The Presidency of Barack Obama by Julian E. Zelizer (ed.)

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

If anyone reads this book hoping to find a page-turner then they will quickly discover that this is not it. Edited by Julian E. Zelizer with articles supplied by people with deep knowledge of American politics, the book could have been a great book. The former President’s policies are ‘diced and sliced’ in depth. The writers are all learned men, and appear to be as humourless as any Superior Court judge in Washington D.C. The book has consummate judgments but is boring in the telling.

Zelizer has a point when he argues that Obama could never accept just how ugly American politics had become. Visionary in many ways and preferring to instigate and implement in an understated fashion, he failed to let the public in on the great steps he was steadily putting in place. His confidence in the American people was misplaced, for out there among his political opponents were people who would bring a black man down at any cost. Obama’s election in 2008 was supposed to signal the value in all people.

Yet when Obama left office in 2017 he knew that conservative forces had control in Congress and the Senate, that his reforms would remain tenuous, that most would be axed by the buffoon now in power. Since he had instituted reform in many areas through executive power, there was no group with a vested interest in retaining them. When discussing Obama’s record on inequality Paul Starr makes the important statement that “Progressive changes in the submerged state might amount only to a ‘submerged success’” (60) from which the president would gain little credit. There’s something to be said for the truth of the maxim: “Achievements without public credit impair the achievements themselves” (Starr, 61).

When discussing Obama’s legacy on climate change, Meg Jacobs follows the same line. Obama had taken aggressive executive actions to slow emissions and force a substantial change in policy. He deployed his political capital where he thought it would be most effective. Executive decisions are not the same as written into law and voted upon in Congress and the Senate. There is always the pressing uncertainty that a successor could alter or remove them at will. Trump denounced climate change as “a hoax” and his lackey Scott Pruitt rejected the Paris agreement as one of his first tasks.

Critiques expressed in the essays by the contributors find common expression in praising Obama for his intelligence and broad thinking but are critical of his implementation of his policies. Peniel E. Joseph, writing about the movement for black lives, makes a rather poetic statement about the situation he perceives, “those unheard voices demanding justice grew exponentially louder, while in many ways remaining invisible, during the time of the nation’s first black president” (143). Thomas Sugrue’s analysis of Obama’s urban policy concludes that it has only feebly responded to the ongoing crises on the streets of major cities.

Matthew D. Lassiter is very outspoken in his assessment of Obama’s presidency and the treatment of America’s drug problems:

The Obama administration continued to reject the policies of legalization or even decriminalization, promoting reforms of discriminatory policing and excessive sentencing rather than confronting the racial inequalities and imperialist violence inherent in drug war interdiction at home and abroad (178).

Sarah R. Coleman is every bit as damning. “Failing to effectively read the changing politics of immigration policy and manage congressional opposition, Obama turned to executive action to achieve substantive reform, a move that lacked the consensus building required of comprehensive reform and fuelled the growing anti-immigrant sentiment among conservatives” (194).

Jeremi Suri argues:

The future will be determined by the contest between liberal internationalism and militaristic protectionism that Obama’s presidency opened. [Obama] began an international reconstruction movement – with all the partisanship, violence, and uncertainty of prior reconstructions (211).

Not a voice expressing confidence in the ex-President’s policy.

In the 1970s, according to Kathryn Olmsted, the CIA had defended itself against charges that it was a “rogue elephant on a rampage”. By 2010 a large group of people discussed assassination almost every week, “and the US president routinely put his orders to kill in writing” (227). For Obama these were the “unpleasant necessities of the post 9/11 state” (227).

After all this condemnation, Gary Gerstle supplies a little ray of optimism. He finds that Obama had successes too. Hampered by the Lilliputian thinking of right wing politicians and the knee-jerk criticisms of a Trump that’s replaced its melody with brassy unthought-through pronouncements, Obama’s accomplishments are substantial. Economic recovery compared with European countries was robust; his campaign for national health insurance was finally achieved; African American middle class men and women occupied a larger stage than before, and millions of non-whites saw a future in a truly democratic America. Obama showed that the country could change dramatically in population terms and yet still be American in its dreams and aspirations.

Gerstle claims that Obama’s presidency has “demonstrated the tenacity of America’s racial nationalist tradition. Tens of millions of white Americans were simply unable to accept him as their president,” (278) and went out of their way to discredit him. “That Obama exited the presidency without blemish in his personal life is itself an impressive achievement” (278) but is hardly likely to give him comfort as his successor tears down the executive decisions he made as president.

The Presidency of Barack Obama


By Julian E. Zelizer

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-18210-0

$US24.95; 360pp


To order a copy of Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit


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