Among the great joys of my college education was the study of statesmen and statesmanship. I may be telling on myself more than I would like in writing that—a nod toward the smallest of conservative streaks in my otherwise progressive politics. But it’s true nonetheless.
There’s a unique pleasure in sitting down with an old book or speech—say, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War or Abraham Lincoln’s “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois”—and peering into the soul of the work’s subjects. What qualities of character made Pericles the “democratic monarch” of ancient Athens? How does Lincoln’s concern for the erosion of rule of law in the early American republic exist in tension with his apparent vision of himself as an American Caesar or Bonaparte?
It’s hard to find a modern American president who merits such an inquiry, however. Franklin D. Roosevelt is perhaps the only one of the twentieth century worth viewing as a “statesman,” the highest honor, however ambiguous, that we can bestow on our leaders. Despite a concerted—and somewhat successful—effort by the right to elevate Ronald Reagan to the American pantheon, a closer look at the man suggests that he was ever the actor, filling a role written by his aides in life and his admirers in death. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are fascinating enough for their strange pathologies, as is Donald Trump, in his own bleakly funny way. However, among America’s modern presidents, there is none but Roosevelt who is treated with such broad reverence.
Barack Obama, like most, is unlikely to be remembered as one of the American greats. But more than his predecessors, it’s worth asking why that is. From the moment he stepped on stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the American public knew there was something different about him. His soaring rhetoric combined an ambition to reshape the country for the better with an emphasis on common ground, a single American community not divided by race, creed, or color. He had the touch of an old soul and was known for being cerebral, but at the same time fluent in popular culture. And as the first Black man to occupy the nation’s highest office, he flattered our desire to view history as an arrow of progress, constantly moving forward.
Yet all of this raises a puzzle. Why did a man who, at first blush, seemed precisely the right type for a world-historical presidency, who fulfilled our modern interpretation of the American creed in both his person and his vision, and who gazed toward the future while draping himself in the rhetoric of civic myth, emerge from his time in office with a decidedly mediocre legacy?
Such questions have been picked over aplenty in the last five years, although to my mind no one has produced a satisfactory answer. Favored explanations among center-left liberals include Republican obstructionism and legacies of racism. Both are undoubtedly true (and related), although the first comes across as an excuse. As far as Obama’s election—and his skin color—triggered enough backlash to sharply increase Republican obstructionism, the second explanation is far more compelling. It suggests that systemic problems do not simply find their resolution in representation, as important as that is.
But it doesn’t quite explain why, for just one example, the Obama administration passed only a meager and loophole-ridden bill to reform the financial sector, despite overwhelming support and the obvious danger of lax regulation evident in the Great Recession. While it’s true that he faced obstruction from others due to his race, that doesn’t explain why he obstructed himself.
There are also many voices, particularly on the academic left, critical of any historical analysis that focuses on the actions of “great men.” It’s certainly the case that the “great man” theory has been a folly of past historians, that historical events are contingent on a variety of factors. The structure of an economy or a society limits what individuals, even those possessed of extraordinary institutional power, can do. To say that agency is meaningless, however, that the choices and character of the man who occupies one of the most powerful positions in the world do not matter, is simply incorrect.
Indeed, in A Promised Land, the first of at least two memoirs covering his time in office, Obama himself seems to be caught between these strands, between the assertion that he could do something different and an opposing claim that he was the victim of forces beyond his own power.
One early passage made its way around social media, in which Obama recalls his attempts to make connections with women at Columbia University by reading leftist theory. As funny as it is, it’s what directly follows that passage that’s all the more interesting. He discusses in vague terms how he became enraptured by social movements, alluding to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. He writes about “democracy at work,” wondering how some movements succeed and others fail, and how he holed himself up alone in a small New York City apartment developing some unspecified theory of social change.
It’s clear from the reflections that Obama is, or at least was, possessed of a powerful desire to reshape his country, or even the world. But it’s also clear from the vagaries that he himself was, and perhaps still is, unsure of his precise vision.
In fairness, it’s not unusual for a young person to have a fierce desire to do something but not know what. It’s also not unusual for a candidate to campaign on open-ended but optimistic slogans like “Yes we can!” or “Hope and Change.” Lincoln, after all, was not elected on a vow to abolish slavery, nor did Roosevelt win the presidency on a clear promise to establish America’s welfare state. But it is the case for the most exceptional politicians that fierce ambition, in meeting genuine crisis, is shaped into a clear vision for the community. That never seems to have happened for Obama.
In large part that seems to be a result of internal conflict between personal ambition and a faith in process and compromise. In both A Promised Land and his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama frequently explains a problem with a somewhat progressive or liberal bent, then quickly concedes to a host of conservative talking points before recommending some incremental solution which should theoretically satisfy both sides.
While even the most remarkable politicians do have an overriding obligation to maintain the unity of the polity they govern, the fact of the matter is that crises are rarely resolved by keeping every citizen happy. In fact, the strengthening of democracy often requires boldness in the face of entrenched powers.
In recounting his interactions with the national security apparatus, the financial sector, and the insurance industry, Obama consistently rejects the notion that he could have been tougher on those responsible for two catastrophic wars, the collapse of the global economy, and skyrocketing healthcare costs. At best, he complains that he lacked the power to move mountains for the common good even when he wanted; at worst, he asserts the barely believable—that compromise is always preferable to rocking the boat. Rarely does he concede that he made a mistake.
In some ways, Barack Obama represents the best and the worst tendencies of liberal democracy. The political and economic institutions of our system have generated freedom and wealth heretofore unknown in human history. If every politician entered office with the vision and the will to remake the system, life would be unpredictable, politics unstable, violence always lurking in the background. That liberal democratic society is more managerial and mundane than an absolute monarchy is not in itself a bad thing.
But, of course, the managerial state has its vices. Liberal democracy has a tendency, without firm guidance, to allow private wealth to accumulate at the expense of the public good. Obama inherited a nation which was experiencing terrible fallout of this process, and his own character was largely responsible for a soft approach which did too little to properly right the ship. His preference for incrementalism manifested in healthcare legislation that failed to reach its own modest goals. Insurance premiums are still going up, if a little more slowly, and Americans still rely on the shaky foundation of employer-covered care. Perhaps more importantly, faith in process also meant a belief that an increasingly rogue political party would come to the negotiating table and govern responsibly.
What, then, are we to make of America’s 44th president? Above all, the story of Barack Obama’s political career is a tragedy. There will be no one like him on the national stage again for years to come, no one with the oratory skills, the intellect, or the charisma. But his ambition and drive to shape the world for the better seem to have found satisfaction in parties with celebrities at his mansion in Martha’s Vineyard, multi-million dollar streaming and podcast deals, and an occasionally scolding attitude toward those who seek the hope and change he failed to accomplish. If that’s the best that liberal democracy has to offer right now then that is cause for concern.
However, that’s not cause to lose our faith in the project of liberal democracy. We are not defined solely by our best leaders, or by our worst. Shifting structural factors have led Joe Biden, who once promised moderation, to turn away from austerity politics and end the war in Afghanistan. But the crises of our democracy demand even more than the shift we’ve already seen. As dangerous as hero worship is, it would be nice to have another Obama waiting in the wings, if only with a clearer set of goals and a greater tenacity to pursue them than the one we got.
What do you think of Obama's legacy and leadership? Let us know in a comment.
- A Promised Land, by Barack Obama.
- The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama.
- "Speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention."