Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics
and Created a Legacy that Will Prevail
By Jonathan Chait
240 pages, $27.99
There may have been a time when you could read a political book about a polarizing figure that presented an argument so compelling about him as to be geometric and said, “Well that’s sure going to change some minds.”
But these are not those times. So instead, when you turn the final page on “Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That will Prevail,” you are more likely to think, “Well that's going to make somewhere around half the country mad."
Then again, it’s unlikely that any Fox News or Drudge Report devotees will be reading this version of Obama’s presidency from Jonathan Chait, who delights in reminding readers that the current occupant of the Oval Office called him a “no-talent illiterate hack.”
To borrow a line from a presidential debate – and at the risk of finding myself on the business end of a tweetstorm: Wrong.
Chait, a political columnist for New York Magazine, is a talented man. His Ode to Obama manages to appeal to the wonkiest of political insiders while still presenting an informative and entertaining perspective on the eight-year run of the nation’s first black president.
And he makes no bones about his point of view.
“This book makes the case that Obama succeeded,” he writes in the introduction. “He accomplished nearly everything he set out to do, and he set out to do an enormous amount.”
Chait never stops reminding readers that Obama managed all this in the face of a concerted, even frenzied, effort from Republicans to prevent him from accomplishing anything – including some initiatives that some of the nation’s leading Republicans themselves were pushing before Obama came to power.
--- Bringing the nation back from the brink of an economic collapse.
--- Succeeding where presidents from Truman to Clinton had failed and getting a health care reform law passed.
--- Taking dramatic steps to slow the effects of global warming.
In every chapter, with every success story, Chait notes that Obama had fierce critics and doubters. And in every case, he notes the moment when the same person either finally realized he or she had been mistaken, or recalibrated his or her argument so as not to commit the deadly sin in punditry of saying, “I was wrong.”
Chait also tackles the elephant in the room – No, not a Republican - in his first chapter, “America’s Primal Sin,” by laying out the case that the color of Obama’s skin colored everything in his presidency.
“In one sense, it is deeply ironic, since Obama’s legislative record … barely touched upon any explicit civil rights conflict. In another sense, however, it is perfectly appropriate. Obama’s blackness is not merely a historical breakthrough, but also the dominant fact of the political age over which he has presided.”
Chait cites multiple examples of the changed landscape of Obama’s America. In 2007, when radio personality Don Imus used the term “nappy-headed hos” – a blatantly racist term – to refer to the Rutgers women’s basketball team, a poll found that 45 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats wanted him fired, a gap of 16 percentage points. Seven years later, when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling criticized his girlfriend for “associating with black people,” the “punishment” gap between Republicans and Democrats had surged 42 percentage points.
Despite this, Chait argues, Obama had success upon success. The question that confronts America now is, will it last? Donald Trump was elected, at least partially, on the promise that he would reverse much of what Obama did, notably with the Affordable Care Act.
Chait argues that in every case, Obama may have purposely or inadvertently created a legacy that can’t be easily undone. We’ll see what happens to promises to “repeal and replace” when 20 million people stand to lose insurance.
What about climate change? Trump has given mixed signals about whether he even believes it is a man made phenomenon, wants to lessen environmental regulations and bring back coal mining.
Chait says the latter is next to impossible because of the strides that have been made to develop alternative energy sources. And Obama’s leadership on the issue has led other countries to follow suit, meaning even if America backslides, the effects might not be so severe because of what other nations - and even what some larger states, such as California - are doing.
“Obama will go down in history as the first American president to take up the fight against the planetary catastrophe of global warming, and he will not be the last,” Chait writes.
Read his book from cover to cover and it's one of many arguments that is difficult to dispute. Unless you would rather not deal with a lot of pesky facts.
Bruce Andriatch is the News Features Editor.