Obama rediscovers audacity


When future historians look back, Obama’s recent boldness on Iran and other issues may force a reevaluation of his presidency. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

For a long period of his presidency, Barack Obama seemed resigned to sloganeering his way around hard choices, as if catchphrases begat vision and not the other way around. For a while he was “winning the future,” until that got old and I guess he had to call it a draw. There was “built to last” and a “fair shot” and something called “middle-out economics,” which came and went quickly, probably because it sounded like a plan to make Americans pear-shaped.

Obama’s historic pact with Iran, however, caps what has been a remarkably bold and focused several months. Obama no longer goes around self-consciously mouthing the latest mantra he only half buys himself; now he’s like some old guy with a bucket list, checking off boxes and basking in the consternation that trails him.

It seems to me that at this late stage, Obama has finally gotten back to what some of us thought his improbable presidency was going to be about in the first place: relegating the past to the past and forcing us to confront a more modern reality.

Of course, Obama’s 2008 campaign — based on the emptiest slogan of them all, “hope and change” — meant lots of different things to lots of different people. Some people voted for Obama because they thought him less partisan, others because they thought him more unabashedly liberal and antiwar. Obama was, more than anything else, an inspirational story, and where you found the inspiration was totally up to you.

For a lot of younger Americans, though, Obama’s core appeal was generational. Going back to his brief time in the Senate, which is when I first met him, Obama seemed to convey an absurdist’s appreciation of Washington — the way older politicians went on having the same old debates year after year, even as the world around them transformed itself, technologically and socially, into something almost unrecognizable.


Obama was technically a baby boomer, but culturally he was the first president to come of age after the ’60s-era battles that still preoccupied most of our political leadership. He came to politics with skepticism and an understated sense of humor, like the kid who steps into his grandfather’s house and suggests that, you know, maybe the lime Formica has had its day.

As president, though, Obama did not do much to dislodge the 20th century debates over the size of government or the role of the military; if anything, he presided over a time of retrenchment. He spent most of his first year staving off a 1930s-style economic calamity, and by the time the worst had passed, he and his advisers had convinced themselves they were the new New Dealers, while their Republican opponents channeled Barry Goldwater.

Even Obama’s signature achievement, the health care law that now seems destined to endure, did more to complete Lyndon Johnson’s vision of the Great Society than it did to untangle the employer-based system of the last century’s workforce. It was a monumental achievement, but hardly a visionary one.

Between the two calamitous midterm cycles of his presidency, in 2010 and 2014, Obama seemed adrift and cautious, capitulating to the reactionary left while trying to hold off a siege from the reactionary right. Mostly he appeared fatalistic, as if the forces of social and global change he portended would simply have to assert themselves in their own time. He resolved to conduct a presidency by “phone and pen,” rather than legislation, which was another way of saying he had accepted the limits of his reach.

In other words, not only did the Formica stay under Obama’s watch, but he stood by as the two aging party establishments added some plastic-covered couches and lava lamps to boot.

It’s fair to say, however, that since last year’s elections, Obama has rediscovered his modernist conviction — and with it his famous audacity. This kind of thing happens to presidents late in their second terms. Maybe it’s the looming sense of legacy and mortality, or the emergence of newer, less timid advisers, or the freedom that comes with knowing there are no more campaigns left to run.

You saw this, oddly, in the eulogy he gave for South Carolina’s nine shooting victims, which may go down as the finest oration of his presidency. You could tell, listening to him, that he had an instinct for what the moment demanded, and it wasn’t another slogan.


President Obama sings “Amazing Grace” during services for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C. (Photo: David Goldman/AP)

And so Obama threw aside, in one bold stroke, an obsolete Cuba policy that began before he was born and had sustained itself only because of crass political calculation. He mounted a strong fight with some of his own party’s most powerful senators and unions for a free trade agreement with a dozen Asian countries. Just this week, even as he championed his controversial deal with Iran, Obama became the first president to take on 20th century criminal sentencing policies that no longer make sense.

Where events have intervened to hand him moments of uncertainty and anguish on gay marriage and the Confederate flag, Obama hasn’t seemed at all fatalistic. Instead, he’s spoken with uncharacteristic steel and emotion for the new generations of Americans who are ready for a less ennobling history to finally recede.

There’s connective tissue between all of these decisions and the Iran deal (which is another instance, as with Cuba, where Obama brushed aside the time-honored idea that America doesn’t negotiate with rogue states). Conservatives have always derided Obama as little more than a reflexive leftist. A lot of liberals now complain that Obama is so focused on his legacy that he’s willing to sell out his closest allies.

Left to his own devices, though, I’ve always suspected Obama is mostly a modernist with liberal sympathies. That is, he believes in acknowledging the realities of the moment and taking whatever government action you can to shape them, rather than fixating endlessly on how things used to be or how you wish they still were.

So on trade, Obama’s main argument isn’t that globalization is great for everyone. It’s that globalization has already happened and you can’t turn back the clock, so you might as well create some new jobs while you’re losing the old ones.

And on Iran, Obama is effectively arguing that the regime’s nuclear capacity — short of an all-out war — is a foregone conclusion. The practical policy, as far as he’s concerned, is to set aside a decades-old animus, delay that capacity as long as possible and gamble that the technological forces remaking the world will eventually transform Iran as well.

That may or may not be the right gamble to take — I’m no one’s idea of a nuclear scientist. Taken together, though, when future historians look back, Obama’s recent spate of boldness may well force a reevaluation of his presidency, which not so long ago seemed destined to be seen as mostly frustrating.

If this is how Obama intends to go out, he will have at least reset the debate on a series of issues where 20th century orthodoxies have long created a kind of stasis. He has a chance to be remembered as a transitional president, if not a transformational one.

That’s not exactly what he might have aspired to in 2008, but it’s not so far off, either.