“My entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space,” Barack Obama told me, sitting in his office in Washington.
I was the one who had introduced the cosmic scale, asking how proof of alien life would change his politics. But Obama, in a philosophical mood, used the question to trace his view of humanity. “The differences we have on this planet are real,” he said. “They’re profound. And they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion. We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better, because we’re all we got.”
How Obama navigated the differences we have on this planet is the primary topic of “A Promised Land,” the first volume of his presidential memoirs. One passage, in particular, had stuck in my mind for weeks. Obama is reflecting on the Tea Party uprising, and the thrumming undercurrent of racism that powered it. He recalls the din of cable news chatter debating the Tea Party’s true nature, and the pressure that built for him to render his presidential verdict. He admits that his White House wanted nothing to do with this debate, in part because it had “reams of data telling us that white voters, including many who supported me, reacted poorly to lectures about race.”
I’m going to quote what Obama writes next at length:
More practically, I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history. Did that Tea Party member support “states’ rights” because he genuinely thought it was the best way to promote liberty, or because he continued to resent how federal intervention had led to an end to Jim Crow, desegregation, and rising Black political power in the South? Did that conservative activist oppose any expansion of the social welfare state because she believed it sapped individual initiative, or because she was convinced that it would benefit only brown people who’d just crossed the border? Whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truths the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.
The poet Robert Frost famously said that “a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” This is not quite true of Obama, but it is nearly true of his authorial style. “A Promised Land,” which covers the first half of his presidency, is not 700 pages long because it limns so many events. It’s 700 pages long because it presents so many different views of Obama and his motivations.
Over and over again, Obama tries to make clear that his assailants have a point, that his perspective is bounded by experience and self-interest. This is true in his personal recollections, which give ample space to Michelle Obama’s doubts about his decision to pursue a political career, and it is true in his political remembrances, which always try to inhabit his critics’ arguments, or at least their sentiments.
But what strikes me about that passage is that you can see Obama’s idealism and calculation shimmer into a single point. After suggesting that the motivations of his Tea Party critics were unknowable, he resolves the argument by saying the politics of it were thoroughly knowable. Whatever his own intuitions might tell him — whatever “truths the history books might suggest” — to cry racism, or even to coolly point it out, was to lose votes, and neither his version of hope nor of change would be helped along by defeat.
In our national story, Obama is framed as a practitioner of a kind of anti-politics — an almost naïvely optimistic figure who rose to power downplaying our divisions only to find his administration’s legacy swallowed by them. But his book is a reminder that the inverse story has always been just as true: Obama is thoroughly a politician, and because he understood the depth of our divisions, he treated them gingerly, at times fearfully. In a particularly striking moment, Obama reveals that across the entirety of his presidency, his single largest drop in white support came when he criticized the white police officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor, on the porch of his own home. “It was support that I’d never completely get back,” Obama writes.
Much in our politics is not what it seems. Contrary to the aesthetics of our current political debate, there is a deep optimism in the confrontational politics of the modern left and a quiet pessimism in the caution with which Obama speaks. To ask the question bluntly: Who truly believes America to be a racist country? The political voices who state that view clearly, because they think Americans can be challenged into change, or the ones who try to avoid even implying the thought, because they fear the power of the backlash?
When I brought up that passage about the Tea Party, Obama was frank in describing his calculations. “One of the ways I would measure it would be: Is it more important for me to tell a basic, historical truth, let’s say about racism in America right now? Or is it more important for me to get a bill passed that provides a lot of people with health care that didn’t have it before?” He admitted that there was “a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth,” and fondly referenced the “Key & Peele” skits about Luther, his anger translator. But he didn’t worry over whether he’d been wrong to bite his tongue.
One thing that occurred to me as we were talking is that Obama’s view of his own political situation echoes the current reality of the Democratic Party. Barack Hussein Obama, a Black man running for office during the era of the War on Terror, understood the deck was stacked against him. If he was going to win, he would need the support of people inclined to view him with suspicion. He would need to not just speak to their hopes, but to defuse their fears. To hear Obama tell it, those fears were not just that too much change would come too fast, but that those who fought that change, or just worried over it, would be judged or cast out.
“People knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and so forth,” Obama told me. “But I think maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough, or that somehow they were morally suspect because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.”
Democrats, too, face an unforgiving context: Their coalition leans young, urban and diverse, while America’s turnout patterns and electoral geography favor the old, rural and white. According to FiveThirtyEight, Republicans hold a 3.5 point advantage in the Electoral College, a 5-point advantage in the Senate and a 2-point advantage in the House. Even after winning many more votes than Republicans in 2018 and 2020, Democrats are at a 50-50 split in the Senate and have a bare four-seat majority in the House. Odds are that they will lose the House and possibly the Senate in 2022.
This is the fundamental asymmetry of American politics right now: To hold national power, Democrats need to win voters who are right of center; Republicans do not need to win voters who are left of center. Even worse, Republicans control the election laws and redistricting processes in 23 states, while Democrats control 15. The ongoing effort by Texas Republicans to tilt the voting laws in their favor, even as national Republicans stonewall the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, is testament to the consequences of that imbalance.
Most Democrats I know are panicked over the convergence of their geographic disadvantage and the Republican assault on democracy. In my view, they’re right to be. Their situation is dire, and if the Republican Party could reorient itself around more competent candidates, it could become catastrophic. Obama has argued that Senate Democrats should abolish the filibuster and pass the legislation necessary to protect American democracy. I wish they’d listen to him on that. But as of now, the Democrats’ democracy agenda is imperiled, and so are they.
In our conversation, Obama gamely tried to suggest that there was a bright side to the Democrats’ structural disadvantage. “That does mean Democratic politics is going to be different than Republican politics,” he told me. “Now, look, the good news is, I also think that has made the Democratic Party more empathetic, more thoughtful, wiser by necessity. We have to think about a broader array of interests and people. And that’s my vision for how America ultimately works best and perfects its union.”
In other words, the Democratic Party, like Obama, has been forced into a more pluralistic form of politics by its geographic disadvantages. The 2016 and 2020 elections tell the tale. The Republican Party reacted to Obama by indulging its rage and nominating Donald Trump and won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. The Democratic Party responded to Trump by strategically nominating the candidate they thought had the best chance of winning over Trump voters, Joe Biden, and came perilously close to losing the presidency despite dominating the popular vote.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Obama if he still believed you could change people’s politics through policy. He replied with the central what-if of the last decade. “Let’s say a Joe Biden or, the person who was running, Hillary Clinton, had immediately succeeded me, and the economy suddenly has 3 percent unemployment, I think we would have consolidated the sense that, oh, actually these policies that Obama put in place worked,” he said. “The fact that Trump interrupts essentially the continuation of our policies, but still benefits from the economic stability and growth that we had initiated, means people aren’t sure.”
Biden is “essentially finishing the job,” Obama told me. We’ll see. If Joe Biden and the Democrats pass H.R.1 and some version of the American Families and Jobs Plans, then the Obama-Biden approach to politics will have proven itself out. But if they fail to pass H.R.1 or the American Families and Jobs Plans, and then lose the House and Senate in 2022, how open will liberals be to hearing about the virtues of more candidates in the Obama lineage? Not very, I suspect. Coalitions are less emotionally satisfying than confrontations; pluralism doesn’t go nearly as viral as division. The politicians who preach the harder path have to be able to deliver.
Obama knew this full well. “The point was to win,” he writes. “I wanted to prove to Blacks, to whites — to Americans of all colors — that we could transcend the old logic, that we could rally a working majority around a progressive agenda, that we could place issues like inequality or lack of educational opportunity at the very center of the national debate and then actually deliver the goods.”
This is another way in which the reality of our politics defies the aesthetics of our politicians. The true agents of Democratic radicalization right now aren’t leftists in the House but senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who by indulging Republican obstructionism and preferring the preservation of the filibuster to the protection of democracy, are imperiling the entire theory of politics they claim to support.
(You can listen to or read my whole conversation with Obama here.)
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