Modern liberalism was born without a navel. Progressive forerunners of today’s liberals, such as Woodrow Wilson and the historian Charles Beard, tried to undercut the influence of the Founding Fathers and remake America as an expression of expert knowledge. Long before the Founders were denounced as slavers, Beard tried to show that they were fat cats who used constitutional parchment to advance their own greedy interests.
The appeal to expertise was undercut by the poverty of the Great Society’s attempts to rebuild the inner cities. Left adrift, liberals took to arguing that, as they had long insisted in constitutional matters, America was best guided by its underlying values. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that arguments pioneered by Justice William O. Douglas were translated into politics.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged fellow Democrat and incumbent president Jimmy Carter for his party’s nomination. When CBS journalist Roger Mudd asked Kennedy why he wanted to run, however, the Massachusetts senator was left stammering. JFK’s little brother hemmed and hawed his way out of the nomination. A few years later, the eloquent (if less than effectual) governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, reframed liberalism in terms of its underlying values.
Cuomo and New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan were Catholics, politicians, and intellectuals. But while Moynihan merely wrote about family breakdown, Cuomo sought to bandage the wounds, blurring the lines between public and private. He spoke of “the family of New York,” as if the intimacy and obligations of private life could be widely extended. If the state embraced the right values, Cuomo asserted, it could repair the devastating wounds inflicted by fatherless families. Feigning naiveté, Cuomo insisted that government with a “soul” had “an obligation to assist those who, for whatever inscrutable reason, have been left out by fate.”
In his 1984 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, Cuomo electrified the crowd with his eloquence and argument by analogy. He presented the story of his Italian immigrant parents as a way to refine liberalism. The basis of his family’s success was entirely scrutable: they were dedicated to each other, and to hard work. The Cuomos’ ascendance over time was, as Mario saw it, a model for society. When the family came to America, they were briefly on welfare. Of course, as Cuomo told the DNC, we should have “only the government we need, but we must insist on all the government we need.”
After a dozen years in the governor’s mansion, it was hard to discern Cuomo’s accomplishments. The two most commonly cited were the construction of new prisons in the Empire State’s impoverished far northeast and the construction of new restrooms on the New York Thruway. In 2004, 20 years after Cuomo’s famous speech, the young Illinois state senator Barack Obama, who also had no significant accomplishments, employed Cuomo-like rhetorical skills to put himself on the political map with his own keynote convention speech. The Democrats got an earful of one of Obama’s two “virtues”—speechifying and campaigning. But unlike “the Hamlet of the Hudson,” Obama made a dash for the White House.
Jonathan Chait’s argument-cum-hagiography is contained in his book’s title,Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied his Critics and Created a Legacy that Will Prevail. The logic and substance of the book demonstrate that Chait, a New York political columnist and Obama cheerleader, wrote in expectation of a Hillary Clinton presidency that would carry Obama’s “accomplishments” forward. The book’s most pointed sections are directed at the leftists who didn’t succumb to Obama’s postmodernist pirouetting. Chait aims his fire at such liberal “heavyweights” as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Keith Olbermann, who occasionally forgot to join the echo chamber. But as a candidate, Clinton had a hard time specifying Obama’s achievements while campaigning in effect for his third term.
Chait attributes Obama’s failures to Republicans, who, he says, produced a paralyzing polarization. When he can’t lay blame on the GOP, he attributes Obama’s failures to structural trends beyond any president’s repair. The honorable path for Chait would have been to rethink his argument in light of Clinton’s defeat. After all, Donald Trump’s victory was a repudiation of the Obama legacy of slow economic growth, heightened racial tensions, and global instability. Had Chait taken the time to recast his thesis in light of Clinton’s electoral embarrassment, he might have noticed that Obama’s farewell address—the lengthiest in history—was short on deeds but long on references to himself. A fitting valedictory, the speech contained 79 references to “I” or to “me.”
Chait’s rush to publish has the virtue of demonstrating the journalistic “audacity” that allowed failure to be repackaged as success. Obama’s great achievement was that, like Cuomo, he was able to make hard-edged, partisan politics seem moderate. Few will bother to read Chait’s book. Those who do will get a good look at the collapse of American journalism and how it enabled the Obama presidency, even as it undermined the nation.