Obama in History

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.

96 thoughts on “Obama in History”

  1. I think Obama never wanted to DO anything as President, he just wanted to BE President.

    Thus, by his own standard, he is a “success.”

  2. Perhaps Obama just wanted to be President because he thought it would look good on his resume.

  3. Ya know, Bromwich picked up something tellng and maybe even predictive that has always stuck in my mind since first reading up on Obama’s background back in 2007: In his first executive job – head of law review – he never wrote an article and staffers never knew exactly where he stood on contentious issues.

  4. This article also has me remembering a story a friend who was there told me about the first serious meeting with Obama where anti-Hillary Democratic leaders tried to convince him to run. They were stunned by his opening statement after their lengthy presentation: If he ran, Obama said, he wanted weekends off.

  5. For those of us who fought so hard and long for Hillary, there is very little comfort in “We tried to tell you.” After eight years, it may be too late though the right VP selection could make a difference. I haven’t given up on a Clinton/Warren ticket.

  6. Amen Jamie, no comfort indeed. Despite my doubts in 2008 about his readiness I really thought he’d meet the promise at least halfway. But his ascension was so magical and effortless he obviously thought his presidency would be too.

  7. Great article and posting, thanks, Tony. Successful presidents have generally had at least one of three characteristics: master politician, skilled public manager, or star-charisma. P-Obama has none of the above. He is cautious to a fault, had no executive experience, and apparently has learned none of the skills, and has a personality too cool by half.

    Even if his signature achievement turns out to be the Affordable Health Care Act, it should be remembered that he was ready to abandon the effort after Ted Kennedy’s death. Nancy Pelosi (and some others) urged him to go with the strategy of having the House vote on the Senate Bill with no changes, thus avoiding going back to the Senate and legislative death. (At least thai’s my recollection.)

    I do think there is something to the notion that he achieve success upon inauguration — first African American President.

  8. I personally think the reason the article was so good: critical, yet not demeaning… was because David Bromwich is Professor of Literature (rather than Political Science).

    I’ve resigned myself to the fact that since Obama won the election, he has the right to do things the way he does them. I think he’s done a lousy job, but hey, he didn’t do it alone. A lot of people helped him get (and stay) there. So that’s that.

    Now all we can do is let it finish playing out. Then hope we can all do a better job next time. (not sure why anyone would want that job in the first place)

    Thanks Tony, and thanks Craig, for such an interesting thread.

  9. Satellite looking into missing Malaysia flight detects ‘suspected crash area’
    The Chinese agency gave coordinates of 105.63 east longitude, 6.7 north latitude, which would put it in waters northeast of where it took off in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and south of Vietnam, near where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand.

    “It’s where it’s supposed to be,” Peter Goelz, a former National Transportation Safety Board managing director, told CNN’s Jake Tapper, noting the “great skepticism” about reports the plane had turned around to go back over Malaysia. “I think they’ve got to get vessels and aircraft there as quickly as humanly possible.” Timeline of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

  10. Ha, ha… we don’t have to take responsibility for anything anymore!

    In a bad mood? Your social networks might be to blame
    Emotions can spread on social networks such as Facebook as they do among people in real life, scientists say.

    The next time you feel compelled to share your misery on Facebook, spare a thought for your friends. For mood on social networks is contagious, and spreads to those you are connected to, scientists say.

  11. chloe,

    I agree and how in tune you are to look at it from that angle, yes yes.. I also agree with you regarding the President. Wish things had been different but it is what it is..

  12. NBC News/WSJ Poll Sends Red Alert to Obama on Midterms; Good News on Pot
    by Taylor Marsh

    President Obama is at an all-time low with Democrats, 74%. This is a particularly alarming sign in a midterm election where turnout is notoriously low (see Alex Sink’s loss) and both parties depend on turning out their base.

    65% believe the country is on the wrong track.

    47% would be less likely to support someone who “believes U.S. should do more to resolve global conflicts.”

    Nothing illustrates the war weariness of the American public more than this number. They don’t want politicians to be engaged abroad, revealing the ignorance of most voters that the U.S. has the luxury of doing this. Voters will also be the first to punish a political party caught ignoring outside threats, when danger rises and focuses the mind.

  13. Obama has two skills…

    He can: (1) give a good speech; and (2) run a good campaign.

    So…if GOP can find just ONE candidate with those skills, they can win too.

  14. I think Faux News knee-capped the Prez and took the “legs” out of his legacy. He is an impressive commander in chief as he did get Osama. It is his disappointment to the average American that is the problem. It must be remembered, he took us from a war time of immense expense into an uneasy peace time. It is a lousy time for the purse of every American. Time to pay for the wars, globalization and climate shift. Although the can’ts were screaming socialism, we are practicing corporate communism…privatization rules the day. And the SCOTUS made corporations people under Obama…the real problem. The loss of humanity under Obama. But, I know, I am much better under Obama than McCain, Rmoney.

  15. Now, if Obama signs an executive order legalizing the recreational use of marijuana…he will have a grand legacy. Pot in every American bowl.

  16. Jamie,

    sounds good to me but those who say 66 yo hillary is too old to run will also apply that to 64 yo Elizabeth? not that there’s anything wrong with that — being a geezer potus wannabe (see biden, mccain) or potus hasbeen (ronnie, papa bush). prwise it’s harder to be a geezerette.

  17. Blonde Wino,
    “pot in every pot”?
    this may be their first step in that direction

    Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday will urge reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

    Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials

  18. your daily daily show link

    The Covert Report

    The Senate finally gets around to investigating the CIA’s use of torture, only to have damnable data disappear from the committee’s computers

  19. flatus,
    yeah, probably the snowden effect. we let china go first with their spy sat info.

    what’s your take on the wsj story on engine data showing 4 more hours of flight?

  20. Pretty good look at the prez.

    Much to be said for the article. I have never thought that he loved the job, which is a must.

    Much of what Obama has not been able to do however has been shaped by the economic calamity which he inherited, and which continues to shape much of our domestic policy.
    He has not been as bold as he should have been, but he has had the misfortune to govern at a time when boldness was not the coin of the political realm. His adversaries have proven time and time again that they much prefer no solutions to bold solutions.

  21. jace: His adversaries have proven time and time again that they much prefer no solutions to bold solutions.

    But, Jace… his job is not to please his adversaries. And one thing a president shouldn’t use are excuses.

    He knew what he was inheriting when he made the promises he made. He should have understood the playing field, before making promises, that, not so much he couldn’t keep, but because he wouldn’t even ‘try’ to keep those promises.

    Excuses make a leader seem weak… excuses, piled on time and time again, make anyone look weak.

    I like him better without the excuses, and just admitting his flaws and the reasons for them.

  22. Thanks to TonyB for posting great articles.

    The Obama 2008 campaign was a grand idea at marketing by a group of people who never thought past November 4th. Too bad, because there was real hope for change. A Leader could have used this voter mandate wisely, even ruthlessly, to enact a much needed direction in what our government had become under the GW Bush administration. Voters got burned, and have long memories.

  23. Blonde Wino and

    you’re both right. in the past going to war (or at least mobilizing industries in some fashion) was a way out of recessions. add that not being feasible to the xenophobia stirred up by the rw, Obama had little chance to succeed at anything. or even if he did succeed (as he did re somewhat fixing economy) the prevailing hatred will not allow recognition.

  24. “HOPE”
    We believed it, what we did not expect was the Republican Party refusal to govern, or even show up to pretend to govern. Obama has much to share in that the WH did not spend much time schmoozing up the Dems in Congress. He tried to be a negotiator at a time when he only dug a deep hole for himself. His actions in pulling the trigger to get Bin laden is still the highlight of his residency in the WH.

    Where will he place in the scheme of things? I don’t know. I think much higher than Carter, but much lower than Johnson. In minority communities his picture will hang forever, just as JFK picture has for catholics and many Dems.

    Is he flawed for not being strong when going up against the Republicans? I believe yes, but I also think he knew that he did not have a lot of strength (the veto appears to not be in his vocabulary). Is his flaw a note of failure? No, but it is like an asterisk in the record book, he could have been better.

    The Bush II tax cuts for billionaires stands as the greatest failure of Obama. He could have done more, instead he gave up before the negotiations.

    Will he get recognition for putting up with the fools under the dome who were among the most despicable and racist group ever in the place? Yes. Time will bring out more. This alone should make his presidency worthy of ranking higher than Regan.

  25. One ongoing survey of historians ranking presidents — the Siena Institute — uses this set of criteria to question more than 200 historians every few years:

    Personal attributes
    willingness to take risks

    executive skills


    other domestic affairs
    working with Congress and their party
    appointing supreme court justices and members of the executive branch
    avoiding mistakes and foreign policy.

    In their most recent survey, 2010, they put Obama in 15th place. That was after just one year in office, so will be interesting to see where the next one places him.

  26. OK, I need to publish a a correction from a post a few days ago. Daffodils apparently DO lie.

  27. patd,

    It’s semi-plausible. Does it make sense that RR would spend mega-bucks on a comm network to handle this data while in barren/water covered areas? Or would a benevolent entity provide them with such a network.

    Either way, having the resource of knowing where non-transponding airplanes are is a tremendous intelligence resource. IMO, the availability/redundancy of such resources has shrunk dramatically since Snowden’s perfidy.

    The result is exemplified in the chaos of this search where everybody is afraid to disclose any of their intelligence capabilities in the search because afterwards it will be neutralized.

  28. Flatus,

    unfortunately for possible survivors clinging to a floating tailfin and for family members in limbo, you are soooo right about “everybody is afraid to disclose any of their intelligence capabilities in the search because afterwards it will be neutralized.”

  29. latest Quinnipiac poll

    In an early look at the 2016 presidential race in Iowa, Secretary Clinton leads Gov. Christie 48 – 35 percent, reversing a 45 – 40 percent Christie lead December 17, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

    Secretary Clinton has substantial leads over other Republican contenders, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds:
    49 – 39 percent over U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky;
    51 – 35 percent over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas;
    51 – 37 percent over former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

    Independent voters shift from 44 – 35 percent for Christie in December to 46 – 32 percent for Clinton today.
    Iowa voters say 55 – 38 percent that Clinton would make a good president, the only listed candidate to get a positive score.

  30. The thing that Bromwich forgot to mention is that during the 08 campaign debates, Obama didn’t come up with one idea of his own… he essentially said “me too” to much of what Hillary advocated.

    For me the most disappointing thing is his extreme cautiousness. I know a lot of us were excited about the prospect of the first black president. But hopefully we’ve all learned that skin color really is only skin deep.

  31. I like me an ineffectual President- beats the pants off one the starts wars. Don’t forget the GOP made it their mission from day one to make his administration a failure.

  32. Republicans are still hung up on the same issues the were twenty years ago- gay marriage and abortion. What can be achieved when working with such people? Despite their efforts, there has been enormous social change during this administration, whoever the catalyst was.

  33. Oh yeah, I didn’t mean to sell conservatives short- brown people and guns: they’re still hung up on them, too. Sorry about that.

  34. The Alex Sink Blip, Long Term Heavily Favors Democrats
    by Taylor Marsh

    LET’S HOPE 2014 midterms won’t be like 2010, with Obama and the Democrats unable to find a message to run on that will bring out the base. The obvious answer is a campaign for the minimum wage, with President Obama pictured above at the Gap a promising sign.

    Run on it, campaign on it, harp on it, because President Obama simply cannot get out the vote in this midterm, even if the party needs him to get out the money.

    The midterms will be rough, though how bad no one will know until the hangover sets in the day after.

  35. “Google News” current top story:

    “Russian troops massing on Ukrainian border.”

    Here’s what I think will happen…

    Putin will invade

    European leaders and Obama will do nothing.

    The GOP will call Obama a coward and a traitor.

    Obama will ask the GOP to display national unity on foreign policy.

    And they will spit in his face.

  36. Nash 2.5,at first read, I tho’t it said “Russian troops missing on Ukrainian border.” wondered if there would be reports seeing them turn from expected course, the amassing of international search efforts, pics of sobbing worried family members, and thousands of prayers being offered.
    odd how most human scenes seem repetitious… same ole same ole patterns. only the characters change. that old all the world’s a stage stuff and all folks merely poor actors as willie the shake wrote.

  37. Ignex,

    yep, my druthers are also an ineffectual speaking softly rather than willy nilly whomping a big stick.

  38. The mystery plane saga is so enthralling. What forces are at work here? Me thinks, aliens like in that 1980’s sci fi movie with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd….appropriately named Millennium

    I remember they smoked a lot of cigs in that movie.

  39. Ignex,

    Wow, sure, your right. As much as i try and think of myself as an Independent, ha, i can’t ever vote for Republican’s.. Amazing their still fighting the same battles they were 20 years ago.. Ha, I’ve got news for them, gays like me aren’t going away… 😀

  40. from huffpo

    Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the Senate floor Thursday to castigate fellow Republicans for holding up aid to Ukraine over provisions boosting funding for the International Monetary Fund.
    [….]”I’ve been embarrassed before on the floor of the Senate, I will tell the president. But I haven’t been embarrassed this way about members of my own party,” said McCain.

  41. BW, LOL.

    This is Wolfie with CNN’s breaking news on the missing Malysia Airlines Boeing 777 – we have now learned nothing new and now know exactly what we knew minutes after the the Malaysian Air 777 was discovered missing. Stay tuned to CNN for further updates from me, Anderson Cooper and the rest of the CNN News staff as we continue to provide you with updates on this non-evolving story and speculate about that which we know nothing.

  42. your daily daily show

    Fox News Welfare Academy

    Fox News resorts to hyperbole and anecdotal evidence to make a point about public assistance abuse and food stamps fraud.

  43. at same link, stay tuned for the segment titled

    2014: A Waste Odyssey

    Fox News holds America’s poor and its corporations to different standards, and JPMorgan Chase makes a quick buck in the food stamp debit card business. (05:33)

  44. Pogo… ROFL!

    From the minutiae of traffic cones on a bridge to a minute by minute update of a missing plane….and every terrible thing in between… god… what would mankind do without cable news.

  45. Q. If Putin were to mount a popularly contested invasion of Ukraine proper, would that action number his days in power at home?

  46. For the “they stole the plane and it is hidden somewhere” group, look for news of missing jet fuel and big tires. If it was flown somewhere then it needs fuel, a lot of fuel. Also, if it was stolen then it had to have been flown “under the radar” because it would have shown up again at some point near land. What is also not on American news includes interview with the people who inhabit the land areas where is would have crossed over going anywhere.

    The “ping” sent by the engines must have been picked up on more than one listener device. It should have a trail. Why is that not given out?

    Mystery? Difficult to say, but possible it went in without leaving debris.

  47. Right-wing media were quick to attack President Obama’s new plan to alter Labor Department pay requirements to expand the number of salaried workers who qualify for overtime. Fox & Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck warned that this move “undercuts work ethic,” and co-host Brian Kilmeade agreed, encouraging viewers to weigh in on the “new American work ethic” and how the plan is “discouraging those, it seems, that want to work more to get further along, with these new rules.” Media Matters

    Seriously? WTF?

    I guess there is nothing like getting paid for the hours you actually work to stifle work ethic. If we would just work for free, everyone would work harder. Right?
    Suggestion. Fox and friends should all work for 7.25 an hour. No overtime, no benefits.

  48. pogo:
    BW, LOL.

    This is Wolfie with CNN’s breaking news on the missing Malysia Airlines Boeing 777 — we have now learned nothing new and now know exactly what we knew minutes after the the Malaysian Air 777 was discovered missing.Stay tuned to CNN for further updates from me, Anderson Cooper and the rest of the CNN News staff as we continue to provide you with updates on this non-evolving story and speculate about that which we know nothing.


    Perhaps CNN should interview David Copperfield.
    He would know a thing or two about disappearing planes. End the speculation once and for all. 😉

  49. Blue Bronc,

    I hear you. After all if you raise the minimum wage, those lazy inner city folk might want to go to work.
    Paul Ryan’s theory would go up in smoke.

  50. ha, pogo, was just talking to Howie Kurtz about doing this topic on his show Sunday. maybe you should go on instead ❗

    By the way, since when is Richard Quest an expert on aviation disasters?

  51. Anyone who is a “Twilight Zone” fan knows what happened to Flight 370…

    They encountered a mid-air time warp and are now flying over a landscape filled with dinosaurs looking for a place to land.

    And Rod Serling is standing there outside the cockpit, making his usual existentialist commentary.

    “And for the passengers of flight 370, concerns about whether they can use their iPads in flight, or if their check-in baggage will get lost, are no longer of any importance, because their flight has been rerouted … into the Twilight Zone.”

  52. “Twilight Zone” episode where a plane gets “lost”


  53. If Obama was smart he’d make a deal with Putin…

    If they leave the Ukraine alone, the Russians can have Arizona.

    Just to sweeten the deal, they can have Mississippi too, for free.

    And if they If they agree to take Texas, we will PAY them $100 Billion.

    OK….$200 billion, but that’s the final offer.

  54. Flatus:
    Q. If Putin were to mount a popularly contested invasion of Ukraine proper, would that action number his days in power at home?

    Nah, Russians love that dude like Republicans love Reagan.

    I tried to tell everyone that ______g his ____s with those damn Olympics was a bad idea, but, noooooo…

    Dude has nukes and a fragile economy, he can do anything he wants. If the West plunges Russia into economic depression, it will just galvanize that public in support of him, and then, look out.

    Hey, let’s buy the Baikonur Cosmodrome off of Kazakhstan! That will throw a wrench in his gears ( A cosmodrome can’t go for much more than $35 bil, and we’re already in for that).

  55. Obama’s next legislative push will be mandating vacuum ownership for every American. He will go door to door, selling them.

    HEPA filtration is a basic human right!

  56. Jay Carney rolls back odometers in the White House garage when he’s not not answering questions.

  57. That was a joke, I don’t know what Jay Carney does when he’s not not answering questions, to be clear.

  58. …if you like your current vacuum, you can keep it (wink, wink).

    Have a good weekend.

  59. what would cause instantaneous inability to use cell phones of 239 people (think speed dial or even unconscious nerve response possibilities)? and could such an anomaly also allow autopilot to function but turn off all other plane devices except for the pings of a westerly route?

  60. the BBC understands that a satellite system operated by London-based telecommunications company Inmarsat received an automated signal from flight MH370 at least five hours after the plane was reported lost.

    BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos says the signal could only have been sent if the plane was intact and powered, and may explain why search teams have moved to the Indian Ocean.

    Earlier, US media outlets also quoted unnamed officials as saying that the Boeing 777 was “pinging” satellites for hours after its last contact with air traffic controllers.

  61. Alternative theory of what happened to flight 370…

    The “we’re out of coffee” scene from “Airplane 2.”


  62. Yet another possible “Twilight Zone” explanation for what happened to Flight 370…

    My advice…if you ever see William Shatner on an airplane, don’t sit next to him.

  63. patd,

    Cell phone signals are almost line of sight, which is why cell phone antennas are all over the place. When I am in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, southern end, I am in and out of cell phone coverage.

  64. Ignex: I don’t know what Jay Carney does when he’s not not answering questions

    … he’s preparing to not not answer questions.

    BTW, if anyone needs a HEPA filter, I’ll sell you one! 😉

  65. Lost passenger jet was diverted deliberately: Malaysian PM
    KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) –Investigators believe someone aboard a missing Malaysian airliner deliberately shut off its communications and tracking systems, turned the plane around and flew for nearly seven hours after it vanished, Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday.

    The maximum range of the Boeing 777-200ER is 7,725 nautical miles or 14,305 km. It is not clear how much fuel the aircraft was carrying though it would have been enough to reach its scheduled destination, Beijing, a flight of five hours and 50 minutes, plus some reserve.

  66. while sitting in a country that passed a law

    this year allows the authorities to shut down sites for publishing “extremist” content or calling for unauthorized public gatherings. Several other Web sites were also closed

    our friend mr. snowden said that
    “The NSA is setting fire to the future of the internet and you guys are the firefighters”

    chutzpah anyone?

  67. Pressure to let go of the final vestiges of U.S. authority over the system of Web addresses and domain names that organize the Internet has been building for more than a decade and was supercharged by the backlash last year to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.

    … thank goodness the truth always, eventually, comes to light. Truth, the great equalizer! Games people play.

    Good day, everyone!

  68. Oh the games people play now
    Every night and every day now
    Never meaning what they say now
    Never saying what they mean

    And they wile away the hours
    In their ivory towers
    Till they’re covered up with flowers
    In the back of a black limousine

    La-da da da da da da da
    La-da da da da da de
    Talking ’bout you and me
    And the games people play

    Look around tell me what you see
    What’s happening to you and me
    God grant me the serenity
    To remember who I am

    Cause you’ve given up your sanity
    For your pride and your vanity
    Turns you sad on humanity
    And you don’t give a da da da da da

    joe south

  69. Ah, Spring break.

    Three days in CA. and a chance to be with both daughters.

    Life is good. 😉

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