Book Review

Jonathan Chait’s Audacity celebrates a centrist mirage of success

A paean to Obama falls flat.

Book Review

Jonathan Chait’s Audacity celebrates a centrist mirage of success

A paean to Obama falls flat.
Book Review

Jonathan Chait’s Audacity celebrates a centrist mirage of success

A paean to Obama falls flat.

On the surface, the most striking thing about Jonathan Chait’s new book, Audacity, is its status as an artifact of Clinton campaign hubris, the literary version of a clearance sale on Hillary victory merchandise. An embarrassment, but a sober reminder of the dangers of overconfidence. Its closest antecedent might be Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “The Soldier,” written to glorify the First World War before its author died from an infected mosquito bite while serving in the Royal Navy. This is not to say that New York magazine’s Chait, who has the fascination with protocol and neutered prose style of a mid-level Wikipedia contributor, is in the league of poets. For one, he lacks the necessary romantic pathos — his persona is that of a hippie-punching cynic whose fantasy politics is the status quo.

Audacity is a defense of Obama as a lawmaker. Chait sets out to prove that “...in the eyes of history, Obama will be viewed as one of America’s best and most accomplished presidents,” and he argues this solely on the basis of concrete policy achievements. The Obama that Chait idolizes is not the “hope and change” idealist of 2008 but the compromiser of 2009. The main points of discussion include the pieces of legislation and executive orders Obama signed — the stimulus package, the auto bailout, the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan. Most of the book is devoted to a point-by-point of Obama’s key legislative battles. The few moments of triumph are underwhelming, even when viewed in the context of a hypothetical Clinton win. An already meager stimulus proposal is watered down further by the three moderates then left in the GOP. A toothless version of Dodd-Frank passes. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is narrowly passed through budget reconciliation before the most important part, Medicaid expansion, is made voluntary by the Supreme Court.

All of this is narrated rather dispassionately, which is to be expected from a well-paid journalist who will never experience the reality of insurance plans with $400 monthly premiums and $5,000 deductibles. The only time Chait’s prose leaps off the page is when he explains how Obama’s Race to the Top education policy was implemented to the chagrin of teachers’ unions, which he describes as such: “...an era of stagnation had given way to one of ferment, experimentation, and progress.” Thrilling. Chait’s wife works for a charter school network in DC, a fact that he rarely discloses when writing his defenses of billionaire-funded education reform. Coincidentally, the turning over of public education to private control is the Obama policy least likely to be reversed by Donald Trump and a Republican Congress.

Most of the successes Audacity touts will likely be obsolete in the next few months. Congressional Republicans have already begun the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act. The Clean Power Plan is being contested in federal court. Trump pledged to dismantle Dodd-Frank. Trump’s upset victory seems to have inspired a number of last-minute changes to the book, not the least of which was the title. The original title, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America, was quietly changed to Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail. The introduction accepts Clinton’s loss but refuses to admit that it affects the text in any way. “The fatalistic conclusion that Trump can erase Obama’s achievements is overstated — perhaps even completely false,” Chait writes. He devotes one paragraph of the introduction and one of the conclusion to Clinton, both of which place blame for her loss on the FBI investigation into her email server. This is one of many instances in which Chait squanders an opportunity to mitigate some of the damage the election did to his arguments by analyzing why Obama’s legacy now has to “prevail.”

Chait has the fascination with protocol and neutered prose style of a mid-level Wikipedia contributor.

These missed opportunities appear frequently, from his selective understanding of the disastrous Obamacare rollout (“...a humanitarian revolution, millions of lives transformed, in mostly quiet ways, from fear, pain, and impoverishment to normality”) to his misreading of post-Crimea sanctions on Russia (“Sanctions imposed ... threw Russia’s economy into a deep recession, draining the source of Putin’s influence.”). With Putin’s influence now stretching into the White House, a possibility Chait was writing about in New York as early as July, a history of Obama’s policies on Russia begs more analysis than “they worked.”

Another characteristic example of Chait’s myopia comes during the chapter on health care reform. In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act hit a roadblock after Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat went to Republican Scott Brown in a special election. Brown, a former nude model who ran on a platform of truck ownership, was considered a long shot. The state Democratic Party had grown complacent after 47 years of reliable Kennedy victories and nominated Attorney General Martha Coakley, an experienced but uncharismatic politician. She showed little initiative when it came to campaigning; when pressed on her decision to attend a DC fundraiser at a crucial moment in the campaign, she scoffed and replied: “What should I do, stand in front of Fenway and shake hands with voters?”

This is an anecdote that Obama himself shared with Chait in a New York magazine interview, which makes it all the more strange that Audacity brushes over this setback in its “this happened, then that happened” brevity. Coakley’s surprise loss, in fact, perfectly foreshadowed Clinton’s. Neither of them took the threat of her opponent seriously, neither of them attempted to garner the grassroots support that propelled Obama to victory, and neither of them was able to pander without sounding robotic and insincere. For Chait to miss all these parallels goes a short way toward explaining why the political media class was so surprised by Clinton’s loss.

Most of the successes Audacity touts will likely be obsolete in the next few months.

Within a few chapters it becomes clear that Audacity is as much a defense of a larger tradition of centrism as it is of Obama himself. Chait takes care to place Obama in a long line of incrementalist liberals dating back to FDR and even Lincoln as a way of defending the president’s accomplishments. Chait prefers to lie by omission rather than attempt to spin Obama’s worst failures, even though he declares in the introduction, “I am not making this argument like a lawyer, who brushes aside any inconvenient facts that might damn his client, but as an opinion journalist who takes intellectual standards seriously.” Being that the latter is an oxymoron, we must assume (correctly) that he is making his argument like a lawyer. Audacity contains no mention of harmful neoliberal actions and policies, including the strengthening of the NSA, Guantanamo Bay, the coup in Honduras, expanded drone warfare, the refusal to prosecute fraud on Wall Street, mass deportations, or the Obamas’ boosterism of the musical Hamilton. Chait admits the failure of Obama’s Libya policy, which Obama himself called a “shit show,” but predictably does not mention that the initially ambivalent Obama intervened at the behest of then-Secretary of State Clinton.

Despite his griping about idealists on the left and conspiracy theorists on the right, Chait is as divorced from reality as the targets of his infinite condescension. About liberals, he says, “They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president but not with the real thing. ... Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president — either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.” He’s not wrong; many of Obama’s supporters went into 2009 expecting a savior narrative to play out, and they were going to be disappointed no matter what. However, the difference between Chait and these rosy-eyed liberals isn’t that he had a stronger command of logic. Chait compares Obama to his own idealized fantasy president — a man whose outward image is center-left but whose true sympathies lie with the center-right, a wonkish technocrat who puts his trust in finance-industry ghouls, a liberal hawk who alternately apologizes for and bolsters neocon foreign policy — and he found them to be a perfect match.

Alex Nichols is the social media editor of Current Affairs.