A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama

A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama

by Michael D'Antonio

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250081391
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 786,509
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

As part of a team of journalists from Newsday, MICHAEL D'ANTONIO won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting before going on to write many acclaimed books, including The Truth About Trump. He has also written for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Sports Illustrated. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

A Consequential President

The Legacy of Barack Obama


By Michael D'Antonio

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Michael D'Antonio
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9327-6



CHAPTER 1

ENDING THE GREAT RECESSION

It Was the Economy, Stupid


On the day before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama put on faded jeans and went to the Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for runaway youth on Capitol Hill, where he used a roller to apply blue paint to a bedroom wall. Obama also visited with hundreds of volunteers who had gathered at a Washington-area high school to write letters to American military personnel stationed abroad. And he made an impromptu stop at Walter Reed Medical Center to meet more than a dozen wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The day before the forty-fourth president's inauguration was the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and Obama quoted the great civil rights leader as reporters listened: "Everybody can be great," said the president-elect, "because everybody can serve."

In the evening, Barack and Michelle Obama participated in a Washington custom, attending bipartisan events to honor, among others, his campaign opponent Senator John McCain. The senator may be best known for surviving as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Obama referred to him as an "American hero." Obama also praised him for understanding the need for "common purpose and common effort" in an age of intense partisanship.

The next day, Obama took the oath of office before a crowd of more than 1.8 million people, which was, by some estimates, the largest ever gathered in Washington. According to a Gallup poll, the number of Americans who felt more hopeful about the future outnumbered those who did not by six to one.

Parts of Obama's inaugural address, including a firm commitment to security, won vigorous applause even from the Republicans seated on the platform that had been built beside the US Capitol. Other items in his speech appealed mainly to the 53 percent of voters who had cast ballots for him. He repeated many of his campaign promises, including health care reforms, an increase in clean energy production, and closing the controversial Guantánamo Bay prison camp. But clearly this president knew he was taking office at a moment of crisis, and he dwelled at length on the three big challenges facing the country: the most severe economic recession since 1929, the terrorism of Islamic extremists, and climate change. He said:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

Of the three big challenges, resolving the economic mess was the most acute. The pain of the recession was not theoretical, not a matter of numbers in ledgers. Layoffs, foreclosures, ruined retirement accounts, and shuttered businesses were making it more difficult for millions of people to provide themselves with food and shelter. (Two signs of economic pain could be seen in the rising use of antidepressants and declining rates of pregnancy.) The Great Recession was draining the resources available for business to grow and for the government to perform its basic functions, including antiterrorism efforts and environmental protection. Worst of all, some economists had begun to warn that the recession might become something worse. Some, such as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, feared the arrival of the first depression — a double-digit decline in gross national product and high unemployment — since the 1930s. Others worried of a "lost decade" of the sort endured by Japan in the 1990s. The Japanese had experienced a bubble in asset prices and subsequent burst in the same way that America's real-estate and financial-asset bubbles popped in 2007–8. Although commonly called the lost decade, the decline in Japan had actually continued for almost twenty years.

The specter of Japan's extended crisis and the suffering of individuals and families who'd lost jobs and homes and were losing hope made the Great Recession the most important problem the president faced. To borrow a phrase made famous during the 1992 presidential election, the first concern was "the economy, stupid." Everything else, including national security, the environment, and even the nation's ability to provide basics such as education and health care, depended on the vigor of the economy. It would be the highest priority for Obama throughout his presidency.

As he considered the challenge, Obama prayed for a change in Washington's ways, quoting Scripture — "the time has come to set aside childish things" — and calling for an end to "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." The new president did not have to mention the attempt to remove Bill Clinton from the White House after a sex scandal or the election of 2000, which was decided in Republican George Bush's favor in a party-line vote of the Supreme Court. Every informed American understood that political division had grown in recent decades, and the rift was pronounced in Congress. In 1982, two-thirds in Congress held centrist views as defined by the National Review. By the time of Obama's presidency, the centrists would comprise just 4 percent.

Political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein would place the responsibility for the polarization in Congress mainly on Republicans. Neither Ornstein nor Mann were known to indulge in partisan rhetoric. Mann leaned a little Left, Ornstein a little Right. Together they were among the most moderate and widely respected political experts in the country. In their much-praised book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, they concluded, "The Republican party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; not persuaded by conventional facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

The drift toward the extreme politics noted by Ornstein and Mann had been a factor in Obama's choice of a running mate. The new vice president, Joseph Biden, had served thirty-six years in the US Senate, where he was perhaps the most well-liked person in Washington of any political stripe. Affable and gregarious, Biden had learned to be a senator in the time when centrists from both parties ran the place. He counted many congressional Republicans as friends, and it was hoped, by some Democrats, that he could help move the new administration's agenda forward on Capitol Hill. Biden was an old-school sort who thought the Senate was a truly deliberative body and that compromise was one of the political arts.

This is not to say that Joe Biden was a political Pollyanna. He had experienced the hyperpartisanship of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who infamously orchestrated a government shutdown and was also the first House Speaker ever disciplined for an ethics violation. The vice president had weathered the Clinton impeachment trial and acquittal, which had been achieved thanks to the votes of the few GOP moderates remaining in the Senate. A decade later, many of the cooler heads who had saved the country from a constitutional crisis, by refusing to support one or both of the articles of impeachment, were gone from the Senate. One who remained, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told Biden to expect trouble from the GOP. Biden surely understood Specter's warning, but he couldn't know the extent of the opposition the new administration faced.

Voters had given Obama a mandate and repudiated congressional Republicans by adding twenty seats to the Democrats' majority in the House and seven to their majority in the Senate. However, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress were already pushing for a united front of opposition to everything Obama might propose. Although the strategy would become obvious as Congress voted on the president's initiatives, its political purpose would be revealed more gradually. In time Obama would learn that the less than loyal opposition united against him so that its leaders could point to his failure when it came to winning bipartisan support. According to their logic, that the president couldn't win Republican support was proof, not of their intransigence, but of his. Obama's embrace of many ideas, especially in health care, that originated with Republicans wouldn't matter. What mattered was that GOP leaders could claim that Obama, who had been elected with enormous support, was out of touch with the country he was chosen to lead.

Hostile Republicans could enforce their blockade with a parliamentary procedure called the filibuster. Historically this technique required that senators speak for hours on end, until exhausted colleagues capitulated or a supermajority of sixty voted to break the logjam. In modern times the threat of a filibuster was often enough to force the Senate to assemble a supermajority or move on to other business. Though rarely invoked in prior generations, the rate of filibusters had risen sharply beginning in the 1990s. Both sides used them, although Republicans practiced this form of obstruction more often.

Rules in the House do not permit filibusters and thus do not require a supermajority to end parliamentary delays. There, the GOP minority would have to content itself with symbolic opposition if the Democrats got in line behind the new president. Toward this end Eric Cantor, the vote-counting House Republican whip, told aides that he would organize the minority party to fight Obama in an extremely disciplined way. Obama had won more than 9 million votes than John McCain, but Cantor didn't feel any obligation to honor the mandate. He put it bluntly: "We're going to fight these guys." The top Republican in the Senate also rallied his colleagues to the cause of blocking the new president. Ohio senator George Voinovich would reveal that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had declared in private, "If he [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it."

The motivation behind this strategy was power. Having analyzed the election results, GOP strategists determined that the other party's control of the House and Senate was not as strong as it may have seemed. Many of the seats recently won by Democrats were in districts with lots of conservative-leaning voters who voted against Obama. These representatives could be vulnerable to challenges in the next elections if they were painted as too loyal to the president. This was explained by Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who made a presentation at a meeting of his fellow House Republicans where he offered a PowerPoint slide that said, "The Purpose of the Minority Is to Become the Majority."

As Washington writer Robert Draper would recount in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, a dozen or so congressional Republicans and strategists spent much of inauguration night devising a plan to block the new president's efforts to lead the country. While the Obamas and Bidens danced at various balls celebrating their election, Eric Cantor, Pete Sessions, Newt Gingrich, and others explored ways to deprive Obama of legislative victories, which would position the GOP to prevail in future elections. Draper reported that when the evening ended, Gingrich told the other men, "You'll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown."


* * *

More concerned with 2009 than 2012, the new president could not wait to extinguish the Great Recession, which had begun burning across the American economy in 2007 and had consumed millions of jobs. (Eventually the toll would reach more than 7.4 million.) The value of real estate, including the homes that sheltered the wealth of most American families, was in the middle of a $10 trillion decline. Stocks traded on various exchanges, which underpinned retirement accounts, were headed toward a loss of $7.4 trillion. In 2008, more than 860,000 homeowners received foreclosure notices. In the coming year the number would reach a record of nearly 3 million. The numbers represented men, women, and children forced to abandon their homes, and entire communities where unoccupied houses, with their windows boarded and their landscapes growing wild, outnumbered those where signs of life could still be seen. Tumbleweeds skittered into culs-de-sac. Coyotes loped through backyards.

The financial disaster that loomed over Obama's presidency was so powerful that it seemed like a purpose-built monster. In a way, it was. Beginning in the early 1980s, Democrats and Republicans in Washington had created the conditions for crisis by dismantling the regulatory system that would have prevented it. Conceived after the Great Depression, these rules were imposed by leaders who believed that finance was so essential to the well-being of the nation, and so rife with potential for abuse, that it required special oversight. But as politicians born well after the Crash of 1929 came to power, and the experience of the Great Depression faded into history, many found fault with the laws that constrained banks and brokerages and insurers. Unshackled, the argument went, financiers would produce new ways to lend money where it was needed. Since these men and women were obligated to keep their firms strong and thriving, they had more than enough incentive to act with prudence and responsibility.

The key moment in deregulation came in 1999, after an election that saw political candidates and parties rake in $58 million in campaign donations from groups and individuals associated with financial institutions. Urged on by these donors, Congress essentially gutted the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which had kept banks, insurers, and stock brokerages separate for almost seventy years. In that time, the United States had not seen a return of the type of crisis that started in 1929. The repeal effort was led in the Senate by Republican Philip Gramm of Texas, who saw nothing but upside in a bill that would, he said, make banking easier and cheaper. Among the handful of senators who opposed him, Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota predicted that banks would merge and create much larger entities that could place great burdens on the taxpayers, who, ultimately, insure bank deposits. "Why on earth are we doing this?" he asked.

President Clinton did not share Wellstone's worries. During his presidency, declining unemployment, generally lower inflation, and the longest period of sustained economic growth in US history had led to the first federal budget surplus since 1970 and promised a rapid pay-down of federal debt. The Clinton years would pass without one recession and be recalled as the Roaring Nineties by the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz. In this decade the stock market surged almost 150 percent and the value of Americans' homes increased every year, in every region of the country.

A close look would have turned up signs of trouble. In Reagan's time a New Gilded Age began as those at the highest income levels reaped a disproportionate share of the economy's growth. Well-paid jobs in manufacturing were continuing a long decline. Contrary to the complaints of the deregulators, the financial sector captured a greater share of the total economy — increasing from about 6 to 8 percent — which made its risk-taking even more dangerous to bystanders.

No caution appeared in the statement President Clinton made as he signed the Glass-Steagall repeal. Instead he invoked the holy trinity of American politics — businesses, consumers, and freedom — as he announced that the bill changes would spur innovation, heighten competition, and "alleviate burdens" on financiers. "Removal of barriers to competition," said Clinton, "will enhance the stability of our financial services system."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Consequential President by Michael D'Antonio. Copyright © 2016 Michael D'Antonio. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Ending the Great Recession: It Was the Economy, Stupid 25

2 Auto Industry Rescue; "The Doomsayers Were Wrong" 59

3 Health Care Reform: Saving Spike Dolomite 82

4 Energy: Sun, Wind, and Market Forces 104

5 Environment: Saving the Planet 123

6 Foreign Policy: Obama's World 144

7 Education; Racing to the Top 172

8 Financial Reform: Boring Is Better 188

9 Equality: Expectations, Limits, Progress 209

10 Unfinished Business (and Failures) 230

Postscript: The Benefits of Cool 247

Addendum: Antagonism and False Alarms 259

Acknowledgments 267

Selected Chapter Notes 269

Bibliography 297

Index 299

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A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too bias. Obama did an incredible damage to America. He stills near the White House. He was a tyran by bypassing many executive orders like DACA and the Iran deal.. Don't real a book from former CNN staff.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting read about an interesting man.