The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism | By Roger Hodge | Harper | 272 pages, $25.99
In July 2009, that far-off era when our forty-fourth president was still broadly popular and the Tea Party was just beginning to capture the media’s attention, Harper’s Magazine published an essay by the novelist and journalist Kevin Baker titled “Barack Hoover Obama.” Since then, explanations for the sense of disappointment and consternation with which many liberals—or at least, many liberals in the elite media—have come to view the Obama presidency have spread like fungus. The president isn’t connecting with the public; he has trapped himself in a “legislative box”; he is “losing the battle for the middle class.” Still, Baker’s trenchant article was among the first liberal critiques of Obama. And as we slog through an extended period of ten-percent unemployment with no end in sight, it also appears to be among the most prescient.
Herbert Hoover, Baker wrote, was a good and accomplished man and a clear-eyed politician. What doomed him was a failure of imagination. A striver who had flourished in America’s nascent meritocracy, Hoover put his faith in solutions that were principled, technocratic, and terribly insufficient to the time. It took the entitled aristocrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his “hodgepodge of ideologies” to begin to steer a course out of the Depression—and to form “the core of twentieth-century American liberalism.” What we need, insisted Baker, is another FDR. Yet Obama was turning out to be another Hoover.
At the time Baker’s essay was published, the editor in chief of Harper’s was Roger Hodge, who was abruptly relieved of his post earlier this year. Now Hodge offers his own, quite different, account of the liberal disillusionment occasioned by the Obama administration. In The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, Hodge argues, with impressive erudition and occasional rhetorical pretension, that the problem is not that Obama has failed. Instead, we read, the president has all too often succeeded—because “Obama did not come to save American liberalism; he came to bury it.”
This might seem an odd claim to make about a man who, whatever his faults, has presided over the passage of laws guaranteeing universal access to health care, reasserting some modicum of regulation over Wall Street, and preserving women’s rights to sue for equal pay. Hodge gets around those obstacles in part by devoting relatively little time to the particulars of Obama’s record as president. Large sections of this slim volume are given over to the political debates of the late eighteenth century and the 1990s, neither of which intimately involved Obama. Another section is devoted to a detailed deconstruction of his campaign biography, The Audacity of Hope.
Mostly, though, Hodge justifies this claim by offering a different ideal of liberalism. The version championed by FDR was rooted in the idea that the government has a responsibility to improve the lives of its citizens, especially those who are uniquely vulnerable. For Hodge, this impulse (along with liberal imperatives that become fully articulated only later, like environmental protection and equal rights for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities) is a fine thing—but it is also a secondary concern. The core liberal virtue, Hodge writes, is not “freedom of choice” and the provision of opportunity, but “freedom as non-domination” and the right to participate as a citizen in a republican system. And the author’s iconic liberal hero is not FDR or LBJ, but James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution.
In certain contexts, this framework is powerful. Hodge’s attack is strongest when he focuses on Obama’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing, assertions of executive power in the name of national security. The author lambastes the administration’s claim that it can target for extrajudicial killing the American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has become an influential Al Qaeda-affiliated operative from his base in Yemen. In late September, well after The Mendacity of Hope went to press, the administration asserted that its unprecedented decision should not be subject to judicial review, because a court hearing would reveal state secrets. Against this backdrop, Hodge’s citation of Madison’s warning—“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”—rings true.