The Obama Years

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and a singular embodiment of it: a three-ring circus of a successor, Donald Trump, who seems to be the very opposite in tone and temperament of Barack Obama. 

Before turning the page on the “next great chapter in the American Story,” we’re re-reading the Obama years for what they meant. While the President’s approval ratings soar to their highest levels since his first few months in office, he leaves behind a checkered legacy–especially around war, trade, and immigration. For our guest David Bromwich, the Obama years were too often characterized by forgotten promises and unrealized hopes. Reconciliatory speech and radical centrism covered up imperial misadventures and neoliberal exploits.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, many of us, like Marilynne Robinson, beloved novelist and personal friend of the president, will miss a lot from Mr. Obama. Robinson says the transnational aspects of Obama embody the very best in us, and, she tells us, “Our refusal to acknowledge him as he was really is a refusal to acknowledge ourselves as we are.” Robinson speaks of Obama as a “saintly man” with an impossible job:

This idea of the transformative leader, I think that that Obama is smarter than that. He knows that change is incremental and that it is collective. But what liberals tend to do–and I call myself a liberal under every possible circumstance, I’d put it on my headstone–but what they tend to do is create some ideal that nobody could live up to and then diminish what is good, what is accomplished by comparison with this almost childlike, supposed expectation. It’s no way to run anything.

Bromwich, Sterling professor of English at Yale, sees Obama differently. Bromwich was a supporter in 2008, but in 2009 became a skeptic who saw serious limits to the man’s gracious style:

…you can’t keep giving that reconciliatory post-war speech with a euphemistic and gentle rhetoric appropriate to a magnanimous victor in a war. Obama wanted to be the magnanimous victor and conciliator before he even fought a contest… and that’s a temperamental quirk so strange…. a fixed, false idea that he could be the unifier.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Nathan Robinson and Randall Kennedy join us to hash out the meaning of the Obama years in the context of the inauguration.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Guest List
Marilynne Robinson
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Housekeeping and Lila, essayist of The Givenness of Things, and former head of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
David Bromwich
Sterling professor of English at Yale University and author of Moral Imagination: Essays.
Randall Kennedy
professor of law at Harvard University.
Nathan Robinson
founder and editor of Current Affairs magazine and the author of Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity

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  • Richard Grijalva

    Marilyn Robinson sends us a sobering reminder about the importance of language’s poetry as we head into this era of Trumpism’s linguistic violence and fantasmagoria. About President Obama’s approach to framing politics in terms of meaning, she notes: “The best presidents are highly articulate…There is a certain way in which America is enthroned on these highest speeches…” that realize and amplify the power the idea of America. She continues, in the dark backdrop of Trumpian venality and inarticulateness: “Obama speaks that language…The day that we stop recognizing it when we hear it, when the old music hardly becomes inaudible to us, that will probably be the place where America in every sense it’s ever liked to think of itself, will in fact expire.”

    In contrast to jingoistic and authoritarian spectacles, the aesthetics of Obama’s democratic discourse may not leave immediately noticeable traces. And it’s in that register that we need to remain attentive to our language and how it resonates in the capillaries of policy and the bodies of the multitudes of people.

  • Obama was victorious in two major contests that mattered.

    Obama vanquished Boehner – ramrodding the ACA vote, causing
    chaos in the Republican party – led to the midterm election rise of the Young Guns faction (Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy). In April 2011 Obama humiliated Ryan in a speech.

    The Young Guns were vanquished with Obama’s 2012 reelection. (Cantor lost a primary in 2014 and resigned.) Demoralized, Boehner regained power over the The Young Guns.

    In that vacuum, Trump files for TM protection for the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election.

    In the 1950s the UAW struck GM. It was strategic mistake and the
    UAW was in danger of bankruptcy. GM could have vanquished the UAW but instead lent them money to pay strike benefits. WHY? GM feared the chaos a victory over the UAW would cause in their auto factories.

    Obama should have worked closely with Boehner on the ACA. Avoiding chaos, like GM, by using Boehner to control the more radical components of the Republican party during his presidency.

    David Bromwich on RoS in 2010:
    “He has said the Health Care Bill was a piece of “signature legislation.” …… was anything but a signature piece of legislation… If he had a signature, we don’t know what it looked like….”

    David Bromwich on RoS in 2016:
    Aversion to conflict & confrontation; expediency.
    ####

    We do now know what his signature looks like.

  • Potter

    After Trump’s (deplorable) inaugural address it’s reported that Obama shook Trump’s hand and said “good job”. That’s been the problem with Obama.

    • Well, the deplorables got him elected. Obama patronized him by
      saying ‘Good Job’ – textually it looked like this: Good Job /s

      • Potter

        The “deplorables” as per Hillary Clinton, don’t forget were a subset of those who voted for Trump. What she said was badly misrepresented. Those folks were the irredeemable hardcore haters, the resentful, the tribal Republicans, racists- not necessarily those hurting and angry either. Many voted for Obama don’t forget. They were not the ones donning “I’m deplorable” ( and proud of it) T shirts. One wonders where the deplorables go from here after their inaugural deplorable-ball.

        PS. squeezing in an omission from my previous above re: Bromwich: Randall Kennedy, Marylynne. Robinson, Nathan Robinson– all excellent as well.

      • sifta

        There is probably some truth to the assertion that white supremacist groups,.leading the alt-right were his most devoted and fervent supporters when he was most embattled… We’ll see if the administration tows the line on their ’14 words’ slogan.

        Thusfar, they seem to be on track, to be honest. We’ll have to see the criteria around the massive government spending. If it is steered away from minorities — a fair supposition given the recently announced voter suppression initiatives, you may be on to something.

        • His appointees seem to be saying they don’t necessarily
          share Trump’s views.
          Are they lying to get confirmation?
          We’ll only know by what they do and of course Trump likes
          to fire people.

          The changes at the federal level will be incremental at first.
          And the work done there is abstract for most anti-government voters – so who cares, right?
          I would bet that there will be a magnifying effect at the state
          level. Any negative impact to the employment picture won’t be in the abstract for many anti-government voters.

          The smart thing, if Trump wants to get re-elected, would be to move more money & control to the states.

          That would have to happen before the ‘magnifying effect’ and I don’t think it can be done. More likely some groups lose jobs and some groups gain jobs.

          The net effect is unknown….until the next election.

  • Potter

    I remember David Bromwich talking to Chris about disappointment in Obama, several conversations, and he continues to be articulate and in the same vein; it’s still true. Obama is a complicated and deep man, complicated further by his heritage, black/whiteness and our enduring problems with racism. All in all, when all is said and done, I end up with the line in the old song: “he did the best he could”…(“He Was a Friend of Mine”).

    Obama had music and poetry.

    I think and feel a whole lot better and more positive after the marches, marches that promise to continue showing, proclaiming, the best of us and the multitudes. This is more persuasive than anything because it’s of the heart. It is, I hope infectious..this solidarity. One man or woman, Obama, Trump, can’t build or destroy by him/herself.

    With the Bushes it was good riddance but I felt choked up as the Obamas boarded their helicopter.

    Oh and whatever you do do not retweet this: https://twitter.com/AleciaWarrenXO/status/822949172454141952