In the new book "A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama," Michael D'Antonio looks at Barack Obama's presidency through the promises he made when he was campaigning for office.
D'Antonio tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson about some of Obama's main achievements, where he fell short and how he managed to make big policy changes despite being opposed at every turn by congressional Republicans.
On Obama facing opposition from congressional Republicans early on in his presidency
"The intent was to make him a one-term president and to make him a failure. And this is something that current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confesses to later on. He says that he wanted Obama to fail, and I think that if he had proposed to give everybody a free slice of apple pie, he would've met opposition on that, too. There wasn't anything this guy could propose that he was going to get bipartisan support on. So, that's, I think, very exemplary of this ratcheting up of divisive political tactics over the years, and we're now seeing that that's taking place in Washington and it just seems to get worse and worse."
On Obama's economic legacy
"You've got a lot of lower wage, unfortunately, service jobs being created, not enough high-wage jobs for the people who want them, and at the same time you have this tripling of the stock market, and actually a rebound down real estate. But this means that inequality may be a little bit worse than when the president took office, and that is where people feel this disconnect. You know, my book is about his achievements primarily because I tracked about 15 or 20 promises he made and he came through on most of them, but he didn't make the progress that I think he hoped he would on inequality, in part because there's only so much a president can do. And, I think this is something Donald Trump is gonna discover, if he hasn't realized already — there's very little the president can do, except at the margins, to move the economy."
On Obama's achievements in the energy landscape
"Well, this is one area where he succeeded, I think, beyond his expectations. The increase in solar power, wind power has been enormous. He was helped, ironically, by the plummeting price in hydrocarbons. You see, between natural gas and oil prices, a real advantage accruing to the Obama administration where the economy is concerned. What I think is the most interesting thing about this, though, is how his environmental policy, his energy policy and even his economic policy — and you could throw in foreign affairs — all kind of clicked together. This was not a case of him pursuing one without a thought for the other. In fact, the energy policy was good for his environmental policy, and the standards he set for the auto industry, for example, to increase miles per gallon, was directly beneficial economically, but also for the environment. And then you can throw in the accord on climate change and see that he had pledged America to improvements before he even got to Paris to conclude those negotiations, so America was on firm ground with the other participants in the talks who wanted to see the developed world go first with its reductions in emissions, and then they were willing to come along."
"He made people believe in their best, and I think that that's what a leader does."Michael D'Antonio
On Obama's shortcomings and criticism he's faced
"Guantanamo is a big example. I think, again, this is a place where he ran into a real buzz saw in Congress, which actually wouldn't authorize the closing of Guantanamo's prison, and as a result, he couldn't fulfill a promise he had made not only to the United States, but to the world. There are other areas, Syria is a primary example, where he couldn't find the solution and I think he very much wanted to. He made the mistake of declaring a red line being drawn, and then when it was crossed he didn't have the option to respond to it. So those are two big areas of failure for him. I think he would also see, at home, his failure when it comes to guns, to be a profound problem. Now, laying this all on him and saying 'failure, failure, failure' is of course unfair. But, the truth is, we haven't moved at all when it comes to gun safety, and it's been one tragedy heaped upon another. ... I think some of the most moving moments of the Obama presidency were when he was grieving for our country for these lives that had been lost in mass shootings, and I think he was severely affected by it."
On how history will judge Obama
"I see two or three major achievements on his part. The first is the restoration of a kind of dignity and integrity to the White House. I'd looked back as far as Eisenhower, and this was the least scandal-plagued presidency since Ike. There were no prosecutions or even charges brought against a single figure in the Obama administration's upper echelon. That is a stunning turnaround from the days of Reagan, and Bush one, and Clinton, and Bush two. So I think integrity and decency is one area where he'll be held up in high regard. And, I also think saving the economy from the depths of the Great Recession, which was the second-worst economic collapse in the last century and really devastated American society — that was a huge accomplishment. It will be seen in the future as even more significant. And, finally, I think that his good will, his optimism, that hope that he did communicate when posed especially against what I think is going to come with Donald Trump, who I know quite well, is going to be seen as a true, exemplary element of his presidency. He made people believe in their best, and I think that that's what a leader does."
Book Excerpt: 'A Consequential President'
By Michael D'Antonio
Obama delivered on most of his promises, and where he fell short, he made a true effort. Yet much of what he achieved was accomplished quietly and would be seen only as complex pieces of legislation were translated into action and the interlocking strategy he’d employed became more evident. Seen from the perspective of 2016, it is apparent that Obama’s economic policy dovetailed with his energy policy, which enabled his diplomacy and aided his environmental agenda. In an ever-more-connected world where problems such as climate change will yield only to an international effort, Obama’s thoughtful and multifaceted approach may be the only thing that will work.
As to the looming symbolic challenge Obama faced as he became the nation’s first black president, his calm, analytical way of approaching difficult issues must also be seen as the best possible option. His election, his reelection, and his successes say as much about the country as they do about him. They reveal America to be a better place than many of its critics assumed, and this image, of a country that is always reinventing itself, may be Obama’s most significant and enduring legacy. This accomplishment makes him a consequential president whose service will only grow in significance with the passage and perspective of time.
In the meantime, the president would continue to endure harsh criticism from the Left, where writers such as Thomas Frank de- scribed the Obama years in terms of lost opportunities. In his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal, Frank expressed his disappointment in Obama because none of his reforms went far enough. Insurers remained embedded in the health care system. Wall Street retained its power in finances. Poverty was intractable, college students remained burdened by debt, and income inequality had worsened. Listen, Liberal was a stinging rebuke, but it was also unfair. Obama had been elected president, not monarch, and the American political system had been fashioned over generations to prevent the kind of sweeping change Frank would have preferred.
Instead of a revolution, Obama delivered progress on health care, which many previous presidents had failed to achieve, and the first real action on climate change in decades. A consequential president in style, as well as substance, Obama’s intellectualism and perseverance, which annoyed so many of his critics, were actually welcomed by the public as a whole. As the 2016 GOP presidential candidates descended into ever-lower realms of rhetoric and behavior, Obama’s poll numbers ticked steadily upward. In February 2016 the Gallup poll reported his favorability rating was 50 percent and climbing. In comparison, at the same point in their presidencies George W. Bush’s favorability rating was 32 percent and Ronald Reagan’s was 51.
In addition to his demeanor, Obama’s popularity was likely the product of his success in foreign affairs, which is one policy area where a president can act most decisively. Under Obama the American people have seen a huge improvement in the nation’s standing, as measured by public opinion, and historic openings to Iran and Cuba, where the president’s record defied those who had dismissed him earlier in his presidency. In spring 2016 Obama highlighted his record with an official visit to Cuba, the first time a sitting US president had set foot in the country since 1928.
Obama’s visit thrilled the Cuban people, who turned out in great numbers to see him. His main message was delivered at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, where he offered words of reconciliation and also provocation. Obama was applauded when he said, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” He was applauded more loudly when he added, “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.”
In referencing the rights that Cubans deserved, Obama vexed his host Raúl Castro, who later criticized the president in an article titled “Brother Obama.” In the piece he insisted that Cubans did not need “gifts” from the United States and suggested that Obama was in no position to “develop theories about Cuban politics.” Castro offered a litany of American interventions in the affairs of other nations and said that “syrupy words” were not enough to smooth over a history of conflict.
Castro’s response was proof that Obama’s visit had inspired hope in Cubans who yearned for more freedom. The tour was also a fitting bookend for a presidency that was foreshadowed, in 2008, by candidate Obama’s address in Berlin, where two hundred thou- sand people cheered him at Tiergarten. In both appearances, Obama stood as a living symbol of hope. Hope for less conflict and more understanding; hope for an end to economic crisis; hope for equal rights; hope for the environment; hope for equal opportunity; hope for a more inclusive and respectful society.
More than most people understood, Obama had actually delivered the change that was the second part of his 2008 campaign message of “hope” and “change we can believe in.” Partisan critics will forever sneer at this theme, insisting that the president fell short of his pledge. History, fairly told, will show he fulfilled his promise and in ways that will continue to be revealed, at home and abroad, for years to come.
Obama had history in mind as he gave the last of his eight addresses to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016. As he spoke, the United States was poised to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in an election that was less than sixty-days away. Trump was running as a close-the-borders xenophobe who would roll back trade agreements and constrict immigration in defiance of a century of experience that showed America prospered from free trade and the energies of new citizens from abroad.
Faced with the prospect of Trump, Obama chose to speak of optimism instead of anxiety, and yes, of hope rather than fear. In one of the most inspiring speeches of his entire public life, Obama held true to the themes of his 2008 campaign. “Each of us leaders, each nation, can choose to reject those who appeal to our worst impulses and embrace those who appeal to our best.” This perspective was the message he offered the nation as he became president. It was the ideal that guided his time in office. And it is the foundation of the legacy.
Excerpted from A CONSEQUENTIAL PRESIDENT: The Legacy of Barack Obama. Copyright © 2016 by Michael D’Antonio. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on January 17, 2017.