Barack Obama had already made history by winning the presidency in November 2008. Nevertheless, several months into his first term, as Morton Keller notes in Obama’s Time, the president invited several of the nation’s most prominent Presidential historians—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Douglas Brinkley, H. W. Brands, David Kennedy, Kenneth Mack, and Garry Wills—to the White House for dinner to talk about how he might continue to do make history. Specifically, he convened these liberal-leaning but by no means radical presidential scholars to straight-out ask them how he might become a truly “great president,” indeed, a “transformational president” like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
Given the state of the nation—not to mention the egomania that presumably drives every man and woman who seeks the presidency—it seems only natural that the new Democratic president who had insisted “Yes We Can” should have asked about his greatest predecessors. And arguably, given his academic smarts, doing so testifies as much if not more to Obama’s own intellectual curiosity and desire to learn from the past as it does to the issue of the nature of his ambitions and sense of self.
But Keller, a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cites Obama’s dinner-party question to make a different case. He does so to bolster his argument that Obama came into office with a “messianic desire to strike out in new directions” (my italics). As Keller writes at the very outset of his first chapter: “By any measure Obama was an unusual public figure. The media and the educated classes in particular had a strong belief in his unique talents and the prospect of an epochal presidency. (So, apparently did Obama. Early on he asked a group of historians what it took to be a transformative president.) His staff had even higher expectations. With minimal irony, they referred to him as Black Jesus.”
Admittedly, Keller places the dinner-party reference in parentheses. But he clearly intends it as more than a mere aside—and he is right to do so. However, seemingly determined to portray Obama as having some kind of Messiah complex, Keller misses the most critical thing about that evening’s exchange. That is, he completely ignores what his fellow historians actually told the president—and, more critically, what they apparently did not tell him.
Recalling Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War, and the Great Society, in particular, the historians spoke of the difficulties and challenges that presidents had in pursuing a transformative politics when they were committed to pursuing military actions abroad and progressive policy initiatives at home. And it is all well and good that they did. But sadly, what they did not explain to the president—and I seriously wonder if it ever occurred to any of them to do so—is that “transformation” entails more than merely rallying public opinion and pushing bills through Congress. It also entails conflict and struggle.
More to the point, Obama’s dinner colleagues failed to tell their host that transformational presidents, most notably FDR, became transformational leaders by having the faith and confidence in their fellow citizens to mobilize and engage them directly in the labors and struggles of democratic transformation—and in turn, enabling and allowing their fellow citizens to push them even further than they themselves might ever have envisioned going.
Doris Kearns Goodwin came closest to telling the president just that when she said to him at a later White House dinner gathering of the historians group in 2011, that he “had not forged a strong enough day-to-day connection with the nation.” And yet she did not tell him what Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt themselves had come to appreciate: that progressive transformation entails not just presidential but also popular action—and great presidents are made by great citizens.
Goodwin and company failed to educate and encourage Obama and, thus, they also failed us. Arguably, both the president and we the people would have been better served if he had invited progressive scholars such as Lincoln biographer Eric Foner, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, women’s historian Alice Kessler-Harris, and black historian Robin Kelley to dine with him at the White House—though I can just imagine what Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly would have said if he had.
As a consequence, while Obama secured bank and corporate bailouts, stimulus dollars, and “Obamacare” (though the last remains in jeopardy), he never mobilized the many Americans who were ready to go to work to democratically redeem, reconstruct, and reform the nation or even responded in any meaningful way to the emergent popular struggles from below that were making themselves heard across the country. Tragically, we saw no new New Deal or Great Society, and instead of a new progressive era or redeemed liberal social contract we have suffered not just a lethargic recovery, but also six years of obstruction and deference and Republican congressional and state election victories that promise still worse to come.
With the 2016 presidential campaign fast approaching, it’s probably too late to educate a now lame-duck president. However, it’s more than time that historians set themselves to reminding their fellow citizens of how at times of crisis generations of Americans have not only secured the nation but also actually advanced America’s historic promise and made presidents great.
I had hoped that Keller’s new book might serve that cause. In his preface he states that he felt inclined to intervene in public debate because he didn’t want to leave political writing on Obama and his administration to politicians and pundits: “there is something to be said for the historian’s ideal of trying to understand and explain without being driven primarily by prejudices and predictions: in other words, to be more like a judge than a prosecuting attorney.” Furthermore, he promised not just “analysis,” but also the insights afforded by “historical comparison.” And indeed, he essentially poses the question of presidential greatness by making so much of Obama’s “messianic ambitions.” Nonetheless, no more than the historians who supped with Obama, does Keller help us remember what we really need to remember.
Looking at politics and policy, both domestic and foreign, Keller does remind us of just how much had transpired between 2008 and 2012. Of course, the archives so fundamental to historiography do not yet exist to deeply explore what happened. But relying on newspaper accounts, quickly-penned personal memoirs, and the public remarks and scribblings of politicians and editorialists, Keller provides a fairly wide-ranging consideration of the politics and policy battles of those several years. And along the way he does provide us with interesting historical comparisons between the politics and governing practices, narrowly conceived, of Obama and the Democrats who preceded him from Roosevelt to Clinton.
Moreover, Keller does write cleanly and at times quite cleverly. I read Obama’s Time en route to Washington D.C. at the holidays, finishing it up on the return flight to Green Bay. Taking off at a chilly and ungodly early hour, I was in a foul mood. But reading Keller’s opening paragraphs, in which he justifies taking on the project while Obama is still in office, made me smile: “This book rests on the assumption that it is possible to write history while the subject is very much around; still, so to speak, warm. Admittedly, the argument against trying to do so is compelling. What good is history without the perspective of lapsed time? Asked his view of the French Revolution, Zhou-en-Lai famously responded: ‘It is too early to tell.’… I hold that he is wrong in two senses. It is never too early for a stab at first telling; it is always too early to tell once and for all.”
And yet, what Keller says is more often exasperating than entertaining. A couple of paragraphs later, after noting that contemporary political writing should not be left to journalists, he states, “Of course, I have my own beliefs. But when I think and write as a historian, I try to put those beliefs aside or at least (being human) to hold them in check. My goal is not to score points but to seek a historical perspective, which, however hobbled by its temporal closeness to its subject, may have something of lasting value in part because it is of the time that it examines.” What? Keller clearly confuses objectivity with neutrality. We need to think objectively to think critically, but to champion neutrality—the claim we can “put aside beliefs”—is to disable us and devalue the act of writing history. There’s too much at stake to “suspend our beliefs.” Our beliefs lead us to ask certain questions—questions of import we hope. If nothing else, how do we “judge”—which, as he actually says in his preface, he does seek to do—without exercising our beliefs, values, commitments? The trick is not to allow them to blind you to empirical truths.
What makes Keller’s claim about suspending his beliefs all the more annoying is that as much as he pretends to offer a fair and balanced account, he does not. Too often his arguments, though not as bad as those of the boys and girls on FOX Cable News, sounded like those they might make. Referring to Obama’s rise, Keller writes, “He received a steady stream of recognition from an affirmative action-saturated academy, hungry to bestow its laurels on someone who was a person of talent as well as a person of color.”
Basically, Keller presents Obama as a charismatic figure who, with limited experience but possessed of “messianic ambitions” to liberally expand the role of “big government,” is propelled into the presidency by a disgruntled electorate seeking salvation from the disasters of the day and finds himself hamstrung by the harsh realities of polarized parties, D.C. lobbyists and advocacy groups, and powerful media and rich folks. But Keller leaves out too much that is critical to comprehending what was at stake in those years and remains at stake even now.
How can a scholar such as Keller write about American politics and “Obama’s time” but effectively ignore what led Americans to elect Obama in the first place—not just the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2009, but 40 years of class war from above, class war abetted by right-wing Republicans and deferred to by centrist Democrats that has done so much damage to the nation’s industries and infrastructure and the lives and communities of working people?
And let’s be clear about it. Portraying Obama as a man with “messianic ambitions”—and, believe me, Keller means it (he uses the term messianic seven times in the course of his text)—is absurd at best. No wannabe liberal or progressive “messiah” would have created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with austerity hounds Erskine Bowles and Allan Simpson as co-chairs. And Keller obviously failed to pay attention to Obama’s many speeches of 2011 in which the president responded to GOP obstructionism on the deficit and related matters by preaching austerity and announcing that he was essentially prepared to trash FDR’s, LBJ’s, and the Greatest Generation’s social-democratic legacy by “putting everything on the table.”
Perhaps, the craziest, but saddest, line in the book is, “Obama’s approach to policy and governance is steeped in the verities of the twentieth-century Democratic reform tradition. His pole star is the large, active welfare state. And for all his populist rhetoric, big government, big unions, big business, and big media are prominent players in the Obama presidency.” Is Keller kidding? Large, active welfare state? Obamacare is no “Medicare for all.” Populist rhetoric? Obama rarely speaks of working people’s struggles, and every time he chastises Wall Street bankers he all but retracts his words in his very next set of remarks. Big unions? First, it has been a helluva long time since labor was “Big.” And second, Keller completely ignores Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise to not only seek enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which, given the continuing evisceration of the National Labor Relations Board and the rights of labor by the GOP and Big Capital, the AFL-CIO saw as a means of re-empowering workers in their efforts to organize, but also “march with” workers fighting for their rights, as my union brothers and sisters and I were doing unsuccessfully in Wisconsin.
Keller was definitely right to take up Obama’s Time. Historians should not hesitate to write of politics and contemporary public affairs for we have much to contribute to public debate. But what Keller has written will contribute little. We need historians who are clear and open about their beliefs, critical in their thinking, and committed to cultivating historical memory and imagination so as to educate and encourage Americans to recognize how history, democratic history, is made and might be made again.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Follow him on Twitter.