THE ONLY racist epithets Barack Obama recalls from his first presidential campaign, in his engrossing new memoir, “A Promised Land”, were uttered by the rural white folk who declared they were “thinking of voting for the nigger”. He would go on to win the biggest majority of any Democrat since 1964, including by unexpectedly bagging white, working-class states such as Iowa and Ohio. “Race doesn’t matter!” chanted the crowds that celebrated his victories. Yet two years later Tea Party protesters were waving banners of Mr Obama with a bone through his nose. The proportion of Republicans who said he was Muslim soared—to around half by the end of his presidency. Whereupon millions of those same rural supporters elected the main spreader of racist lies about Mr Obama to be his successor.
As that chronology should suggest, the white backlash to Mr Obama, which Donald Trump rode to the White House, was not inevitable. It was engineered, a product of unprecedented obstruction from the Republican establishment in combination with relentless slander of the president and his adored, politics-loathing wife by the conservative media. “It’s a trip, isn’t it?” murmured Michelle Obama, after glimpsing a Tea Party rally on television. “That they’re scared of you. Scared of us.”
The hate-mongering on Fox News was the channel’s stock-in-trade. But what were Republican elites so afraid of? They said Mr Obama was dictatorial or radical. Yet the record he describes in his dispassionate yet fluid style suggests how untrue that was. Though he had shortcomings—a tendency to vacillate, a distaste for political cut-and-thrust that bordered on aloofness—Mr Obama was a relatively unassuming chief executive. He rehired his Republican predecessor’s defence secretary, awarded a plum cabinet job to his resentful Democratic rival and considered his celebrity status absurd. (On learning he had been awarded the Nobel peace prize, less than a year into his term, he retorted: “For what?”)
He was also intrinsically moderate. Indeed his presidency, to use a term it popularised, looks in retrospect like a stress-test of the system’s ability to embrace that consensus-forging quality.
Consider that Mr Obama’s signature health-care and climate policies were based on Republican initiatives. And he diluted the former in a failed bid to get a single Republican vote for it in the Senate, though his party had a supermajority there. A veneer of bipartisan support would make the law more resilient, he thought. And he had no time for those on the left who griped at such compromises. He and his advisers adopted the phrase “public option” (which these days counts as the most modest health-care reform Democrats will consider) to refer to any left-wing unicorn.
His moderation was part-learned: he notes that most of the big social reforms started incrementally. But mostly it reflected his background. Raised in Hawaii by his white, Kansan grandparents, he retained a strain of their cultural conservatism—cautious, with a reverence for tradition and community—even after he acquired a more unambiguously black self-awareness and hunger for social justice. Uniting those disparate parts, by acting “as translator and bridge among family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues”, became at once an identity and a political mission. It also explains his characteristic political traits.
They were the idealism and fine sense of empathy he showed on the trail (though his novelty—“a blank canvas upon which supporters across the ideological spectrum could project their own vision of change”—also helped). His pragmatism and restraint were related qualities. Together they defined his vision of change.
Thus, for example, the constrained idealism of his foreign policy, which is considered less heretical in the DC think-tank realm these days. Thus, too, his nuanced pronouncements on race, including his greatest speech, in 2008, in which he claimed that his grandmother’s petty chauvinism was as much a part of him as the overheated America-bashing of his black pastor. (“That was a very nice speech, Bar,” she responded.) Restrained to a fault, Mr Obama is even unwilling to castigate his enemies. He confesses to a sneaking regard for the Tea Party’s organisation. But he comes close to letting Chuck Grassley have it. He was the Republican senator who kept Mr Obama guessing on his health-care bill only to admit that, for all his prevarication, he was never going to back it.
It seems likely that Republican leaders and donors obstructed Mr Obama so feverishly not because they genuinely thought he was an extremist, but because they knew that he was not. It was precisely his attempted bridge-building that was so threatening to them. Because it was at odds with the story they had been telling their voters about the left for a decade. And because, had Mr Obama pulled it off, it would have made his already powerful government hugely popular. Paradoxically, it was by spurning his offer of bipartisanship that the Republicans made him seem, true to the right-wing caricature, overbearing and partisan. It also helped them stymie his plans and thereby dismantle the powerful Democratic trifecta he had assembled at the mid-terms in 2010.
The conventional wisdom, which usually exaggerates individual dramas and downplays structural flaws, still blames Mr Obama for much of that failure. But, notwithstanding his imperfections, it is hard to think what he could have done to avoid it. His presidency represented a genuine effort to break through partisan polarisation which mainly showed what an impossible ambition that was.
Barack to the barricades
This is not a great lookout for Mr Obama’s former vice-president—about whom he is scrupulously complimentary and unrevealing. Joe Biden will soon return to the White House for his own stab at restoring bipartisan comity, but with a far weaker mandate than Mr Obama had, and at a more brutally divided time. He will make mistakes. He will be slammed for them. But if his government fails to ease the rancour, he may not be the reason why.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Audacious and obstructed”