Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail

  • By Jonathan Chait
  • Custom House
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Matthew N. Green
  • February 17, 2017

A mostly positive appraisal of the 44th president’s time in office.

In Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail, New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait aims to be first out of the gate with a sympathetic book-length evaluation of the Barack Obama presidency in its entirety. Though he tends to ignore or downplay Obama’s failures, Chait makes a solid case that Obama’s policy achievements have been more numerous and positive than many have claimed.

Chait examines several substantial and well-known contributions made by the Obama White House, including a massive stimulus bill to rejuvenate the nation’s economy; regulatory reform of the financial sector; the passage of the Affordable Care Act; efforts to fight global warming; and several significant foreign-policy initiatives. The author considers the politics behind these actions, why and how they happened, and what their impact has been for the nation and the world.

Chait looks beyond these high-profile accomplishments, however. He reminds the reader of easily forgotten initiatives like the New START Treaty, the Clean Power Plan, educational reform, and others that were diplomatic or regulatory in nature. He also includes one chapter on racism and racial attitudes toward Obama and another about why many Democrats have felt disappointed by his presidency.

Partisan, non-scholarly books about politics can be tiresome to read, relying on one-sided polemics to make their case. Thankfully, Chait uses persuasive reasoning and no-nonsense prose to make his. He occasionally cites social-science research to support his arguments — a rarity in books of this kind — noting, for example, that most economists have determined the stimulus bill markedly improved the economy.

Also to his credit, Chait is willing to bring up counterarguments to some of his claims, many of which he effectively refutes. And he does sometimes concede that the Obama White House was not perfect: For instance, he mentions the botched implementation of the Obamacare website and criticizes Obama for his dangerous decision to treat raising the debt limit as a bargaining chip in negotiations with congressional Republicans.

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of Audacity is to remind the reader just how partisan the battles over Obama’s policy initiatives were, not just in Congress, but among the punditocracy. In fact, a leitmotif of the book is that scores of commentators (mostly conservative, but sometimes liberal) offered analyses and critiques of Obama that were not only inflammatory but wildly off-the-mark. Chait gleefully uses their words against them, quoting several doomsday prophets whose predictions proved false.

Despite its strengths, Chait’s book has some important weaknesses. For one thing, it rarely acknowledges the critical role members of Congress played in making Obama’s legislative achievements possible. Congressional leaders like Barney Frank did much of the heavy lifting in enacting regulatory reform (outlined in detail in Robert Kaiser’s fine book Act of Congress), and the Affordable Care Act would have almost certainly perished had Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not managed to drag it across the finish line. It is questionable how much individual credit the Obama White House should get for the enactment of those bills.

One also wonders whether Chait is being unfairly selective in his quotations of bloggers and commentators who made extreme (and, in retrospect, false) claims about Obama. At least one of those commentators — Yuval Levin, on the likely impact of the Affordable Care Act — has subsequently recanted, a point not mentioned by the author, which left me wondering if the same were true of others he quotes. (To be fair, Levin’s recantation may have come too late to have been included in the book.)

Finally, while Chait does discuss some errors committed by the Obama White House, he tends to diminish or ignore Obama’s greatest mistakes. For instance, little is said about how Obama’s ineffective negotiating tactics with lawmakers contributed to the failure to pass gun control and immigration reform legislation.

Perhaps Obama’s biggest unmentioned failure was not policy-related but electoral: the inability to translate policy achievements into electoral ones. Though he won election to the nation’s highest office twice, by the end of his presidency, Democrats had suffered some of the biggest losses ever in Congress and in state offices.

Ironically, those losses did not just prevent Obama from enacting major legislation after 2010; they also put some of his existing accomplishments in jeopardy of being reversed, such as the current Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.

More broadly, Chait’s exercise in presidential evaluation raises a major unanswered question: How should one estimate the success of a presidency? Should it be based on bills enacted, or on executive actions and symbolic gestures, too? How much weight should one place on policy outcomes versus constitutional checks-and-balances or the presidential party’s wellbeing? And how can one make a fair determination of what a president could have achieved but didn’t?

Though Chait does not delve into this larger question, it is central to determining whether his evaluation of Obama is fair, especially in comparison with past presidents. At stake is not just how Obama ought to rank historically, but what Americans and future presidents can and should learn from the Obama White House, and what we as citizens should reasonably expect from future commanders-in-chief.

Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He teaches and writes about Congress, American party politics, and the city of Washington DC. His most recent book, Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, was published in 2015 by Yale University Press.

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