Will history remember Barack Obama as much more than our first black president? In what seems to be an early clue from one thoughtful scholar the answer could be “No.”
Yale Literature Professor David Bromwich writes a sweeping character portrait that is very critical, but still quite objective, making the point that as we near the end of his tenure Obama turned out to be more of “publicist for his presidency, rather than the president.”
Perhaps he’ll be remembered for Obamacare, but in the end – if he ever fully implements it – that was little more than an expansion of the market for private insurance companies. It is difficult to see that achievement rising to the level of Social Security or Medicare in the history books.
A few of Bromwich’s main points:
- “By following the compulsion (which he mistook for a strategy) of coming to be recognized as the tribune of all the people, Obama squandered indefinite energies in pursuit of a finite opportunity.”
- “Takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial.”
- “When his poll numbers were going down, or when his “pivot to jobs” had become a topic of humor because he repeated the phrase so often without ever seeming to pivot, Obama would always ask his handlers to send him out on the road. He was convinced: the people would hear him and he would make them understand.”
- “It is true that he has faced enormous obstacles. It is no less true that by postponement and indecision, by silence and by speaking on both sides, he has allowed the obstacles to grow larger. … Obama’s practice of recessive management to the point of neglect has also thrown up obstacles entirely of his devising.”
- “On domestic issues he has proven a more complacent technocrat than anyone could have imagined. … the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.”
- “Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate.”
- “Extreme caution marked all of Obama’s early actions in public life. … The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the U.S. senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation.”
- “Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary.”
- “As an adapter to the thinking of men of power, Obama was a quick study. It took him less than half a year as president to subscribe to Dick Cheney’s view on the need for the constant surveillance of all Americans.”
- “The hard judgment of posterity may be that in addressing the greatest threat of the age [climate change] Barack Obama taught America dimly, worked part time at half-measures, was silent for years at a stretch, and never tried to lead.”
— David Bromwich, “The Leader Obama Wanted to Become and What Became of Him” (Huffington Post)
David Bromwich has written on civil liberties and America’s wars for the New York Review of Books and the Huffington Post. A collection of his Moral Imagination: Essays will be published this spring by Princeton University Press.