Students of American politics in search of clues about what President Barack Obama’s second term will look like can consult a growing body of literature about his personal and political path.
Nobody has ever called someone a serial fabricator more politely than Maraniss does in his sympathetic but clear-eyed and deeply researched book into Obama’s early life. The accuracy of the president’s two autobiographical books comes under heavy fire; the president’s memory appears to be a creative and inventive force. But the “real” Obama whom Maraniss describes is ultimately a reassuring presence; Obama’s political talent developed in unlikely ways as young “Barry” struggled to make sense of the multiracial, multicultural world into which he was born. Maraniss delves into the lives of Obama’s ancestors in both Kenya and Kansas, and as a result, he deepens the reader’s understanding not only of the president but also of the ways in which globalization is changing and challenging traditional cultures in Africa—and in the United States, too. At a time when hereditary elites and a political establishment appeared to have turned U.S. presidential politics into a dynastic rivalry, Obama’s rise shook up the establishment and pushed the United States into a new era. Maraniss’ book helps the reader understand that achievement and its importance.
If Obama’s story reflects the dramatic ways in which the world has changed, it is reasonable to wonder how his presidency itself might contribute to those transformations through its approach to foreign policy. Mann’s book, a portrait of Obama’s foreign policy team, presents a group divided in two, with a group of older figures haunted by the Vietnam War and its effects on Democratic Party and national politics and a group of younger players (including the president) for whom the wars in Indochina are ancient history. Mann argues that even more than coping with the legacy of President George W. Bush and his “war on terror,” the primary aim of the Obama administration is to erase the political advantage on national security issues that the Republican Party has enjoyed since the Reagan era. Mann’s assessment of the administration’s actual policies is balanced and nuanced, and readers looking for clues about the next four years will find much to consider in this brisk and well-crafted account.
Perhaps the most significant of those policies, at least so far, is Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. Bader served as senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 until 2011 and has written the first insider’s report on this important and underreported shift. His book suffers from the flaws that affect most such works by midcareer officials: it is discreet in all the wrong places, it settles bureaucratic scores in elliptical ways, and it tries slightly too hard to put the policies under question in the best possible light. But unlike many of these often-forgettable works, Bader’s memoir offers genuine insights into some important decisions. The U.S. focus on the Middle East during the Bush years left U.S. allies in Asia unsure about the Americans’ willingness and ability to protect them. At the same time, a triumphalist Beijing jettisoned its “peaceful rise” approach, and China increasingly sought to pressure its neighbors into more accommodating postures. The Obama administration has taken on the delicate and difficult task of restoring balance to the region, attempting to check Chinese assertiveness without stumbling into an awkward containment policy against Beijing. The jury is still out on whether this policy is working, but Bader’s thoughtful account of its early stages should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in U.S. policy in the Pacific.
The renewed focus on Asia aside, many observers have remarked that the most striking aspect of Obama’s foreign policy is, in fact, its overall continuity with the approach of the Bush administration. It is certainly true that during the past four years, the most dramatic changes were on matters of domestic policy—and none was more dramatic or fraught than the arrival of Obamacare. Indeed, the most important victory Obama won in his first term was the 5–4 Supreme Court decision affirming the constitutionality of his health insurance reforms. With that vote, the administration entered history, having accomplished the kind of large-scale overhaul that had eluded presidents since the Truman era. Toobin, a strong opponent of what he sees as a conscious and deliberate Republican strategy to politicize the Supreme Court, tells the story of the Court’s lurch to the right under Chief Justice John Roberts and argues that Roberts’ vote to uphold Obamacare represented the triumph of a long-term conservative judicial strategy over a short-term political one. By affirming the health-care law, Toobin suggests, Roberts could protect the Court against the perception that it had become a partisan Republican tool, even as he and his allies continued to move the Court to the right. That is a plausible interpretation of what happened. Yet readers might consider a simpler explanation: facing the most important legal issue in a generation, the chief justice of the United States rendered an honest and impartial decision based on his understanding of the facts and the law in the case. That interpretation would not preclude an awareness on Roberts’ part of the consequences of his ruling; as Chief Justice John Marshall understood, sometimes integrity is the subtlest and most effective strategy of all.
Obama’s string of political victories has left his opponents off balance; D’Souza’s attempt to grapple with Obama’s success illustrates why. Although the conservative writer and filmmaker can be sharp, the heart of his book is an intellectual mistake: he fails to understand the role of liberal optimism in Obama’s politics. D’Souza looks at Obama’s affinities with some “anti-colonial” and “anti-American” figures and notes, correctly, that the president has a long record of sympathy for the aspirations of those inside and outside the United States who have not had the opportunity to share in the material abundance of the American dream. But D’Souza almost hysterically exaggerates the influence of some of these figures: for example, contrary to D’Souza’s claims, Obama was never close to the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, and Obama’s views on Israel were clearly influenced more by liberal American Jews than by Palestinian activists. D’Souza fails to see the importance of Obama’s belief that the relationship between “the system” and those it excludes is not zero-sum. Obama believes that with the right policies, the energy and dynamism of capitalism can help the poor. Unlike much of the global left, he does not see a contradiction between American power and a just world order. He believes that properly employed, American power can and should advance such an order, and he wishes to conserve that power precisely because he wants to use it to make the world a better place. D’Souza seems not to grasp just how mainstream and characteristically American this optimism is. Besides, the question to be answered in Obama’s second term is not whether the president’s philosophy is rooted in the American political tradition but whether it can provide Obama with the intellectual and political resources he needs to meet the challenges of these interesting times.