ARC Review: Barack Obama: Conservative, Pragmatist, Progressive

Barack Obama: Conservative, Pragmatist, Progressive by Burton I. Kaufman

Burton Kaufman’s new book is a presidential biography of Barack Obama. This is not a political book - from the left or the right - on Obama and his legacy. Kaufman does have a viewpoint on Obama’s motivations and his place in the political spectrum, as reflected in his subtitle. Yet, these days, when everything has a political agenda, this book is  a refreshingly neutral and historical look at Obama’s presidency. 

Kaufman is a retired history professor and the author of a similar presidential biography on Carter. He also wrote The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton, on the evolution of the “office” of the ex-president. In this book he digs into Barack Obama’s young life and influences, and his political rise from Illinois politics to the presidency. He takes us through the issues that Obama tackled and was faced with, both domestic and foreign, as president. His emphasis is on the actions Obama took and the policy goals he strove to achieve. 

Kaufman does a good job of outlining the ideas that influenced Obama, and his pragmatic approach to getting things done as President. While Obama sought consensus and was willing to negotiate, he also held to his core principles. His ability to be pragmatic meant that he drew criticism from both the left and the right. For Kaufman, Obama’s legacy is one of progressive policies built on top of conservative American ideals, wrapped in centrist clothing, and achieved by pragmatic politics. The Affordable Care Act is the prime example of this approach, though Kaufman offers other examples as well.

One example of Kaufman’s neutral approach that stood out to me was his discussion of Obama’s handling of the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of the Tea Party, and the later election of Trump. 

Obama’s decisions in dealing with the 2008 economic crisis fueled the rise of the Tea Party Republicans. Obama chose to follow the guidance of his mostly conservative economic advisors. He focused bailout efforts on the “too big to fail” banks, and the auto companies. This proved to be effective in heading off a looming economic depression. But at the same time, relatively little effort was made by the government to bail out average Americans. 

Many Americans found themselves owing more money on their homes than they were worth. Many lost jobs due to the recession, and then lost their homes to foreclosure. Kaufman goes into quite a bit of detail about this. He also talks about how the rising Tea Party movement became a breeding ground for racism and white supremacy. Kaufman lays out all these facts, but ever the historian, he doesn’t even try to get into the political discussion of how these currents of disaffection may have primed the pump for Trump’s later popularity. He prefers to document the facts, and allows you to draw your own conclusion.

Don't misunderstand - there is much more than the 2008 economic crisis covered in this book. The whole of Obama’s presidency, and then some, is covered. 

The book’s subtitle is a bit cryptic, but it’s Kaufman’s way of saying he finds Obama to have been a left-leaning centrist. That doesn’t seem an uncommon insight. And that’s the one bad thing I have to say about this book - it doesn’t have anything particularly new to say. It’s a well researched and well done historian’s view of President Obama, his presidency, and his place in our country’s history. But I’m knocking it down a bit for that perceived lack of originality. I give Barack Obama: Conservative, Pragmatist, Progressive Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐.

NOTE: I received an advanced copy from Netgalley and Cornell University Press. I am voluntarily providing this review. The book will be publicly available on March 15, 2022.

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Title: Barack Obama: Conservative, Pragmatist, Progressive
Author: Burton I. Kaufman
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publish Date: March 15, 2022
ISBN-13: 9781501761973
Publisher’s List Price: $29.95 (Hardcover as of 02/2022)