Why Obama Failed
Cameron Hilditch, National Review
In a revealing interview, Obama tried to burnish his image for progressive posterity — but he still doesn’t understand his fundamental errors.
Barack Obama rose to political stardom in the wake of his 2004 convention speech, during which he made an implicit promise that he could transcend party divisions in Washington, bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats, and make the federal government functional again. I’ll confess that I really thought he wanted to do this when he ascended to the presidency. It took the first volume of his memoirs and a recent interview he gave to Ezra Klein of the New York Times to fully and finally disabuse me of that notion.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama seemed to display a certain capaciousness of intellect and imagination that would allow him to get inside his opponents’ heads, understand their position in good faith, and address it in a perspicacious way, creating an illusion of rapport. He also knew how to do this with journalists. The conservative columnist David Brooks, for instance, was caught off guard during an interview with Obama when it became apparent that the then-senator had a favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, of whom he could speak learnedly and with enthusiasm — a pleasant surprise for a conservative admirer of Niebuhr like Brooks. This circumspection is clearly a part of the Obama mythos that the man himself values, because he restates it at the beginning of his interview with Klein:
I forget whether it was Clarence Darrow, or Abraham Lincoln, or some apocryphal figure in the past who said, look, the best way to win an argument is to first be able to make the other person’s argument better than they can. And for me, what that meant was that I had to understand their worldview. And I couldn’t expect them to understand mine if I wasn’t extending myself to understand theirs.
After reading this quotation, many conservatives will likely wonder if they have gone through the looking glass. Close observers of American politics over the last decade will be aware that President Obama made very little effort to understand the worldview of his Republican colleagues in Washington. In fact, an interesting companion piece to Klein’s interview is this reported essay by Alex Thompson, written last summer for Politico, on the Obama-Biden relationship. Thompson’s sources indicate that Obama was exceedingly bad at persuading his Republican colleagues to back his proposals:
“Negotiating with President Obama was all about the fact that he felt that he knew the world better than you,” said Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader from 2011 to 2014. “And he felt that he thought about it so much, that he figured it all out, and no matter what conclusion you had come to with the same set of facts, his way was right.” Biden, he said, understood that “you’re gonna have to agree to disagree about some things.” A former Republican leadership aide described Obama’s style as “mansplaining, basically.”
Lest these recollections be dismissed as Republican potshots, Thompson also quotes from the memoirs of David Axelrod, one of Obama’s chief advisers, who makes the same point: “‘Few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies,’ he wrote of Obama’s style. ‘That hint of moral superiority and disdain for politicians who put elections first has hurt Obama as negotiator, and it’s why Biden, a politician’s politician, has often had better luck.’”
Despite his self-image as a latter-day Pericles, Obama turned out to be bad at building legislative coalitions inside the Beltway. Why was this? In short, it was because of his views on persuading the public as opposed to persuading his colleagues. As he told Klein:
The premise of persuading somebody who you can build some trust with, and have a history with and relationship, then there might be times where you say, you know what? You’re just full of it. And let me tell you why. And you can be very logical and incisive about how you want to dismantle their arguments. . . . But look, when you’re dealing at the macro level, when you’re dealing with 300 million people with enormous regional, and racial, and religious, and cultural differences, then now you are having to make some calculations. So let’s take the example you used. And I write extensively about the emergence of the Tea Party. And we could see that happening with Sarah Palin. She was sort of a prototype for the politics that led to the Tea Party, that in turn, ultimately led to Donald Trump, and that we’re still seeing today.
There were times where calling it out would have given me great satisfaction personally. But it wouldn’t have necessarily won the political day in terms of me getting a bill passed. And I think every president has to deal with this.
Obama seems to believe that when he was in discussions with congressional Republicans, face-to-face in the Oval Office, his best play was to try to win the argument on the theoretical plane, explaining forcefully and straightforwardly why their positions were flat-out incorrect. This is what appears to have rubbed Cantor the wrong way. Obama made a political bet that the context of one-on-one relationships would allow for this kind of argument from principle to be effective. His watertight syllogisms and unwavering honesty would, he imagined, cause the scales to fall from the eyes of McConnell & Co., ushering in a new era of “unity.”
By way of contrast, he also seems to believe that when dealing with the electorate, one has to handle arguments more carefully, to rhetorically triangulate in such a way as to offend the lowest number of potential voters. These two beliefs, about how a president persuades Congress and how he persuades the public, are sufficient to explain why Obama’s presidency was a failure, because the truth about political persuasion in America is precisely the opposite of what he thinks it is.
By temperament, Obama is a classical figure. His notion of changing the minds and policies of his fellow statesmen by having it out with them until they relented harks back to the senatorial style of the Roman Republic. He fatefully, and fatally, failed to take into account that national politics has not worked like this in the United States since the 1820s, before the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
The statesmen of pre-Jacksonian America — especially the senators — believed that government should be undertaken by a natural aristocracy of talent and intellect, which should be accountable to the public in only a limited and convoluted way. This was as true of Jeffersonians like John Quincy Adams as it was of Federalists like his father. In such a climate, political leaders at the national level could allow themselves to be persuaded by their peers into changing positions on a given issue without fearing fatal electoral reprisals. Politics at that time really did happen in Congress more than in the country at large.
But the huge wave of democratic discontent that swept General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee into office put an end to the aristocratic manners and mores that had governed national politics up to that point. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his great work The Age of Jackson:
The growing importance of the common man was accompanied by a declining importance of Congress. The function of the legislature was now rather to elicit, register, and influence public opinion than to assert its independent will. The great party leader was no longer the eloquent parliamentary orator, whose fine periods could sweep his colleagues into supporting his measures, but the popular hero, capable of bidding directly for the confidence of the masses.
Previously, the statesman had been relatively unbound by the will of his electorate. But in the new democratic age brought about by the Jacksonian revolution, he could be sure that any policy deviation from the expressed will of his constituents would cost him at the ballot box. Persuasion no longer happened in Congress. It happened in the country.
The man who fully grasped the profundity of this change was not Jackson himself but his successor and ally, Martin Van Buren. As Schlesinger writes, Van Buren
protested repeatedly against romantic views of the magic of oratory. When Macaulay declared grandly, in the well-known passage on Pitt, “Parliamentary Government is Government by speaking,” Van Buren begged to differ. True parliamentary leadership, he declared, involved “powers of the mind more humble in pretension and less dazzling in appearance but, as experience has often proved, far more effective in the end than the most brilliant oratory when not sustained by them.” Good judgment in timing measures, the capacity to strike directly at the opposition’s weakest point without wasting time in “mere oratorical” disquisition, skill in guiding the debate so as to capitalize on “latent diversities of feeling and opinion on points either not at all or only remotely bearing upon the principal subject,” and good sense to strive for objects not beyond practical reach — oratory was useless without these technical skills.
Schlesinger further notes that the two statesmen of the age most attached to the rhetorical, congressional model of persuasion, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, lost almost every political battle they fought during the 1830s. Their politics was out of place in the new democratic order, in which persuasion entailed appealing to the electoral interests of one’s colleagues in a way that was “intimate and conversational, with low-pitched voice and clear enunciation,” as Schlesinger describes it. “John Quincy Adams,” he goes on to write, “former professor of rhetoric at Harvard, . . . perfectly expressed the baffled exasperation of the old school in an outburst against James K. Polk: ‘He has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor.’”
It’s easy to imagine President Obama saying something similar about Cantor or McConnell.
The really successful presidents also took an opposite tack to Obama’s when it came to persuading the public. Obama clearly felt that he had to handle the electorate with kid gloves. He tells Klein that “as the first African-American president, there was a presumption, not incorrect, that there were times where I was biting my tongue.” He uses the issue of race as an example: “Is it more important,” he asks, “for me to tell a basic historical truth, let’s say, about racism in America right now? Or is it more important for me to get a bill passed that provides a lot of people with health care that didn’t have it before?” He describes this as a choice between his “prophetic voice” and his “coalition-building political voice.”
Obama, clearly more comfortable using his “prophetic voice” in private political negotiations, told Klein that “there might be times where you say [to your colleagues], you know what? You’re just full of it. And let me tell you why. And you can be very logical and incisive about how you want to dismantle their arguments.” But it was in public, when using his “coalition-building political voice,” where he made his fatal mistake. Successful presidents have done precisely the opposite, using their “prophetic voice” to whip up popular energy and enthusiasm for their agenda and their “coalition-building political voice” to sell their colleagues on that agenda as something that is in the electoral interest of those same politicians. In short, instead of laying himself bare before the people and then managing their representatives carefully in private, Obama sought to manage the people carefully and then lay himself bare before their representatives, hoping to persuade the few where he knew he could not persuade the many.
The trouble for Obama was simply this: For any politician to use his or her “prophetic voice” effectively on the electorate, there has to be an authentic sense of solidarity and mutual affection between the former and the latter. Jackson, for instance, had a greater mutual affinity with the average American voter in the 1820s (at that time, only white men, sadly) than John Quincy Adams did. As Jackson’s biographer Robert Remini notes, “At one time in the history of the United States, General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was honored above all living men. And most dead ones, too.” The same affection existed between the common man and Franklin Roosevelt a century later. For example, during the Roosevelt administration, the British ambassador sent this report back to London: “Every house I visited — mill worker or unemployed — had a picture of the President. . . . He is at once God and their intimate friend; he knows them all by name, knows their little town and mill, their little lives and problems. And though everything else fails, he is there, and will not let them down.”
President Reagan could boast of a similar, though less intense, connection with the electorate; President Trump made the same kind of connection with the white working class in 2016, but, unlike Roosevelt and Reagan, he failed to expand his coalition beyond this base to any great degree.
Jackson, Roosevelt, and Reagan could use their prophetic voices in public because there was a genuine and unaffected synergy between the values of the electorate, broadly speaking, and their own. The public sensed that these presidents liked Americans (though with shameful exceptions in the case of Jackson, who despised two groups, African Americans and Native Americans). There are, as it turns out, a great many Americans whom Barack Obama doesn’t like and doesn’t trust, and he clearly feels that these Americans were sufficiently powerful during his presidency to prevent him from speaking frankly to the public about his beliefs without incurring a backlash. Unable or unwilling to trust the voters, both Obama and his successor squandered political opportunities for compromise.
This is an unpleasant conclusion. But the partisan rancor of Obama’s interview with Klein makes it quite unavoidable. He talks about Republicans’ “complete unwillingness to do anything about the slaughter of children,” totally ignoring his own party’s fanatical defense of an abortion regime the extremity of which is equaled only in China, Vietnam, and North Korea. He describes his opponents as “folks who feel threatened by change,” and calls the Republican voters represented in the Senate “irreconcilably wrong.” Of the Democratic Party, he boasts that “we don’t have the luxury of just consigning a group of people to say, you’re not real Americans,” implying that Republicans are engaged in this kind of activity habitually. Obama accuses “the previous Republican administration” of “completely ignoring science” on vaccines, a claim that none other than Anthony Fauci, who was there and should know, has debunked on several very public occasions. He also repeats the ahistorical lie that all the counter-majoritarian mechanisms in the Constitution arose out of a “very intentional desire for Southern states, for example, to maintain power and reduce the power of the federal government” — a kind of intellectual 7/10 split that must spell doom either for the former president’s intellectual reputation or for his honesty.
Perhaps the most partisan remark that the former president made came as part of his familiar critique of what’s often called “both-sidesism” in the media. He notes that “there are certain bad habits that the media cultivated and it had to, then, reexamine during the Trump era, the classic being what constitutes objectivity, as I joke about.” As an example of such joking, he feigns a bit of media commentary: “President Obama, today, was savagely attacked by the Republicans for suggesting that the earth is round. Republicans suggested that there’s some hidden documents showing the earth is, in fact, flat.” This is the kind of sarcasm that one would expect from a Twitter troll, not from a former president of the United States (though the line between those two things is admittedly blurrier than it used to be).
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama told a story to the electorate, about himself and about America, that he believed he could win over the voters he needed. He was right. But it’s clearly not the story he believed himself. These days, he’s telling a different story with a different audience in mind. In the pages of his memoirs and in interviews with progressive tastemakers like Klein, Obama is speaking in his prophetic voice at last. He’s authoring a revisionist history of his own presidency in real time, offering a commentary on his internal monologue as it played out during his eight years in office. The purpose of this revisionism is apparent. As he told Klein:
Part of what I try to make clear in the book is, and sometimes my friends in the Democratic Party who criticize us on the left misapprehend this idea that we had some ideological aversion to pushing the envelope on policy. That’s not the case. We had just political constraints we had to deal with, and we had an emergency we had to deal with.
Obama’s new audience is progressive posterity. He’s attempting to burnish his credentials with the radical activists of the present and the radical historians of the future. He wants to make it clear to them that any ostensible respect he may have shown for Republicans during his career was nothing more than a concession to electoral necessity. He wants them to know that the moderation was all for show — a tragic obligation kenotically undertaken by a progressive savior in a reactionary nation that couldn’t keep up with the pace of his moral leadership.
Ultimately, Obama failed as a leader because, unlike presidents past, he didn’t trust the public. He lacked both the courage and the convictions required to thrive in the democratic polity the birth of which Van Buren chronicled during the 1830s. To borrow from his own terminology, Obama would not prophesy for the public and he could not build coalitions with his colleagues. He knew that history had not dealt him an electorate the makeup of which intersected perfectly with his own ambitions, as it had for Jackson, Roosevelt, and Reagan. This is why he resents his Republican opponents so much. Neither they nor their voters were sufficiently made according to his own political image, an image that he still believes to be the best and clearest evidence of the small measure of moral credibility that can justly be claimed by the United States of America.