Politics & Policy

Jonathan Chait’s Mythical President

(Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
An ill-timed book defending Obama’s presidency demonstrates the hubris of American liberalism.

This is an author’s nightmare: to spend years building the momentum of an idea for a book, researching and writing said book, consulting on key points with friends and associates, dealing with agents and editors and all the rigors of the publishing process — only to have your book arrive just as its central thesis is dashed against the sharp rocks of reality.

You are likely familiar with examples of this authorial dark night of the soul: James K. Glassman and Kevin Hassett’s Dow 36,000 (1999), Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism (2010), and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968).

There is now a new entry on this list of theses betrayed by events even as they arrived on bookstore shelves: Jonathan Chait’s Audacity, which has the unfortunate distinction of having gone on sale 72 hours before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, rendering it utterly irrelevant as anything but a cultural artifact demonstrating the hubris of American liberalism.

The proper place to begin reading Chait’s book is its end, where he opens his acknowledgments section by acknowledging himself. “I am not always right,” he allows. “But Barack Obama is a subject I believe I got right, right from the beginning. I concluded early on in Obama’s presidential campaign that he possessed a keen mind, oratorical gifts, and just the right combination of idealism and skeptical, analytical thinking to identify the best methods to achieve those goals.” The book “incorporates more than eight years’ worth of writing” Chait did on this subject with the aim, primarily, of rebutting Obama’s critics from the left who view his presidency as lacking.

This level of humility gives you the right frame of reference to understand the attitude that pervades the rest of Audacity’s pages. In Chait’s view, Barack Obama is a level-headed Rudyard Kipling hero; he describes Obama as the embodiment of the counsel of “If” on the importance of keeping one’s head “when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” He is a level-headed pragmatist with tendencies toward liberal Republicanism and a deep interest in policy and statesmanship, and any facts in discord with this unified theory of Obama are either dismissed outright or explained away as having nothing to do with the president himself.

Comparing the final version of the book with the pre–November 8 galley copy, one finds multiple tacked-on sentences arguing against a Republican “myth of repudiation” in the 2016 election, reassuring liberals that the “fatalistic conclusion that Trump can erase Obama’s achievements is overstated — perhaps even completely false.” But, taken as a whole, Chait’s book is still directed at criticizing Obama’s skeptics on the left, offering varied explanations to progressives about why this thing Obama did was more ambitious and grand than you thought at the time, why it demonstrated his ability for playing the long game or engaging in policy jujitsu, or why a grander step was impossible given the political realities of the moment or (and this is one of Chait’s favorite moves) had never really been promised by the president in the first place.

This must mean either that the media failed to report accurately, or that the political establishment failed to keep the crazed Republicans down, or that something else must have happened. Consider this president to be the polar opposite of the perfect presidential devil Chait described in his 2003 New Republic article “Why I Hate George W. Bush”: Whatever the case and no matter the odds, you can be sure Jonathan Chait’s version of Obama never fails to satisfy.

But what is satisfaction, anyway? Chait seeks to encourage his fellow leftists time and again by redefining it to mean whatever Obama’s policy currently looks like. He declares the success of the Paris agreement and Obama’s climate policy to be already clear — a legacy of “coastal cities that, decades in the future, will still be home to many but would have otherwise sunk beneath the seas.” While conceding that Obama’s foreign policy was not “transformational,” Chait describes it as “corrective”: “Not being George W. Bush may not qualify as the pinnacle of historic achievement,” he writes, “but it certainly beats the alternative.” And despite Obamacare’s many fits and starts, he is confident in calling that program a “triumph of a generation,” “a revolution that succeeded after so many attempts before it had failed.” “Possibly Republicans will come to regret affixing the name of their partisan adversary to a measure that provides every American a guarantee against misfortune,” Chait writes of Obamacare, declaring that it “will be seen as one of the most ambitious and successful social reforms in the history of the United States.” You may want to check back with him on that during the book tour.

For all its hubris in hailing Obama as the champion, Chait’s book is an acknowledgment of the disappointment among his fellow leftists at the end of eight years in the White House. The second-longest chapter in this book, after his defense of Obamacare, is titled “The Inevitability of Disappointment.” It offers a litany of depressed comments from leaders of the American Left, from Rachel Maddow to Thomas Frank to, yes, even Mr. Hope himself, Shepard Fairey. The question within this corner of the American Left is not whether Obama’s presidency was a failure, but why: Was it because he was more poetry than prose, more focused on oratory than substance? Was it because he was a victim of partisan forces beyond his control? Or was it because his hopes for change were too grand for a country that is still fundamentally scorched by racist and bigoted history?

Chait finds such musings odd if not absurd. “The yawning chasm between the scale of Obama’s achievements and the mood of his supporters presents one of the mysteries of the era,” he writes, wondering whether the Left could even comprehend a successful presidency: “Would Democrats recognize one if they saw it?”

He blames the “inevitability of disappointment” on a number of factors, among them the news media (which set unrealistic expectations), Aaron Sorkin (who depicted a world where the president could make a difference with nothing more than well-crafted remarks), and nostalgia for liberal presidencies of the past — including those of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and even Jimmy Carter. But ultimately, Chait places the blame on liberals themselves, for being uncomfortable with the necessary requirements of leadership and compromise: Liberals “can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious — but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead, they compare Obama with an imaginary president — either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.”

Perhaps Chait is correct in his analysis of why so many denizens of the American Left believe Obama’s presidency was a failure. Perhaps it’s true that Obama didn’t promise a comprehensive end to racial division and a healing of the land to the nth degree, or even that, in the absence of some of his accomplishments, a hypothetical situation might be worse. But it is also true that Obama leaves a nation more divided on racial lines than it was upon his election. He leaves a world in which American ground troops are spread even wider, and still on the ground in Iraq. (Chait’s foreign-policy chapter, “To Stanch a Bleeding World,” is notably spare.) And he leaves a Democratic party at its weakest point in a century, not just at the federal level but all the way down. There are reasons for this, reasons Jonathan Chait would be smart enough to see were he not so caught up in his own fantastical vision of an imaginary Obama.

The author provides us with a glimpse of the complete disconnect from reality that made Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss far more emotionally painful than it should have been.

This book would be unimportant except as a historical relic but for the fact that Chait isn’t some lonely figure in denial. He comes from an entire movement in denial about the negative effect Obama had, on his party and on the world. In writing the history of the Obama presidency that Chait wanted to happen rather than the one that did, the author provides us with a glimpse of the complete disconnect from reality that made Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss far more emotionally painful than it should have been.

There is very little said about Trump in Audacity, but what is said is enlightening. In February 2016, Chait penned an article for New York magazine titled “Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination.” He had three reasons: first, that Trump would almost assuredly lose; second, that Trump would upend the party and move it away from “anti-government ideology”; and third, that Trump would, on the whole, be a better president than Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

This depiction of Trump was apparently forgotten by the time Chait turned in his book draft. He decries Trump’s rise as emblematic of racism and misogyny and declares that “in [their] desperation to stop Obama, the conservatives had signed their own demographic death warrant.” I expected this passage to be updated before the book went to press, but it was not. Instead, Chait argues that Trump’s win is a “last gasp” of older white Americans, that his popular-vote loss indicates he has no mandate to govern, and that conservatives have “lost the future, and they also lost the argument.”

This is disappointing, given that Chait has been a lonely voice on the left paying attention to the downside of the rise of political correctness and to its dangerous fomenting of illiberalism on campuses and in public life. An account of how such trends — rather than the cheap-crutch theory of racist backlash — gave rise to Trump would be worth reading.

Audacity is not. It is the declaration of an extremist. It is an excerpt from an all-Obama version of Tiger Beat. Everywhere Obama errs, there is an explanation. Everywhere he succeeds, that success is underestimated and underappreciated. Yet there is a certain crazed nobility in this effort. Forget the text as a statement on current affairs and consider the title instead as a reminder of an older idea — the concept of “the fool for Christ,” in which an otherwise normal person undertakes incomprehensible behavior in an effort to send a deeper message about his deity. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan, was so generous that he constantly had to be prevented from giving away all his clothes. Saint Simeon dragged a dead dog about and upended the tables of pastry chefs. And Basil, Wonderworker of Moscow, walked around naked bearing chains even in the Russian winter, a position of mad holiness that gave him the moral authority to denounce even Ivan the Terrible and live to tell of it.

And then there is Jonathan Chait, who has written a book. If only his favored deity had lived up to his vision, it might have a purpose for existing.


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