We tend to view the character of an administration through the persona of its president, especially that of Barack Obama, with his unique baggage of race, personality, political style, and campaign message of hope and renewal. In this critical look at the realities that have shaped the first stage of Obama’s presidency, Morton Keller provides a progress report that rests less on the day-to-day perspective of pundits and politicians and more on the longer perspective of history. His history-focused examination looks at the president’s developing style of governing, with particular attention to his signature policies of the stimulus, financial, and health care reforms, and analyzes the Obama presidency in light of historical analogues, contemporary political life, and the nature of key government institutions such as Congress and the bureaucracy.
Comparing our presidents with their predecessors is one way to understand more fully the character and quality of their performance. Keller compares the current president to predecessors such as Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and concludes that, as yet, there is no clear consensus on the character or content of Obama’s presidential leadership or where he fits in the prevailing typology/classification of America’s chief executives. Taking into account the general standing of the president, his program, and his party; the sources of public discontent; and the appeal (or lack thereof) of the opposition, Keller concludes by speculating on the future prospects of Obama’s administration in the realms of policy and politics.
Comparing our presidents with their predecessors is one way to understand more fully the character and quality of their performance. This has been especially so in Barack Obama’s case because of the special aura of his persona, his talents, and his ambition. In this book, Morton Keller provides a progress report that rests less on the day-to-day perspective of pundits and politicians and more on the longer perspective of history, as he compares the Obama presidency to those of his predecessors as far back as Woodrow Wilson and as recent as George W. Bush.
Keller reveals that perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s governance has been neither the gestures to the Left that many conservatives bemoan nor the concessions to the Right that many progressives bewail. Rather, his administration has been most notable for its ordinariness: for falling prey to the misjudgments of political power, of policy choices and their consequences, of public attitudes and opinion that are the common lot of American presidencies but were thought to be less likely given the high expectations under which Obama’s presidency began. The author points out that, although no chief executive could live up to expectations as elevated as those of his more ardent supporters (or of himself); both the style and substance of his governance have run afoul of inadequacies comparable to those that plagued his predecessors. At the same time, Keller recognizes that the stimulus package, a $3.6 trillion budget, and the financial reform and health care bills were substantial accomplishments.
In addition to reviewing Obama’s style of governance and his legislative agenda, The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing discusses his place in the larger context of the modern American presidency: the extent to which he has functioned within, or sought to alter, the prevailing political culture. The book considers this presidency in light of the facts of contemporary political life and the nature of key government institutions, such as Congress and the bureaucracy, and suggests what may lie ahead for the president’s policies and political prospects.