Monday, September 5, 2016

The Obama Years: Novelists Assess His Legacy

Tobias Wolff: ‘The coolness of his style has led to a lack of praise for what he has achieved’

Tobias Wolff is best known for his memoir This Boy’s Life, which won the Los Angeles Times book award for biography. His 1984 novella, The Barracks Thief, won the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction. He was the director of creative writing at Stanford from 2000 to 2002 and received a National Medal of Arts from the president in 2015.

Our candidates for president campaign as if they’re running for king, and not just any king – no quaint, hospital-touring symbol of national unity, no mere figurehead answerable to a constitution and a popular assembly. Congress? What’s that? If elected, our American candidate will, like an absolute monarch, resolve the thorniest problems of state simply by exerting his (or her!) will. Is the domestic economy on fire, and about to spread to our neighbours? He will “fix” it, because he “knows how”. Students drowning in debt? He’ll make college free! Islamic jihadists taking over cities in Syria and Iraq? He’ll carpet bomb them until we find out “if sand [and innocent civilians] can glow”.

Do suspected terrorists know more than they’re telling? He’ll have them tortured till they sing like Pavarotti, and kill their families into the bargain, and the military will just have to suck it up and do what he says, even if they say they won’t, and have the law to back them up. Law? What’s that? She’ll ban assault weapons; he’ll make sure you can take them to church.

The promise of immediate and radical change is a campaign fiction presented with such bald-faced effrontery that we hardly question it any more, unless it’s coming from the other side. Indeed, the performance can’t be sustained unless we support it with our credulity, like a tentful of rubes gaping at the tricks of a carnival magician, even offering ourselves up as subjects.

The wishful thinking that is the source of this credulity is, of course, a prelude to disappointment if our candidate actually gets elected. Take the case of candidate Barack Obama. He was going to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and close Guantánamo. He would save our failing economy, mend our broken healthcare system, and enact sensible gun control legislation. He would overhaul our immigration system, address climate change with meaningful policies, and change the bilious tone of our political discourse. We weren’t a nation of red states and blue states, he reminded us: we were the United States. Despite my years, I believed – believed not only that he meant what he said, but that he could get it done.

My wife and I gathered several friends on a November night in 2008, and watched with joy and disbelief as this young, literary, ironical man with a Kenyan father was elected to the presidency. Some of us had tears in our eyes. I was one. But as time went on those tears began to burn. He wasn’t getting it done, or so it seemed to me. Guantánamo was still in business. The planet kept heating up, and the wars dragged on, though increasingly waged by special forces. As before, just about anybody was free to walk into a gun store and come out armed, and each year some 30,000 Americans continued to pay for that freedom with their lives.

And the tone of political life had become even more toxic than before the election. During President Obama’s first State of the Union address, a congressman from South Carolina shouted: “You lie!” and became a Republican hero, even as the leaders of that party dedicated themselves to obstructing President Obama’s legislative initiatives and judicial appointments, effectively disabling the government in order, as the senate majority leader shamelessly admitted, to make Obama a one-term president. The birthers continued to question his legitimacy, and, further, to imply that he was a secret Muslim and supporter of Isis. He was Hitler. He was Lenin.

None of this of this was Obama’s fault. Indeed, he reacted to the unrelenting stream of slander and congressional malfeasance with unflappable calm and an air of faintly amused detachment. And for that I did blame him. The coolness I had admired during his campaign became an irritant. In fact, it drove me sort of crazy. Why didn’t he fight back? Show some rage at what was truly outrageous, the obstruction, the name-calling, the attacks on Michelle Obama for encouraging schools to serve healthy food, even for occasionally wearing dresses that showed her arms? Call these liars and bullies out, damn it! Politics is mud wrestling, did he not understand that? And if he really didn’t feel anger, then why not take some acting lessons, and fake it?

Well, I was wrong. As Barack Obama prepares to leave office, I think about what he managed to do in the face of implacable resistance. No, he didn’t close Guantánamo; the Republican congress wouldn’t let him, nor would they let him bring sanity to our gun laws, or to our immigration policies. But as most economists agree, his financial initiatives, narrowly approved, did save us from a profound recession, possibly even a depression. His successful auto industry bailout, fiercely contested at the time, saved countless jobs at virtually no expense to the taxpayer. If Obama couldn’t entirely extricate us from the wars he inherited, he has refrained from entangling us in new wars, despite being constantly urged to do so by congressmen and senators who otherwise refuse to spend tax dollars – on, say, education, or roads, or environmental safeguards.

Finally, 20 million Americans who did not have health insurance when Barack Obama took office have it now; and in spite of dire Republican predictions, and umpteen votes for repeal, it has actually lowered the healthcare cost inflation rate. No one in this country, however poor, or sick, need be without insurance. This achievement eluded Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, among others.

So why has Obama not been celebrated for what he’s done? Why did so many of us so often feel a sense of impatience, even disappointment? I believe it comes down to immaturity – in us, not him. At least part of the reason for our failure to recognise and praise what he’s accomplished has to do with his style – that coolness. He doesn’t brag, or gloat. He doesn’t call attention to himself, or proclaim his deeds in the thoroughfares, or ridicule those who oppose him. But we wanted him to. We wanted heat. We wanted anger, slashing rhetoric, mockery. We wanted him to call liars liars, idiots idiots. We wanted him to bully the bullies. We wanted him to wage war, and crow over his fallen enemies. And because we did not get the melodrama we demanded, we lost the plot.

But now we have a candidate who will give us all the sound and fury we could ask for, or imagine. Let’s see how we like it. Me, I’m already nostalgic for Obama.

by Tobias Wolff, Akhil Sharma, Attica Locke, Hari Kunzru, Jayne Anne Phillips, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: John Moore/Getty Images