Remember the president before Donald Trump? History definitely will

Claude A. Clegg III on "The Black President" — and how Obama's presidency led to both Donald Trump and Joe Biden

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 24, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Barack Obama (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Barack Obama (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

Claude A. Clegg III's book "The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama" accomplishes various things. Foremost among them, it serves as an antidote to Donald Trump's gaslighting. Clegg, a history professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first explores how Barack Obama's presidency was experienced by the Black community, an issue central to any account of the Obama era. In addition, Clegg punctures many of the myths about Obama's administration that have been endlessly repeated by Trump and his right-wing allies.

When Obama took office in 2009, America was teetering on the verge of economic collapse. The Illinois Democrat's policies not only prevented another Great Depression, but saved multiple industries and put the country on a path to long-term prosperity. Trump inherited that economy and falsely claimed credit for it, over and over again, during his single term in office. With the unwitting complicity of the media, which obsessed over his every move, Trump then tried to erase Obama's other achievements — both as policies and from the public's memory — so they would either disappear forever or, if they happened to be popular, get attributed to him. Obama's record on issues from immigration to foreign policy has either been downplayed or revised. His presidency was virtually scandal-free, while Trump's resulted in two impeachments for highly justifiable reasons, a fact no one bothers to mention. This kind of gaslighting can only succeed when there is a narrative void, one which malicious actors operating in bad faith can take license to fill with self-serving revisionism.

Clegg's book is a comprehensive rebuttal to those efforts, and it comes not a moment too soon. While Obama was certainly not a perfect president, he was more successful at pushing through liberal policies than any president of the previous half-century. His election in 2008 and subsequent success at governing appeared to forge a viable long-term political coalition, forcing the far right to resort to literal fascist techniques in order to short-circuit an era of likely Democratic dominance. If the story of the early 21st century is going to be told correctly, Obama's leadership needs to be remembered. He came close enough to dashing the dreams of economic and social reactionaries that they elected a sub-Paris Hilton reality TV star trafficking in demonstrable lies as a panicked last effort to alter the course of history.

In so many words: Obama succeeded, if not entirely in the way he had hoped. If liberals want to again capture political momentum, they can't allow the lessons of his presidency to be lost and distorted. I spoke to Clegg recently about his book and the Obama legacy.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.

You talk about making sure that the history of the recent past is understood, because right-wing misinformation might otherwise fill that void. What lies are being told about Obama's presidency? What specific myths do you see being perpetuated that need to be debunked?

There are several. We could start with the original sin of birtherism — that is, that this guy was not even born here and thus was not legitimate.. Of course, this gave us the rise of Donald Trump within the Republican Party. His ascendancy was based on that lie. Even though Trump in 2016, right before the election, had this press conference and said, "Oh, I don't believe in this anymore," he was still peddling the whole notion that it was illegitimate to have a Black president in the first place. There is a philosophy in the Republican Party tied very closely to the whole idea that it is illegitimate to have a Black president, and that Barack Obama had no business being in the White House at all.

That's one. Then there is the notion that once Trump comes into office, he can more or less take credit for all the good things that were happening in the economy — creating jobs and employment going down and so forth — which was a trend of the Obama presidency, and a trend that was in play long before Donald Trump declared that he was running for office [in 2015], and certainly before he assumed office [in 2017]. This notion of a "Trump economy," which was his doing as opposed to this being years in the making over the course of the Obama years, would be the other Big Lie that Trump peddles.

There are several others. Immigration is another one, the idea of the Obama administration just having open borders until Trump showed up and planned to build his wall. Of course, we know that Obama was criticized as being the "deporter-in-chief" while he was in the presidency. He deported hundreds of thousands of people over the course of his presidency! As you stated in one of your articles, the immigration issue was never satisfactorily resolved by either Trump or Obama, but it was not the case that the Democrats had an open border where anyone could come in, and you needed to have Trump to come in and build a wall and deport people and put them in cages. 

Obama was actually harder on the immigration issue than many in his coalition would have liked. Of course, there is DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], which softens some of the rougher edges of his immigration policy, but there is a myth that Barack Obama was soft on immigration. Actually he enforced the law in ways that many in his own coalition saw as problematic. His thinking was that if he was enforcing the law, Republicans would see it and say, "You know, this guy is not soft on immigration. Maybe we can make a deal with him and so forth." But as you know, the Republican Party was trending more and more toward a very hardcore nativism that made any kind of deal on immigration impossible.

The zone is flooded with all this misinformation and disinformation about Obama during the course of the Trump presidency. I think that makes it necessary for historians to really get on record with the fact pattern of his presidency.

You already know that I rank Obama very highly among presidents. How do you feel his presidency should be ranked? What would you say were the main narratives of his administration, in terms of his legacy?

I think history is going to be kind to him, and historians are going to be unfavorable to Trump overall. It's funny: People tend not to notice good administration or good management, but they really notice bad management and bad leadership. If you save the country from another Great Depression with the stimulus package, and save the automobile industry and other measures, people don't give you a lot of credit for that. They don't give you a lot of credit for what you prevented from happening, as opposed to giving you the blame if the bad thing actually does happen. I think he has to be given credit — along with those who voted in favor of it in the Congress — for the stimulus package, which was around $800 billion. We don't talk in hundreds of billions of dollars anymore, we talk trillions, but $800 billion was a lot of money in 2009. He was able to get that through the Congress. It saved millions of jobs in the public and private sector. It fortified the social safety net in regard to keeping public school teachers working, in regard to investments in clean energy, in regard to investments in infrastructure.

RELATED: Barack Obama was an awesome president — and Democrats shouldn't forget that

It was probably still too small, and it made the country sort of have to crawl out of the Great Recession, but it was a big deal in regard to keeping the worst of the worst from happening. It slowed down some of the home foreclosures. It saved the banks, as noxious as that was to a lot of people. I think it was a necessary thing to save the banking industry and the mortgage loan industry and so forth, even though these guys were some of the rogues that led us down the path of economic crash in the first place. Of course, the automobile industry has a lot of other industries adjacent to it, so it's not just the car industry: it's the glass industry, it's the metal industry, the electronics industry and all the other industries that pool into automobiles. This crisis started during the [George W.] Bush administration, and he did set the ball rolling in regard to an auto bailout during his administration, but it came to fruition during the Obama administration.

There were several other things that came out of this administration that were positive. There was, of course, capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. There was the winding down of the Iraq war and some winding down of the Afghanistan war. Obama was a wartime president for the entirety of his years. Bush had been before him, and Trump was as well. But he did wind down those wars.

Most of the missed opportunities had to do with him having an unwilling Congress. As you know, they lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. In terms of anything infrastructure, clean energy, a jobs bill, of course all those things were obstructed. Criminal justice reform, immigration. The missed opportunities and shortcomings of his administration have a lot to do with just having a Republican Congress that was either outright uncooperative in the House or filibustering everything in the Senate. Even when it came to the basics of governance, like lifting the debt ceiling so you can pay your bills, there was a lack of cooperation on that score to the point that we almost defaulted.

The Affordable Care Act has been more durable than many of us thought it would be. It survived some challenges from the Supreme Court and the Trump administration and so forth. It is more or less a middle ground between our previous system and a system that may not be single payer, but will approach a system more robust than anything that Obama was able to put in place. Maybe a public option is on the table. I don't know about Medicare for All, but I think he set into motion this idea that the government has an obligation to provide health care and make it accessible to people in the richest country in the world. I think that idea, that health care is a right, has been sort of naturalized by the Obama administration. I think an administration in the wake of a pandemic is going to push that even further.

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I want to discuss Joe Biden for a moment because it occurs to me that Biden, like Trump, could never have become president without Obama, but for different reasons. Biden is to Obama what George Bush senior was to Ronald Reagan, in that he was the clear successor to a political brand. If Biden had not been Obama's vice president, it's absurd to think he would have been nominated in 2020. He would have been an elderly former senator from a moderate state with a moderate record. People talk a lot about how Trump needed Obama to become president, but that's just as much true of Biden, if not more so. I'm curious how you feel about Biden's presidency, as part of the larger Obama story.

Great question! I remember during the campaign that Biden said that he was an "Obama-Biden Democrat," which is an interesting characterization. It's a very clear appeal to Black voters and the Obama coalition — young voters, urban voters and so forth. I think that you're exactly right about that, that he needed Obama's brand. Honestly, without it he looks like all the other people who are running, but even less interesting because he's very much a creature of Washington. This is a guy in his late 70s. He'd be the oldest person ever elected. This is his third run for the office. He would almost look a bit pathetic, actually, to a lot of people, but for the fact he was a loyal and capable vice president under the presidency of Barack Obama. Obama served for two terms and was the last two-term Democratic president who had convincing margins in the House, in the popular vote and in the Electoral College vote.

At the same time, the Trump presidency was so out there, in regard to his use and abuse of the office — the inside dealing, the nepotism, the Ukraine phone call, the Russian taint — that was all over his presidency from 2016 on. So the promise of Biden was also, sort of, "We're going back to the Obama presidency" — as you were saying, the third term — but I think even further than that, the promise of stability. What's more stable than this guy who's been in the Senate for 20 or 30 years, and then was the vice president for eight years? So going back to a certain sort of assumed stability and assumed competence that Biden seemed to promise, and that people who were exhausted by the Trump presidency felt they needed.

I think we can't understand Biden's election without the pandemic as well. I think that the country facing a Depression-level unemployment and economic catastrophe, a country that was sicker and poorer than it had been in many decades, provided an opening. I don't know if Trump is beatable without it.

The way I look at the 2020 election — and I'm curious if you agree with me — is pretty straightforward. It starts with the fact that Trump made it clear from before the 2016 election that he would never accept an election unless he is the winner. So everything that happened after Election Day was completely predictable, and it didn't matter which Democrat beat him. If Trump lost, he was going to do what he did. It didn't matter who he lost to.

I think in hindsight that's probably true. We couldn't have actually seen that in 2016. I think if he had lost to Hillary Clinton, we could have actually seen that movie four years earlier. He was heading in that direction, that he could not lose, and if he did lose it was tainted. I don't know if he would have been able to push this as far in 2016, because in 2020 he had the machinery of the executive branch.

In terms of why Biden won, I think it boils down to several very basic dynamics. The Democratic Party establishment was threatened by Bernie Sanders. Once he started doing well, they were going to unite behind a "moderate" alternative. Biden had tremendous advantages because of his association with Barack Obama's brand, so he won primaries and immediately emerged as the "logical" alternative. So they united behind him and he stopped Sanders. And I completely agree, I think Trump had the incumbency advantage and had been able to suppress votes through various legislation. He would have been reelected without COVID-19. 

I think that's a very reasonable way of looking at things. I think the pandemic is vital to the collapse of Trump's reelection hopes and the emergence of a possible Democratic candidate winning, in this case being Biden. I think the pandemic and the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and so forth, and mobilizing those folks, whether in the South Carolina primary or getting folks to come out and vote in November on the promise that not only do you have Obama's guy, but he's saying the right sorts of things to Black voters. Biden says things that Obama himself couldn't get away with saying. I can remember him saying, "The Black community has always had my back and I'm going to have their back." Obama would never say anything like that because of the fear of how white voters would see it. He was allergic to the idea that he might be construed as having a black agenda, or there might be some inside track for African Americans in his presidency. He advocated these broad-brush race-neutral policies like the Affordable Care Act, raising Pell grants, saving the automobile industry and so forth. He would have never gone to the places that Biden has gone to, at least rhetorically, in regard to saying he's going to fix the police, and he's going to have the back of African-American voters, and he's going to do these special things for historically Black colleges and universities.

I think that, foundationally, you're right in regard to the basic part of the story — that without the pandemic, we don't have the collapse of Trump's re-election prospects and Biden being an acceptable choice. I think you're right about Sanders too, insofar as he's the guy that you date, but not the guy that you marry. And I think the Democratic electorate came to that realization in the midst of the pandemic and right before the South Carolina primary. At the same time, I think Biden was making the right kinds of messaging, especially to the African-American electorate. He was making moves and making commitments that were beyond Obama, really. It's funny. He is even further leftward, in regard to his embrace of not-quite-a-Bernie-Sanders-level of big government. It is certainly far beyond where Barack Obama would have gone in regard to the child care expenditure, health care, the stimulus packages and so forth. I think a lot of people rate him as a centrist, but he's a bit more left of center. And I think he was pushed a bit more left by people like Bernie Sanders and so forth, in ways we didn't see Obama being pushed.

Obama, of course, is in a different time. I think Biden has turned out to be a bit more than just a third term of Barack Obama, probably not for reasons that he hoped. I think the politics have changed beneath his feet.

In the beginning of your book, you write that you want to discuss how Obama engaged "the aspirations, struggles and disappointments of his most loyal constituency, and how representative segments of Black America engaged, experienced, and interpreted his historic presidency." Which specific examples do you consider most salient?

There are several things that come to mind. One of the core themes of the book is his relationship with African Americans, and one of the main arguments of the book is just how diverse "Black America" is. It really comes out during the Obama administration, even though he was, on average, somewhere around 89% job approval among African Americans for the duration of his presidency. (He had 95% of the Black vote in 2008 and 93% in 2012.) There was an array of reactions, experiences and imaginings of the Obama presidency from various cores of the Black community during that time.

One of the tensions that really showed the diversity of Black opinion of him is this notion of what he owed, as the first Black president, to the larger Black community. There were those who would argue, "Well, this guy got 95% of the black vote in 2008, he owes you. You do something for me and I'll do something for you." Even beyond that, in the face of this economic catastrophe, African Americans are at the bottom of it. They suffered the highest poverty rates. They suffered the highest unemployment rates. They have suffered the highest home foreclosure rates. You just go across the board with every metric and statistic. And so the idea was even beyond Obama getting such a high share of that vote, because they're at the bottom of this economic crisis, he had a moral obligation — and the country had a moral obligation — to address this most vulnerable group. 

So there are those in academia, there are those in the clergy, there are those in the Congressional Black Caucus and others who say that politically, we have a moral obligation to these folks who weathered the Great Recession so poorly. Obama's thinking was that the store of white guilt is more or less exhausted in this country, and the argument about correcting historical racism, historical injustice, systemic injustice and so forth doesn't sell very well anymore, if it ever did. So a person who is trying to get a second term, to get re-elected, cannot target remedies towards one particular group, no matter how deserving, no matter how much they've suffered, no matter about arguments about historical injustice and discrimination and ongoing systemic racism and so forth. That just doesn't fly with the majority of the electorate, which is white.

Most of the folks who voted for Obama were white Americans, white voters. So instead of targeted remedies that were designed to address the particular situation among African Americans, he instead put in place or advocated for broad-brush policies that on their face were race-neutral. But if you looked under the hood, these universalist policies promised additional or extra or disproportionate benefits to the most vulnerable, including African Americans. I think the Affordable Care Act is the quintessential example of that, in which you have a bill that on its face is race-neutral. Wasn't it just trying to get everyone to buy health insurance? There are many people who it could cover, and also it expanded Medicaid. But those who benefited most from the expansion of Medicaid and from the subsidies were African Americans, Hispanics, poor people, working-class people and so forth.

Look at expanding Pell Grants. You're helping all students who needed this particular government assistance to afford college. Again, if you look under the hood, it's African Americans and others, working-class people, poor people, who are benefiting from Pell Grants disproportionately. So that was his counterargument to this notion of targeted remedies. So, yeah, the way African Americans experience this is as ongoing tension over these targeted policies that folks in the Congressional Black Caucus and black academics and others are saying, "He's not doing enough." And then Obama himself is saying, "I'm the president for the entire United States. And the re-election math does not work if in the midst of this economic crisis I'm viewed as picking and choosing winners and losers, especially if I'm picking and choosing winners among my own group. That just doesn't work."

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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