Barack Obama took office convinced that he could bridge differences. As he begins his final six months, we are a nation of groups more divided than ever by separate worlds of pain and grievance.
How much of this is Obama's fault? What might he have done differently? What sort of legacy will he pass along to Hillary Clinton, assuming that she can defeat Donald Trump?
I've been watching what has to be the best documentary on the Obama years, Norma Percy's four-part Inside Obama's White House, which was produced for the BBC and ran on British TV in March and April.
In a calamity of errors, the documentary ran on al-Jazeera America four days before the channel closed down, got no publicity, and is almost unknown in the U.S.
It may still run elsewhere on American TV, but that is being negotiated. You can watch one of the installments here, and you should. One of the bigger networks should acquire the rights and broadcast the entire series, which was made in collaboration with producer Brian Lapping and filmmaker Paul Mitchell.
The American-born Percy, probably Britain's most honored documentary filmaker, has a signature technique. She assembles all of the important participants to key events, and persuades them to describe, on camera, just what occurred. For this documentary, everyone from Obama on down was interviewed, and the film provides riveting new detail and insight on major episodes in his presidency, from the fight over the stimulus to the Affordable Care Act, the Iraq withdrawal and the Iran nuclear deal. (Disclosure: Percy is also a former classmate.)
Three big things come across: First, Obama's character -- his intelligence, decency, persistence, idealism, good humor and legislative acumen; second, the absolutely nihilistic obstructionism of the Republicans, poisoning the political climate, and vindicated in the 2010 takeover of Congress; and third, Obama's determination that differences might yet, somehow, be bridged.
It is this last trait, a strength in ordinary circumstances, that weakened Obama's presidency and his legacy.
The documentary underscores and vividly illustrates the wall-to-wall obstructionism that Obama faced. By late January 2009, when we see House Republican leader John Boehner resolving to kill the stimulus package, most presidents would have realized that nothing that they did, no gesture or concession that they made, would win Republicans over.
The same story was repeated in the fight to enact the Affordable Care Act. Boehner declared that ObamaCare would wreck the economy.
With the exception of the two Maine senators and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter (who soon became a Democrat) who supported the stimulius, these landmark bills passed with the support of Democrats alone. As the film demonstrates, Obama played an astute inside game, working with Democratic legislators to find compromises to get the legislation passed.
What he did not do was discover his inner FDR. He did not go to the country to call out the Republicans on their toxic nihilism. And in the 2010 mid-term elections, they rolled over him. Obama continued to believe in the possibilty of bridging differences, even when his opposition was determined to do nothing less than annihilate him.
As then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi points out to an interviewer in the BBC film, under George W. Bush Democrats and Republicans had deep differences. But that did not prevent Democrats from often supporting Bush legislation for the good of the country, the most important case being the TARP bill enacted in the wake of the financial collapse.
Obama, for all his utter decency and high purpose, made a second basic mistake. This is my own view, not that of the documentary, but the film illustrates it well:
He got into bed with Wall Street.
First, he appointed a team of utterly orthodox economic advisers. Paul Volcker was rejected as too left wing. With the exception of Christy Romer and Jared Bernstein, the team was mainly comprised of people like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, who had been central to the deregulation of Wall Street that had caused the collapse.
This same team prematurely projected that the economy was on the road to recovery by early 2010, and rejected Nancy Pelosi's call for a second economic stimulus. Instead, they embraced the false gospel of deficit reduction.
Obama was a terrific legislative fighter. But he was reluctant to take his fight with the Republicans public. That and his pivot to deficit reduction helped set up the epic Congressional reverses in 2010. His Administration was never able to pass major legislation again.
How does all this spill over onto Hillary Clinton? It puts major pressure on her to break with the Bill Clinton/Barack Obama tradition of appointing a senior economic team from Wall Street.
This will be a double challenge, both because of the money raised by her campaign by Wall Streeters, and because both her husband and President Obama are so reliant on Wall Street for their economic experts.
Obama announced his economic team in June 2008. It's already July of an election year, and Hillary Clinton has yet to name hers. The top advisers who she names will signal whether her commitment to a more progressive economic agenda is just window dressing -- or real.
If the team includes Wall Streeters, such as Larry Fink of Black Rock who has made no secret of his wish to be Treasury Secretary, or her former State Department colleague Tom Nides, now at Morgan Stanley, then we will know that it is business as usual.
Elizabeth Warren put it well, in a speech to Netroots Nation just a year ago:
Three of the last four Treasury secretaries under Democratic presidents have had close Citigroup ties. The fourth was offered the CEO position at Citigroup, but turned it down.
The vice chair of the Federal Reserve system is a Citigroup alum.
The undersecretary for international affairs at Treasury is a Citigroup alum.
The U.S. trade representative is a Citigroup alum.
The person nominated to be deputy U.S. trade representative -- who is currently an assistant secretary at Treasury -- is a Citigroup alum.
A recent chairman of the National Economic Council at the White House is a Citigroup alum.
A recent chairman of the Office of Management and Budget went to Citigroup immediately after leaving the White House.
Another recent chairman of the Office of Management and Budget is also a Citi alum -- but I'd be double counting here because now he's the secretary of the Treasury.
Warren, now campaigning for Clinton and on the short list as a possible running mate, has made it her business to persuade Clinton to break with both of her two Democratic predecessors and keep Wall Street far away from the levers of power.
There are plenty of potential economic advisers, such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, or Rob Johnson who heads the Institute for New Economic Thinking, who would help steer a Clinton administration in a different direction. One repentant ex-Wall Streeter, Gary Gensler, serves as a senior aide in the Clinton campaign. He was a reform chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and he might bridge Wall Street and anti-Wall Street.
On the issue of race and racial division, it is hard to fault Obama. The mere fact that an African American progressive was elected president was taken as an affront to the haters. The fact that one of those haters is now the Republican nominee suggests how much unfinished racial business this republic still has.
Yet race and the economy are linked. The same white guys who are attracted to Donald Trump have been taking it on the chin economically. The era in which good blue collar jobs disappeared was the same time period when blacks and women belatedly made some economic gains, at the expense of white male privilege. Provide greater economic hope for people of all races, and some of the racial animosity might subside. To do that will take a radical break with a Wall Street dominated economic team.
The BBC documentary suggests that Obama will be remembered as a great president and also a tragic one. He inherited a financial crisis not of his making. He inherited racial animosity that was deepended by the crisis, and he approached the fraught subject of race in a big-hearted way. The fact that he made major legislative achievements was nothing short of miraculous.
What he did not do was to think quite big enough, or make a sufficiently radical break with old economic order, or rally the people to resist it. The right ended up articulating many of the frustrations. It now falls to Hillary Clinton to learn some of those lessons, or she will find herself broken by the same reactionary forces.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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