Who was Barack Obama? The question is practical as well as rhetorical. After all, his rise was so unlikely, his ascent so steep, that it seemed we barely knew him before he was gone. Only four years and a few days separated Obama’s tenure as an Illinois state senator and his inauguration as the forty-fourth president of the United States. His time in the U.S. Senate constituted a pit stop in his race to the presidency. The other two senators elected president in the twentieth century, Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy, at least had full terms behind them. At fifty-five, Obama isn’t yet eligible for Social Security, so now he gets to go build his presidential library to commemorate his tenure. The rest of us are left trying to make sense of his eight years, squished in between George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.
Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine, has been thinking about Obama a lot, and he’s confident—even audacious—about his conclusions. “I am not always right,” Chait says in the conclusion to Audacity, his slender volume on the Obama presidency. But when it comes to his optimism about the Obama presidency, he’s defiant. “I was right, right from the beginning.”
Chait proclaims Obama a consequential president, and he challenges the many conservative critiques, which range from dismissing Obama as a mere parenthetical president to claiming he’s a socialist who came this close to snuffing out freedom. Likewise, Chait has no time for the whiny members of the left moping under their HOPE posters and pouting that Obama was disappointing and incrementalist. Chait saves his harshest ridicule for the pundits who underestimated Obama’s achievements and have offered the president bromides like suggesting that he should go play golf with John Boehner.
The book is in some ways a bookend to journalist Michael Grunwald’s 2011 book, The New New Deal, in which Grunwald defended Obama’s stimulus bill as both CPR for an economy that was flatlining and a cornucopia of policy innovation, from green energy to digitizing medical records, that the chattering classes barely understood, let alone appreciated. Chait explains how this essential act of Keynesianism, along with the auto bailout and financial reform, defied the pundits and saved us all from an Extinction-Level Event.
Chait’s command of policy and politics, and his clarity of thought, guarantee that Audacity will remain an essential starting point for those assessing the Obama presidency. But it’s telling that in the wake of Donald Trump’s election Chait reworked the book’s subtitle—from “How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America” to “How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail.” The book was clearly not written to anticipate the election of an introspection-free, Barnum-like, profligate real estate heir committed to overturning many of Obama’s central achievements, from the Affordable Care Act to the regulation of greenhouse gases to the Iran nuclear accord.
I called Chait shortly after the election to tell him I was reviewing his book, and to ask how it would stand up now that Trump was to be Obama’s successor. (Full disclosure: Chait and I once worked together.) Was he so sure that Obama had, in the words of his original subtitle, “transformed America”?
“It’s not going to be the same amount that will survive,” Chait said of Obama’s accomplishments. “It’s going to be less especially than under Clinton, who would have expanded them. I think the central point that I make in my book stands: He brought a lot of change. It worked. It made a big difference, and it’s the right model for how someone should govern.”
If you consider Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), that’s certainly the case. Obama was, of course, familiar with the efforts of presidents since Harry Truman to establish a regimen of national health insurance, from the creation of Medicare and Medicaid under Lyndon Johnson to the failure of Hillarycare under Bill Clinton. Pundits and politicians warned Obama to stay away from such an ambitious program and to settle instead for, say, an enlargement of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the 1997 law that expanded health care for youths above the Medicaid line. Obama rolled the dice, knowing that inertia would probably win. “The normal structure of any public problem,” Chait writes, “is that the worse the situation, the greater the pressure to solve it. . . . The American health care disaster is the rare dynamic that defied this dynamic.” Only Obama had the courage to take on the entire system all at once.
The president was able to pass the law over the unanimous objections of congressional Republicans. This has been characterized as “forcing” or “ramming through,” as if obtaining a majority of votes constitutes sexual assault. But Obama had no choice; Republicans were determined to use the filibuster to kill the plan. The irony of this was, of course, that the legislation had at its core the individual mandate, the requirement that everyone who can afford to buy health insurance must do so, an idea born in Republican policy circles and enacted earlier by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.
The result of Obama’s tenacity, writes Chait, is an underappreciated success that has given more than twenty million Americans coverage, and also seems to be bringing down the breakneck rise in health care costs. Chait’s quotes from Obamacare’s doubters and critics are delicious: Rick Santorum compared opponents of the act to Nelson Mandela; the Washington Post editorial page, famous for its encouragement of the Iraq War and pearl-clutching concern about the deficit, likened the act’s coverage requirements to “more dessert on an already calorie-laden plate.”
During all of this, Chait’s Obama is the cool customer we’ve come to know. Even Democratic supporters of the ACA suffered fainting spells during its rocky passage. When Scott Brown, a Republican, was elected to the Senate in 2010 to replace the late Ted Kennedy, Obama’s allies flipped out: the president’s filibuster-proof majority was gone. Rahm Emanuel, Anthony Weiner, Barney Frank, and many other Democrats not usually known for their pacifism were ready to lay down arms. But Obama pushed ahead, and the ACA became law when the House simply passed an earlier Senate bill and avoided the usual conference or the risk of a filibuster. Yuval Levin, the Bush policy aide, declared Obama’s maneuver to be “political suicide.”
The question that will linger over much of the next six months is what happens to the Affordable Care Act under a President Trump and a Republican Congress. Audacity doesn’t address it, but in my Chait chat the author seemed pretty chipper, arguing that the political costs of kicking millions off of health insurance will make it hard to unwind this behemoth.
On this question, I think Chait is right. The ACA is a big, complicated statute with all kinds of accompanying structures at state and local levels. Business has gotten used to the legislation, as have consumers, even if there are still considerable problems, such as skyrocketing premiums and insurers pulling out of exchanges. The ACA, like Medicare, was always going to be a work in progress, and Trump’s election, however seismic, doesn’t change that.
But there is a difference between an accomplishment rendered by statute and one rendered by an executive order or agency regulation. Obamacare, however controversial, still had a lot of buy-in from key stakeholders. The insurers were on board, as was Big Pharma. Some Republicans, like John Kasich, learned to take Medicaid money even though they thought the plan was a mess. That kind of support is not the case in areas where there was no legislative process to build consensus.
Chait swoons over Obama’s accomplishments on the environment, including regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that put greenhouse gases under the agency’s purview for the first time. That was, indeed, a signal achievement—but it’s also a repealable one. The Trump EPA can put out a new regulation rescinding it, and while that would require a comment-and-review period and could be subject to litigation, it’s very possible that a year from now those much-applauded green regulations will be gone. (It’s true that the coal industry may be too wounded to come back, however, mostly because of the fracking revolution over which Obama presided.) Similarly, the Paris accords on climate change were a coup, obliging signatories to achieve real metrics for the reduction of carbon emissions, but President Trump need not comply; the agreement does not have the force of a treaty approved by the U.S. Senate. Likewise, many of Obama’s achievements on immigration, including his deferment of the deportation of the so-called DREAMers—undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children—can be unwound. In fact, the DREAMers’ deportation may be especially swift: the Deferred Action for Child Applicants rule requires that these would-be citizens keep the feds informed of their address, so it will be all the easier for Trump to find them.
This isn’t to say Obama did the wrong thing by choosing end runs around recalcitrant Republicans. But it does mean that some of what Obama wrought—and that is rightfully applauded in this indispensable book—may be shakier than Chait claims.