The Promise: President Obama, Year One
Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, $16 (paper)

Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama
Eric Alterman
Nation Books, $14.99 (paper)

The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism
Roger D. Hodge
Harper, $14.99 (paper)

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
James T. Kloppenberg
Princeton University Press, $24.95 (cloth)

Age of Fracture
Daniel T. Rodgers
Harvard University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

A month before the 2008 presidential election, the cover of The American Prospect, which I edited at the time, depicted an empty Oval Office and the headline, “The President Doesn’t Matter (As Much As You Think).” Inside we ran articles about the institutions of Washington, such as the Senate Finance Committee—and its feckless chairman, Max Baucus—and the Federal Reserve, explaining the limits they would impose on the scope of change that might be possible under an Obama administration.

The issue fell flat on the newsstand, and the Prospect’s board of directors was apoplectic about the cover. Even if my colleagues and I were right, the publisher complained, the cover “wasn’t appropriate to the moment.”

We were right, as it turns out. But it’s also true that it wasn’t an appropriate moment to make that point, because no one wanted to hear it. Remember when all we could talk about was the possibility of a “transformational president”? In the thrill of what was, for many of us, the first decisive Democratic victory in our lifetimes, and what seemed to be—and probably is—a demographic shift in the electorate toward the younger, the nonwhite, and the socially tolerant, it was too easy to imagine that the 30-year conservative era dating from roughly halfway through the Carter administration had ended with a bang and that change on the scale of an FDR or a Reagan was possible.

In that moment, many liberals forgot an insight that they had painstakingly learned—or should have learned—in the Bush era: conservative dominance was not just a matter of electing a president, but of building, in the words of former Senator Bill Bradley, “a stable pyramid” of organizations focused on policy development, grass-roots mobilization, and media, “at the top of which you’ll find the president.” That president could be almost anyone—even, as if to prove the point, George W. Bush—because the ideological and organizational infrastructure is more important. Democrats, Bradley argued in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, “invert the pyramid,” vesting all hope in individual presidential candidates, who are expected to build their entire infrastructure from scratch. Three years later Obama did exactly that.

Even for those who were not transfixed by the person of Barack Obama, or who appreciated the severe constraints on a president’s power, there were dispassionate reasons to expect that he would have better luck at maneuvering through those constraints than did his Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. After all, he understood Washington, D.C. and had allies in Congress. Congressional Democrats, having experienced total powerlessness in the Bush years, would surely understand, as they did not in the 1970s and 1990s, that they had a stake in the president’s success. Obama’s invitation to bipartisanship and his conciliatory tone seemed well suited to discombobulate the Republicans and to reach just enough of them to render the Clinton-era strategy of mindless, uniform opposition ineffective. And the pyramid that Obama built, even if it was inverted, went far beyond anything progressive organizers had imagined. With its three million donors, cutting-edge online communications, millions of email contacts, and an incredible pool of talent, Obama’s network dwarfed the organizations that had begun to coalesce as the progressive infrastructure earlier in the decade:, America Votes, the Center for American Progress.

It’s hard to remember all that through the haze of what has become, at best, a profoundly ordinary Democratic presidency. Obama has largely continued Bush’s policies on terrorism, civil liberties, and the war in Afghanistan, refused to hold banks accountable for the financial crisis, accepted an insufficient response to the recession, and failed to use the presidential appointment power to reshape institutions such as the judiciary and Fed. The range of options for dealing with the economic disaster has been narrow and familiar. The result was a midterm election that cost him almost all his momentum and political capital and further limited those options.

Since the election, Obama seems to have lost the ability to define the terms of political conflict. Instead he has drifted along, responding to an unimaginative agenda, focused at the moment on reducing the federal budget deficit. If the Affordable Care Act can be implemented as enacted, then—together with some low-profile initiatives in the 2009 economic stimulus, reforms in K–12 and higher education, the rescue of the auto industry, financial regulation, repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, the successful closing of the chase for Osama bin Laden, and a few other victories—Obama can still be said to have had a first term of historic accomplishment, even if the times called for much more. But if health-care reform collapses—most likely as a result of the refusal of governors to cooperate rather than outright repeal—then his achievements would rank as more modest: a big step beyond Carter or Clinton, but no more transformational than either previous Democrat.

What happened? The explanations from the right and from the Sunday chat-show media are as routine as they are implausible: Obama revealed himself as too liberal, too partisan, or anti-business, and now must reverse course. These are the critiques that the administration seems to have taken to heart.

Liberals have forgotten an insight they learned in the Bush era: conservative dominance was not just a matter of electing a president.

Yet it’s the answers from the left and center-left that are more relevant and probably more accurately reflect how Obama’s first term will be seen in history. They are not, it should be said, all that politically consequential. While liberal discontent with the president is highly visible on certain blogs, in magazines, and on the coastal dinner-party circuit, the real electoral base of the Democratic Party—minority and Hispanic voters, unmarried women, and self-identified liberals—remains devoted to Obama: Obama’s approval rating among Democrats who call themselves liberal has held steady at about 85 percent. The anger and the insistence that the president adopt an elite-bashing populist tone tend to come largely from well-off white people, often with tenure. That doesn’t invalidate it, but it does make it an unusual variety of populism, one more appealing to elites themselves than to those they would speak for. The quiescence of the Democratic Party’s base has been frustrating to many liberals, but it is an unavoidable fact, and without some mass anger, pressure, or a plausible 2012 primary challenge, it’s hard to see the White House jumping in reaction to, say, a scathing Salon column by Glenn Greenwald. The liberal bark won’t be heard if people aren’t willing to bite.

The mobilization in Wisconsin this spring, which brought students and activists by the thousands to Madison in response to Governor Scott Walker’s confrontation with the state’s public employee unions, revealed that mass organizing is not dead, but it’s much easier to mobilize liberals in opposition to the right than to the policies of a president they regard basically as a friend and ally, even if they’re disappointed. Wisconsin-style mobilization may expand Obama’s room to maneuver, but it won’t change the basic calculus of White House operatives, who regard the left as a nuisance but ultimately take them for granted since they have no place else to go.

There are three broad classes of explanation for the deflation of the Obama bubble, and the one that appeals to you probably has something to do with your political temperament.

One story is that we are the victims of a con artist. Obama was a fraud from the start whose true colors were revealed once he took office. Of recent books about the administration, Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope gives this argument its fullest voice. If you were hyper-allergic to Obama (like the die-hard supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2008 who called themselves PUMAs, or the historian Sean Wilentz), or at the other extreme, you went all-in for Obama-mania and now want your money back and the “hope” tattoo burned off, this is the book for you. The former editor of Harper’s Magazine, Hodge employs the skills of an English major-gone-to-law school to recast the entire familiar biography as a dark tale in which “an obscure striver in Chicago’s Democratic machine” and pawn of the nuclear-power industry is elevated by the country’s financial interests to become the latest agent in their centuries-long battle against democracy and the interests of the people. In one tour de force of close re-reading, Hodge manages to find in a section on the economy from Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope not only Obama’s secret Reaganite mindset, but also his responsibility for the financial deregulation of the late 1990s, even though he was apparently just a failed ward-heeler at the time.

Of all the recent books about Obama, Mendacity is the most enjoyable read, akin to The Onion’s post-election article revealing Obama as an “international con man” who fled the country with $85 million in campaign funds, having pulled the same scam in other countries under different names. Hodge’s historical sections on the long war between finance and ordinary people, while padding, are well done and have a calmer, more persuasive tone than the fevered Obama reinterpretation.

The problem with Mendacity is that it just reproduces Obama-mania in mirror image. The savior of 2008 is the villain of 2010. It’s still all about the man. While Hodge can see the structure of power constraining Obama, he nonetheless configures Obama as its central force, or willing dupe, rather than a reasonably well-intentioned actor in a complicated process, who isn’t quite as powerful as you think, never pretended to be quite as liberal as Hodge and his friends, and makes some mistakes.

Those mistakes form the center of analysis from a second family of critics, well represented in the columns of Paul Krugman. In this explanation, the promise of the Obama presidency was squandered by decisions at key points, with consequences that cascaded in the months and years that followed. These mistakes reflect Obama’s character, but what they show is not mendacity, but rather naïveté about power, conflict-aversion, or being “a bad gambler,” as The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait put it. The stimulus package is usually the original sin in this analysis: Obama should have demanded the full $1.2 trillion that his economists thought a strong recovery required, and if he didn’t get it, at least he would have showed the public that he was willing to fight for their jobs.

Other errors: letting Congress design the health care–reform legislation, which led to months of dithering and lost momentum, rather than presenting legislators with a plan and going to the mat for it. Wasting six months looking for bipartisan support that was never going to arrive on health care and climate change. The insistence by former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that it was more important to “put points on the board” in the form of small legislative victories than to fight the big fights. Hiring Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag, and others with links to Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Letting vacancies on the Federal Reserve, the courts, and in the bureaucracy remain unfilled. Appointing a deficit-reduction commission.

In each of these stories, there is an implied counterfactual, an alternate path that would have led to a better result. But would it? In some cases, that’s not just a mental exercise—there is a natural experiment. For example, the alternative to putting forward a complete health care–reform plan rather than letting Congress do it was tried in the Clinton administration, and it led to no legislation at all. Maybe times are different, and what failed then would work now, but in most cases, Obama’s choice made sense given the context and history. Pursuing bipartisan cooperation may have been folly, but without at least a tiny bit of it, Obama was hostage to whichever senator represented the 60th vote—ugly characters such as Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman or Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson. Pushing for a bigger stimulus package is unlikely to have worked, since Democrats and Republicans were insistent on keeping the stimulus well below the arbitrary trillion-dollar mark. While it’s possible that Obama would have been seen as a passionate fighter for economic recovery, it’s more likely that he would be seen as someone who couldn’t get a stimulus bill passed. And what’s the alternative to Emanuel’s strategy of putting points on the board? Not putting points on the board?

The culture of American politics makes it nearly impossible to be president at all, let alone a transformational one.

In all of these situations, as the White House economic advisor Gene Sperling explains to Jonathan Alter in The Promise, “Ya gotta understand the context.” Understanding the context, then, represents the third major school of “what happened?” Each decision took place in a complex environment in which the president had to deal with a collapsing economy, global challenges, congressional resistance, and a brutal media not limited to the political operation at Fox News. The context also includes the limited scope of ideas available to the White House—that is, the rickety pyramid underneath them. For example, few progressive think tanks were ready in 2008 with better approaches to financial regulation than the clumsy improvisations of TARP, HAMP (the Home Affordable Modification Program), and Dodd-Frank. Context also matters in the case of presidential appointments: Alter shows how the fiasco of former Senator Tom Daschle’s aborted appointment as secretary of Health and Human Services—when he was revealed to have failed to pay taxes on a car and driver made available to him by a supporter—derailed the entire process and sent the White House into a spiral of endless vetting and hesitation.

Among the contextual analyses of the Obama record, Alter’s book is the play-by-play (although mostly of the first year; the setbacks of the second are chronicled in a fifteen-page epilogue to the paperback edition), while Eric Alterman’s Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama is the color commentary, the book that finally lets Obama out of sight and delves deeply into the failed-state culture of American politics that makes it nearly impossible to be president at all, let alone a transformational one.

“Kabuki” is not Alterman’s invention, but a word we often used when I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1990s to describe the rituals, hazing, and outright frauds that make up the day-to-day life of America’s democratic institutions. It’s the whole world of fake votes; pandering to lobbyists who in turn trick their clients; constructed showdowns, such as the game over the debt ceiling; and a dozen other gimmicks that have spun wildly out of control in the years since. Alterman defines kabuki as something that “resembles a democratic process at great distance but mocks its genuine intentions in substance.” And he goes on, in his short book, to fill out that wise definition with solid accounts of the multiple debacles of the Bush era, the capture of Congress by lobbyists, the poisonous role of the right-wing media, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate in particular, and the failure of the left to mobilize.

If there is a flaw in Alterman’s excellent book it is that, in his focus on the right, he lets congressional Democrats off the hook. Aside from Senator Charles Schumer, hardly the worst of the lot, he has little to say about the many Democrats who made a hash of Obama’s agenda. When I think back to the two erroneous predictions that I made after the 2008 election—that Obama would succeed in splitting off a few cooperative Republicans and that congressional Democrats would stand with him rather than throw him overboard as they had Clinton and Carter—it’s the second that upsets me most. It was only a matter of weeks before Democrats in both houses started insisting on scaling back the stimulus and hedging their bets by establishing a record of voting against the president, and it was some of Obama’s earliest supporters, such as Nelson and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who were most mercenary. Even after the 2010 election showed that voting against health-care reform and other Obama initiatives was no insurance against defeat, Obama’s Democratic “frenemies” were still at it. As of this writing, McCaskill is pursuing a disastrous proposal for a cap on federal spending and threatening to insist on it as a condition of raising the federal debt limit. The fearful, hyper-cautious culture of learned helplessness among congressional Democrats and their staffers—with a few exceptions, such as Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Conference Chair John Larson, and Senate Whip Richard Durbin—is every bit as crippling to an ambitious president as the unflinching opposition of Republicans. Kabuki is a bipartisan drama.

By the time we reach this appreciation of the context, pressures, and institutional culture, the figure of Barack Obama has gone from being overexposed in the foreground to disappearing in the background. Does the president matter at all? What distinguishes an Obama presidency from what we would have ended up with had Hillary Clinton or, say, John Kerry been elected in 2008?

It must make some difference, or all that mental energy we expended in the long primary battles of 2008 was for nothing. To bring Obama himself back into the picture, the most valuable recent book is one that has little to say about the first years in office, but explores Obama’s pre–White House evolution from a fresh angle. James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama is an intellectual biography of the president, tracing the influences on his thought, from his two colleges through law school and the lessons of community organizing. The book received too little attention when it came out last fall, other than a breathless profile in The New York Times reporting Kloppenberg’s conclusion that Obama is “a true intellectual.” That summary is unarguable and unkind—intellectuals such as Woodrow Wilson and John Quincy Adams have had a sad history in the White House compared to second-class minds equipped with tactical and emotional intelligence, such as FDR—and it fails to do justice to a fine book. Kloppenberg’s real question is not whether Obama is “an intellectual,” but what kind of intellectual—that is, where are his ideas coming from?

The answer, put simply, is that Obama falls into the tradition of American Pragmatism, and particularly its revival in recent decades. That’s capital-P Pragmatism, as opposed to the use of the word in American politics to mean simply getting things done. Pragmatism—and its close cousin in the thought of William James, pluralism—is not the absence of a coherent philosophy, but our native philosophy, just as jazz is our native music. It is an attempt to construct an approach to knowledge, ideas, and action that recognizes context, contingency, and reality. Pragmatism forms the basis of American legal realism, for example, and Kloppenberg shows how Obama helped his professor Laurence Tribe re-imagine the Constitution as a “conversation” across generations to address different problems in different contexts.

One of the advantages of considering Obama’s evolution through the lens of intellectual history rather than personal biography is that he’s not alone. Kloppenberg describes Obama struggling with the same questions that every thoughtful liberal confronts. Here, a generational perspective is important: what Hodge doesn’t recognize is that Obama’s was a generation in which Reaganism had already happened. Unlike Krugman’s or Clinton’s, Obama’s generation (and mine) is not the Baby Boom, a group shocked by the collapse of a liberal consensus it had taken for granted and never fully appreciated. Our generation tried to build a political philosophy in a world in which Reagan was a fact on the ground. Ideas such as Robert Putnam’s valorization of civil society (Obama participated in Putnam’s seminars for civil society activists and thinkers) and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s concept of politics as discourse seemed like possibly useful tools in the construction of an alternative public philosophy for the left.

Pragmatism may be a useful way of understanding the fractured, contingent world, but it doesn’t resolve the problem of governing it.

In Kloppenberg’s account the slow shift in the thinking of the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls—from the carefully structured system of his path-breaking Theory of Justice to his 1993 book Political Liberalism—was significant. Over the course of 22 years, Rawls tried to work out the idea that people with wildly incommensurate views about morality and religion could nonetheless converge on a conception of justice—and thus achieve what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus” on what justice requires.

At about the same time, the philosopher Richard Rorty turned to politics, adapting his Pragmatism to an influential but surprisingly modest vision of public life based on concepts such as social solidarity and avoiding cruelty to others. Indeed, Rorty’s prescriptions were considerably more modest than Rawls’s political liberalism. Although Rorty was almost as detached from real-world politics as was Rawls, his later books, Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving Our Country, captured exactly what we were looking for: an ideology that wasn’t an ideology, a vision that was adaptable and humble, that recognized the enormous complexity of political viewpoints in the country, while maintaining a vision of social justice.

The question Kloppenberg asks, though not in so many words, is: can Pragmatism form a workable political program for the American left? Can a political philosophy based not on a fixed ideology or the unquestioned assumptions of the old liberals, but the idea that an overlapping consensus can be found and minimal social goods agreed upon, be a realistic strategy for governing this country? The Obama presidency should be seen as an attempt to answer that question.

Kloppenberg describes an evolution in which old certainties fell away, where “timelessness and universality were out, contingency and particularity were in.” Daniel T. Rodgers, a historian concerned with similar questions, explores that 30-year transition in greater depth in The Age of Fracture, which came out at about the same time as Kloppenberg’s book and should be read alongside it. Rodgers begins with a chapter on the speeches of Ronald Reagan, which provides a useful clue to the very different world in which Obama finds himself. Whatever we think of Reagan’s political legacy, we can’t help but admire his ability to command his time, define the conflicts, and survive a severe recession. His speeches were surely a part of that. Yet Obama, an equally gifted orator, cannot command the time in the same way.

That has something to do with the fracturing that Kloppenberg and Rodgers describe. When Reagan was president, most Americans didn’t even have cable television: the news was the news, the president was the president, there was general agreement on certain facts, causes and effects. Today everyone gets their news from their own sources, and the president’s is just one voice among many. Political money doesn’t just fund candidates, it fuels campaigns that change public assumptions. The reality of climate change or the certainty that cutting government spending will worsen the economy can be disputed by anyone with an interest in doing so. There’s no overlapping consensus, no consensus at all, in a world where everything is contested.

And so the preliminary answer to Kloppenberg’s implicit question is no: Pragmatism may be a useful way of understanding the fractured, contingent world, but it doesn’t resolve the problem of governing it. Obama, therefore, has the challenge of building a more coherent ideological vision (as he did in his April 13 speech on the budget), or resorting to small-p pragmatism, just trying to get reelected and get some things done. If he is to take the first path, though, it falls on liberals to help build the pyramid of ideas and organizations on which he and future presidents can stand. It can’t be all about him.