thing. . . .Not probably. It's definitely a good thing."
There are times, alas, when an old order collapses and a President, together with his advisers and a majority of the nation, must try to remake our society, and Obama became President in the midst of such a time. So did Lincoln and FDR, and they managed to do what was necessary, and in Roosevelt's case, much more. Obama, who has had to make peace with so much in his own life since earliest childhood, has made peace with his inability to do so. Near the end of the article, he takes some comfort, ironically, in recognizing that despite the achievements of Lincoln, his favorite President, it took another hundred years to secure civil rights for black Americans. He will leave office as the first black President, and it seems there is a good chance that the first female President will succeed him. That will be the positive legacy of our age: the opening of opportunity, at the highest levels, to women, minorities, and gays. That may be an inspiration. The society that we shall leave behind is not.