Is it healthcare? The Paris Climate Agreement? His election as the first black president? Something else? Over at Dissent, Corey Robin reviews eight books on the Obama legacy. Many of these books are written by Obama staffers. Robin’s calls them the “Obamanauts” and suggests that they may be Obama’s legacy.
Here is a taste:
Since the 2016 election, many members of the Obama administration have written their memoirs in the hope of defining that legacy. In addition, more than a hundred men and women who worked in and around the White House have given their reminiscences to Brian Abrams, who has composed a remarkably fluid oral history of the Obama years. We’ve not yet heard from the man himself. While it’s not unprecedented for the president’s men and women to get the first word, the effect of his silence and their volubility is to decenter a presidency that, more than most, was centered on one man and his words. Obama had an uncanny ability to make sense of his place in history, to narrate what it was that he was doing. His politics had its limits, but they were often, and often knowingly, self-imposed. No matter how circumscribed the view, Obama managed to conjure a sense of what lay beyond it. With one exception, none of his people has that sense of time or place. They’re bound by a perimeter that is not of their making and that lies beyond their ken.
At the same time, not only do the Obamanauts wish to salvage Obama’s legacy from Donald Trump; they also believe Obama’s legacy can save us from Donald Trump. “My hope in writing this book,” says Dan Pfeiffer, who ran communications in the White House, is that “if we learn the right lessons” from Obama, “we can ensure that Donald Trump is an aberration.” That puts Obama’s legacy at a double disadvantage: defended by some of its least persuasive advocates and defined by what it is not. Burdened by a future he had a hand in making but no intention of creating, Obama gets reimagined in these memoirs and reminiscenses in light of everything he sought to avoid: the destructiveness of the president who came after him, and the irresponsibility of the Republicans who came before him and dogged him throughout his time in office. Instead of a clear outline of the man, we get the shadow of his enemies. That’s not fair to Obama, but as he’s the one who chose these people to speak for him while he was in office, they are the ones who’ve chosen to speak for him when he’s out. So it will remain, until he writes his memoirs.
The Obamanauts have an argument that they think can be used to defeat the Republicans. It is an argument that sets out what liberals and Democrats should be saying, and how they should be saying it, in the next election and beyond. It is part sense—about economic policy, foreign policy, and so on—and part sensibility: about norms, the presidency, and how our public life should be conducted. Because the sense is so thin in these memoirs, the sensibility winds up mattering more. Which is probably for the best. For it’s that sensibility that gives us the clearest view of what Obamaism, beneath and beyond Obama, was all about. It’s the style of leading sectors in the Democratic Party, currently embattled against the left, though we hear little mention of that battle here. But most of all, it’s that style that answers the question: What is Obama’s legacy? For better or worse, and at least for now, it’s the Obamanauts themselves.
Read the entire piece here.