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four takes

Looking at Obama’s legacy

Pete Souza/White House/2013 file photo/White House

A “data-laced rant.” That’s how pollster Cornell Belcher tags his book, one of my 2016 titles today, all freshly judging the impact of Barack Obama’s presidency. I read this first one in a heightened state. Partly, it’s the jolt of the title: “A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis” (Water Street, 2016). Partly, it’s the timing: We’ve only got one more month of his leadership. And partly, it’s the heat: “Trump is the wholly unsurprising upshot of a party that has been race-baiting, albeit covertly, for generations,” insists Belcher.

The author, who is African-American, was the first minority person to act as lead pollster for either national party (he worked for the DNC, and Howard Dean wrote the book’s foreword). Since 2008, Belcher has surveyed voters in battleground states in order to monitor racial aversion during Obama’s two terms. These findings are not ambiguous: They’re black and white in matters of black and white. As Belcher crunches the numbers — flipping from a “post-racial glow” in the election years of 2008 and 2012 to the birther movement, the Tea Party backlash, and Republican midterm sweeps in 2010 and 2014 — he finds that Obama did not unite the country in a honeyed era of racial tolerance. Far from it. Instead, a black president has brought “the fear of an end to white political dominance in America to a boiling point.”


Less rant and less data inform my next book, though it’s no less insightful on this charged topic. “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race In America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is by journalist and critic Michael Eric Dyson. He doesn’t sugarcoat: Dyson calls Obama’s performance on race “sad and disappointing” and holds the black community to account, in its adulation, for not holding Obama to account. He also scolds Obama for being a scold, as when the president told attendees to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to stop using poverty as “an excuse for not raising your child.”

Then again, Dyson acknowledges the inevitable constraints on our first black president, with a toxic opposition. And he thoughtfully analyzes the flashpoints: Obama’s estrangement from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the “beer summit’’ between Henry Louis Gates and a cop who arrested him at his own home, the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the amazing moment when the president sang “Amazing Grace” at a funeral after the Charleston church shooting deaths.


Pace, not race, propels “The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World” (PublicAffairs, 2016). The author is Derek Chollet, a senior Obama administration official. This is an essentially admiring book, with Chollet batting back most foreign policy criticisms of Obama. Many metaphors to like here: Strategically, the president is all about methodically “hitting singles and doubles” or “wield[ing] a scalpel instead of a hammer” or steering “the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were.”

Chollet spells out the advantages of this long game, noting how Obama avoided his own WMD (weapons of mass destruction) disaster by deftly negotiating with Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons. And he makes intriguing comparisons, likening Obama to equally deliberative Eisenhower since both shouldered criticism for nonintervention (Obama for Syria, Ike for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956). We also get Obama’s criteria for action: balance, sustainability, restraint, precision, patience, fallibility, skepticism, and exceptionalism. Now one last metaphor — this president says he’s tried to leave his successor “a clean barn.”


My last book is upbeat and commemorative: “Obama’s Legacy: What He Accomplished as President” (Center Street, 2016) by Michael I. Days, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Days points out our good days: Obama has presided over the longest streak of job growth in US history, a federal budget deficit cut by two thirds, and a remarkable stock market rebound. He kept the country from falling into a depression, saved the auto industry, and passed the Affordable Care Act. This is a systematic narrative with chapters on Obama’s influence on everything from LGBT rights to prison reform to immigration legislation.

But the story doesn’t open with any of this big-picture fanfare. Instead, Days recalls a small picture, a now-famous photo taken in 2009. A White House staffer, leaving for a new job, had asked to bring his family to meet the president and say goodbye. The family is African American. Each child could ask the president one question. Jacob, the five-year-old, solemnly said, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” And Obama leaned down, one generation to the next, so Jacob could touch the head of the first black president in our history, as if in blessing.


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net