CNN published a piece on what the author called “the first historical assessment” of President Obama’s two terms, and the story surprisingly begins on a critical note.
“To begin, any assessment of President Obama has to reckon with the extraordinary election that resulted in the election of Donald Trump as his successor, a president who has seemed determined to erase Obama’s legacy. Obama’s failure to see it coming – in this he was not alone – is one of the biggest question marks over his White House years.”
If the president had been aware, he might have done more to head off this disaster, according to the piece. But he didn’t appreciate the depth of the problem because of his peaceful nature.
“What Obama could never accept about American politics was just how ugly it had become,” wrote Julian Zelizer, the history and public affairs professor at Princeton who edited “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.”
“In many ways, this always had been the president’s greatest political weakness. His confidence in our democracy prevented him from doing more to stand firm against the destructive forces that were shaping our country during his two terms in office. Obama’s election in 2008 was supposed to signify that our country was finally moving in the right direction – a country born with slavery had elected an African-American to be president.
“As president, Obama never let go of this hope. That was what made him so endearing to millions of Americans and shaped much of what he did in the Oval Office.”
Even in Obama’s first year in office, when “Republicans spoke about incessant obstruction and refused to join him on legislation, whether the debate centered on rescuing the plummeting economy through a stimulus package or trying to fix a broken American health care system, Obama kept reaching out to shake their hands. Every time that they bit him rather than agreeing to compromise, Obama gave bipartisan civility another shot.”
Members of his party pleaded with him to stop “watering down his proposals” to get Republicans on board, Zelizer continued, “but Obama insisted. As the political ecosystem started to drown in partisan spin and vitriolic slander, he attempted to be reasonable, appealing to the evidence-based angels in our electorate, desperately trying to ignore the noise.”
But it was too late. Partisan noise was “what our politics was now about.” Starting with the 2010 midterm elections, he was “Tea-Partied.”
“He watched as the Republican Party veered far to the right” and a “generation of politicians came into power whose core policy beliefs were well outside the mainstream.”
The Tea Party was truly bad, Zelizer wrote. It believed “in a kind of ruthless form of political combat” and “vehemently hated the entire political establishment” and “refused to listen to anyone but themselves.” It cast leaders aside when they were no longer needed, such as Eric Cantor and John Boehner, neither of whom was ever viewed as a Tea Party leader.
“While Obama spoke calmly about facts and data, Tea Party Republicans operated in a conservative media universe that privileged screaming, yelling, attacking and just making things up if they fit into a specific worldview.”
These views always existed on the margins, Zelizer wrote. But now they had an ally to magnify their impact.
“Now these kinds of stories could be seen, heard and read on powerful networks and websites,” he wrote. “This wasn’t the Yellow Press – it was the mainstream press. The ‘birther’ controversy, for instance, actually received coverage on mainstream networks.
“A politician like Obama could be civil as much as he wanted, but nobody on these airwaves would be listening. The point was to preach to the converted, to strengthen their view of the world rather than trying to challenge or to inform.”