"My name is Barack Obama, I’m a black man and I’m president of the United States,” Obama once told his staff, as he pondered a risky domestic policy choice. “Of course I feel lucky.” This was unusual. Obama was not one for melodrama. His presidency was historic—and implausible—because of his ethnicity: his middle name was Hussein, and his last name was easily mistaken for that of Osama bin Laden. He governed through memorable crises, domestic and foreign. There were landmark successes and some notable failures. But all of these happened within the context of regular political order. Obama’s campaign promise of “hope and change” seemed pretty dramatic at the time; the expectations ran as high among liberals as they would later for Donald Trump’s populist radicalism among some conservatives. And yet, Obama was not a radical. He was an adventurous moderate at home and a cautious realist overseas. He was careful, sometimes to a fault, thoughtful, subtle, and restrained at a time when those qualities were not highly valued by the public or the media.
It is, of course, far too early to give a measured evaluation of Obama’s presidency. But intrepid journalists always try to sum things up. (I did, too, at the end of the Clinton presidency). Peter Baker’s Obama is a coffee-table book, chock-a-block with stunning photos, that rises above its genre thanks to the quality of the author’s reporting and analysis. Baker had a front-row seat for the Obama presidency, as White House correspondent for The New York Times. Jonathan Chait’s Audacity is a smart, partisan account of Obama’s domestic successes—and of the political forces, on the left and the right, that prevented a rational accounting of his achievements as they were taking place. Michael D’Antonio’s A Consequential President doesn’t break new ground, but it gives a more human cast to Obama’s presidency than Chait’s austere and policy-centric portrait.
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