Although it violates the first canon of literary criticism, let me judge Buyer’s Remorse by its cover, or at least take note of a couple of its features. On the back, Senator Bernie Sanders artfully praises the book without criticizing its subject—the outgoing president. On the spine, there is the logo for the publisher Threshold Editions, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster. Other recent Threshold authors include Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. But ultimately, a book must stand on the words inside the cover, even if it were published alongside a work by Donald Trump, another Threshold author.
Bill Press builds his case by examining virtually every aspect of the Barack Obama’s presidency and frequently finds him lacking. There are instances where he makes a strong case that the president could have achieved more, although Press attributes mystical power to Presidential Leadership and—in a phrase that should be stricken from the pundit lexicon—the Bully Pulpit.
It seems like ancient history from the vantage point of 2016, but Barack Obama took office in the midst of a an economic crisis that could have consumed his presidency. The fledgling administration’s response was to cobble together what would eventually pass as a 787 billion dollar stimulus plan to jump-start the economy. Christina Romer, the president’s chief economic advisor, initially argued for a much larger amount, and outside critics, most notably Paul Krugman, argued that the program was much too small and overly focused on tax cuts. Obama would have been wise to give a hearing to Romer, instead of relying on Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—as he would have been wise to pass on the Clinton administration/Wall Street retread in the first place. But Press clings to a fantasy world where the president only needs to go golfing with Republicans and be willing to “twist arms and knock heads together” in order to get his way from Congress. Press, however, has a point about the president’s negotiating skill in not seeking a larger amount up front.
The president’s signature achievement has been the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. To Obama’s GOP foes, the program is tantamount to evil. Repealing it would have been President Cruz’s top priority. But progressives generally see it as a win, though Bill Press is here to rain on the victory parade. To him, Obamacare is a compromised, Heritage Foundation-inspired retread that fails to achieve progressive goals: “It’s a half-baked measure that falls short of what is needed and of what was politically possible. Its main provision is to force people to buy health insurance from a private insurer if they’re not already insured by their employer. That is certainly not a progressive idea. In fact, its not even a good conservative idea.”
While Press nails the act’s shortcomings, he doesn’t make the case that more was achievable and he doesn’t give sufficient weight to the problem of Joe Lieberman as one of the Democrats’ 60 Senate votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.
The single issue that most helped to propel Barack Obama past Hillary Clinton in 2008 was his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which contrasted sharply with Clinton’s vote to authorize the war. By 2008, the phrase “Iraq War” was shorthand not only for the disastrous invasion itself, but also for the campaign of lies and half-truths (remember the phrases “smoking gun” and “mushroom cloud”?) used to sell it, the use of torture, and the surveillance state built to contain the constant threat of terror in the United States that the war was supposed to alleviate.
Barack Obama was dealt a very weak hand from the preceding Bush administration on foreign policy. He played it poorly from the outset by arguing that the “real war” was in Afghanistan instead of Iraq. That might have at one time been true, but by 2009, that was a difficult case to make—and our time there since 2009 has accomplished little. Press writes that “with the Taliban still controlling vast areas of Afghanistan and with no guarantee that any central government … will survive, many Americans are wondering why we went there in the first place, what we achieved in the long run, and why we stayed so long. President Obama could have pulled the plug on Afghanistan [during] his first month in office. The end result would have been the same.” Press is also critical of Obama’s war in Libya, which was fought absent congressional support, and that accomplished little more than turning the country into a failed state.
One area where Barack Obama made a clean break from his predecessor was in the use of torture against terror suspects. Buyer’s Remorse duly gives the president credit for this break, with reservations: “On January 22, two days after his inauguration, Obama followed through by signing a series of executive orders banning the use of torture, ending so-called extraordinary rendition flights and closing secret torture prisons in Poland, Thailand, Morocco, and Britain’s naval base at Diego Garcia. So far so good. But there were already clouds on the horizon.” Press, and many others wanted the president to bring charges against members of the Bush administration, starting at the top.
Buyer’s Remorse makes numerous valid criticisms of Obama, but suffers from Press’s need for a political savior. All the president had to do to meet with his approval was to enact single payer health care along with a two trillion dollar stimulus, indict the outgoing president and vice-president as war criminals, and enact cap-and-trade—and that’s just as a start. Obama failed to be a Progressive Savior, but he has succeeded well enough to launch the GOP into a paroxysm of Trumpian insanity.
For the premise of Buyer’s Remorse to hold, there would have to have been another progressive savior available in 2008, but Obama’s only serious opponent for the Democratic nomination that year was Hillary Clinton, who went on to enact some of the policies that Press (rightly) objects to as Obama’s secretary of state. It is difficult to imagine how a Clinton presidency would have been radically different than Obama’s. Having a front row seat to the failed impeachment of her husband, the one area where Clinton might have been better prepared than Obama in 2009 was in sizing up the implacable nature of the Republican opposition.
While reading Buyer’s Remorse, Press reminded me more than once of Mother Paroo from The Music Man, skeptically evaluating her spinster daughter’s high standards for a mate consisting of a “blend of Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster,” with which no man could ever hope to compete. His naive expectations are more startling since, as he repeatedly reminds the reader, he is a grizzled veteran of the White House Press Corps. Since his advice to Bernie Sanders, should he make it to the White House, is simply to “be yourself,” it would appear that the veteran correspondent hasn’t learned from his disappointment in the last eight years.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.