In the new book “A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama,” Michael D’Antonio looks at Barack Obama’s presidency through the promises he made when he was campaigning for office.
D’Antonio tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about some of Obama’s main achievements, where he fell short and how he managed to make big policy changes despite being opposed at every turn by congressional Republicans.
Book Excerpt: ‘A Consequential President’
By Michael D’Antonio
Obama delivered on most of his promises, and where he fell short, he made a true effort. Yet much of what he achieved was accomplished quietly and would be seen only as complex pieces of legislation were translated into action and the interlocking strategy he’d employed became more evident. Seen from the perspective of 2016, it is apparent that Obama’s economic policy dovetailed with his energy policy, which enabled his diplomacy and aided his environmental agenda. In an ever-more-connected world where problems such as climate change will yield only to an international effort, Obama’s thoughtful and multifaceted approach may be the only thing that will work.
As to the looming symbolic challenge Obama faced as he became the nation’s first black president, his calm, analytical way of approaching difficult issues must also be seen as the best possible option. His election, his reelection, and his successes say as much about the country as they do about him. They reveal America to be a better place than many of its critics assumed, and this image, of a country that is always reinventing itself, may be Obama’s most significant and enduring legacy. This accomplishment makes him a consequential president whose service will only grow in significance with the passage and perspective of time.
In the meantime, the president would continue to endure harsh criticism from the Left, where writers such as Thomas Frank de- scribed the Obama years in terms of lost opportunities. In his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal, Frank expressed his disappointment in Obama because none of his reforms went far enough. Insurers remained embedded in the health care system. Wall Street retained its power in finances. Poverty was intractable, college students remained burdened by debt, and income inequality had worsened. Listen, Liberal was a stinging rebuke, but it was also unfair. Obama had been elected president, not monarch, and the American political system had been fashioned over generations to prevent the kind of sweeping change Frank would have preferred.
Instead of a revolution, Obama delivered progress on health care, which many previous presidents had failed to achieve, and the first real action on climate change in decades. A consequential president in style, as well as substance, Obama’s intellectualism and perseverance, which annoyed so many of his critics, were actually welcomed by the public as a whole. As the 2016 GOP presidential candidates descended into ever-lower realms of rhetoric and behavior, Obama’s poll numbers ticked steadily upward. In February 2016 the Gallup poll reported his favorability rating was 50 percent and climbing. In comparison, at the same point in their presidencies George W. Bush’s favorability rating was 32 percent and Ronald Reagan’s was 51.
In addition to his demeanor, Obama’s popularity was likely the product of his success in foreign affairs, which is one policy area where a president can act most decisively. Under Obama the American people have seen a huge improvement in the nation’s standing, as measured by public opinion, and historic openings to Iran and Cuba, where the president’s record defied those who had dismissed him earlier in his presidency. In spring 2016 Obama highlighted his record with an official visit to Cuba, the first time a sitting US president had set foot in the country since 1928.
Obama’s visit thrilled the Cuban people, who turned out in great numbers to see him. His main message was delivered at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, where he offered words of reconciliation and also provocation. Obama was applauded when he said, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” He was applauded more loudly when he added, “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.”
In referencing the rights that Cubans deserved, Obama vexed his host Raúl Castro, who later criticized the president in an article titled “Brother Obama.” In the piece he insisted that Cubans did not need “gifts” from the United States and suggested that Obama was in no position to “develop theories about Cuban politics.” Castro offered a litany of American interventions in the affairs of other nations and said that “syrupy words” were not enough to smooth over a history of conflict.
Castro’s response was proof that Obama’s visit had inspired hope in Cubans who yearned for more freedom. The tour was also a fitting bookend for a presidency that was foreshadowed, in 2008, by candidate Obama’s address in Berlin, where two hundred thou- sand people cheered him at Tiergarten. In both appearances, Obama stood as a living symbol of hope. Hope for less conflict and more understanding; hope for an end to economic crisis; hope for equal rights; hope for the environment; hope for equal opportunity; hope for a more inclusive and respectful society.
More than most people understood, Obama had actually delivered the change that was the second part of his 2008 campaign message of “hope” and “change we can believe in.” Partisan critics will forever sneer at this theme, insisting that the president fell short of his pledge. History, fairly told, will show he fulfilled his promise and in ways that will continue to be revealed, at home and abroad, for years to come.
Obama had history in mind as he gave the last of his eight addresses to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016. As he spoke, the United States was poised to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in an election that was less than sixty-days away. Trump was running as a close-the-borders xenophobe who would roll back trade agreements and constrict immigration in defiance of a century of experience that showed America prospered from free trade and the energies of new citizens from abroad.
Faced with the prospect of Trump, Obama chose to speak of optimism instead of anxiety, and yes, of hope rather than fear. In one of the most inspiring speeches of his entire public life, Obama held true to the themes of his 2008 campaign. “Each of us leaders, each nation, can choose to reject those who appeal to our worst impulses and embrace those who appeal to our best.” This perspective was the message he offered the nation as he became president. It was the ideal that guided his time in office. And it is the foundation of the legacy.
Excerpted from A CONSEQUENTIAL PRESIDENT: The Legacy of Barack Obama. Copyright © 2016 by Michael D’Antonio. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.