Frontline documentary on Obama’s presidency cites successes, mistakes and missed opportunities

“Divided States of America” clip: How “Obamacare” Became a Symbol of America’s Divide

The estimable outfit that makes the Frontline documentaries for PBS is the anti-Twitter. In defiance of the assumption that our attention spans top out at messages of 140 characters, Frontline will air, tonight (Tuesday) and tomorrow (Wednesday) night, from 8-10 p.m. on PBS stations, a four-hour retrospective (two hours each night) on the last eight years – the years of Obama – as that chapter in U.S. history comes to a close with Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.

It is titled “Divided States of America,” which led me to believe it would be an analysis of the growing partisan/ideological polarization of our shaky union. But, although polarization and gridlock in Washington are heavily featured, the documentary is not really just about polarization.  It is a thorough overview – with great footage of key moments and a zillion mini-interviews with smart observers – of the major events from the unlikely rise of a first-term U.S. senator to become the first black president of the United States, through the (also unlikely) election of Donald Trump as his successor.

Not a glorification of Obama

It is decidedly not a glorification of Obama, a candidate who won the presidency by (in part) arguing that there is not a red and a blue America but a single red-white-and-blue America that can unite for the common good. His presidency seemed largely to disprove that assertion.

Over the course of the film, we see Obama often seeking common ground, and seldom finding any Republicans other than former House Speaker John Boehner willing to meet him anywhere near halfway. New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza is quoted in the film saying that “Obama’s biggest misunderstanding of American politics was that it wasn’t polarized.”

But the filmmakers suggest that Obama made key mistakes that undermined whatever chance there was to create a bipartisan “grand bargain” in 2011 with Boehner that would have traded tax increases that Democrats wanted for long-term reductions in entitlement spending that Republicans wanted. If they had closed such a deal, it would have produced a reduction in the projected long-term federal debt that both men wanted.

The film certainly blames Obama for the failure of the Grand Bargain, which might have set a different tone for the next several years on the matter of compromise across party lines. But many of the experts who help narrate the action of the film make clear that other Republicans – former Majority Leader Eric Cantor is especially featured in this role – had no interest in compromise. Cantor is in the film, claiming that Obama wasn’t interested in compromise. But the film suggests that Cantor was satisfied, if he couldn’t get exactly what he wanted, to see Washington fail to address the nation’s needs so he could blame that failure on Obama.

Missed opportunities

But, if you are an Obama admirer (as am I), the film will give you several instances to think about chapters in which Obama may have missed opportunities to get things done.

That’s not to say the film is an Obama blame-a-thon. Washington Post political writer Dan Balz notes the irony that Obama, who wanted to be a uniter, left Washington even more divided than when he started and “even angrier across the divide.”

According to the film, it was Obama who decided to use the moment of his first two years in office, when his approval ratings were high and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, to push through the Affordable Care Act. Vice President Joe Biden warned him against it, perhaps seeing how successfully Republicans would demonize the bill. But, the film says, Obama replied: “What are we going to do — put our approval rating on a shelf and just admire it” or use the moment to get something big done that would help millions of Americans enter the ranks of the insured.

It’s a brave moment, and a good one for Obama, except that we now must view it in light of the imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and without knowing what will take it place.

Many Republicans were also blind to polarization because they locked themselves into red bubbles where they were exposed only to news channels or radio talk show hosts who poured unrelenting scorn on Obama and they seldom encountered anyone with a positive view of him. Because of their bubble life,  that they were totally unprepared for Obama to win a second term.

Molly Ball of the Atlantic magazine talks in the film about the shock in Republican circles when Obama won his second term because, as Ball put it:

“So many people today live in whole neighborhoods, whole communities where nobody disagrees with them, that if you were a Mitt Romney voter you thought everybody hated President Obama. You couldn’t imagine that anybody would vote for that guy; he was so terrible.”

Trump after Romney’s loss

That included Donald Trump, the film suggests. Trump endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, an endorsement that Romney awkwardly accepted. Trump assumed Romney would win and attended Romney’s Election Night “victory party.” But as soon as the result became known, Trump immediately turned to his Twitter account with tweets that read:

“This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” and

“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!” and

“We should have a revolution in this country!”

Just six days later, the film says, Trump filed for a trademark on the phrase: “Make America Great Again.” Trump political adviser Roger Stone is in the film, to say that immediately after Romney lost, Trump was asking him whether Hillary Clinton could be beaten in 2016, who else was going to run, etc.

You know the story from there.

Obama’s second term

With both houses of Congress under Republican control and unwilling to compromise with Obama during his second term, the president turned to executive power to do things that probably should have required legislation. That led Republicans to accuse him of assuming dictatorial power.

Unable to advance a legislative agenda, Obama spent a lot of his last years in office trying to secure the election of Hillary Clinton so that his entire legacy wouldn’t be repealed. You know how that turned out and where we are now.

The double Frontline documentary is a smart film that will undoubtedly refresh your memory on a lot of the events of the last eight years. It isn’t really an analysis of gridlock and, anyway, with the results of the last election, many liberals will probably wish they could get gridlock back.

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/17/2017 - 10:44 am.

    Irony meter

    I’ve broken so many irony meters in the past few years that I should probably go to a local big-box store and buy several dozen at a time. The Trump quotes (from the night of the 2012 election!) included in Eric’s piece are very interesting, given the howling from Republicans and Trump’s transition team about demonstrations against Trump’s presidency – and its legitimacy. Right-wingers, not to mention Trump himself, spent years insisting that Obama’s presidency was illegitimate, so perhaps this is, if you’re a believer in it, an instance of karma, or the accusation coming back to bite the accuser.

  2. Submitted by Richard Helle on 01/17/2017 - 01:05 pm.

    The Obama documentary

    I view President Obama as the best in my lifetime. I view his treatment by the GOP as disgraceful. I view their actions during his two terms in office as treasonous.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/17/2017 - 03:03 pm.

      Right on the mark.

      I concur totally.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/17/2017 - 04:26 pm.


      What is the constitutional basis for such claims?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/17/2017 - 05:06 pm.

        One assumes

        that the poster refers to the GOP preventing the President from carrying out his constitutionally appointed duties.
        Maybe a bit of a stretch, but no more so than than impeaching Bill Clinton for the high crimes and misdemeanors of having sex with an adult woman not his wife (and yes I know that it was technically for lying to Congress).

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 01/18/2017 - 07:23 am.

        Make life simple again

        We are entering an era of overstatement and avoidance of facts, hence the overuse of words like “disaster” and “amazing”. Fish rot from the head down. We are learning that merely to state charges is enough to give them credibility. Doesn’t the rise of a strongman leader suggest we should all embrace his mindset?

      • Submitted by Richard Helle on 01/20/2017 - 03:19 pm.

        GOP and Treason

        Ariticle 3, Section 3 defines treason as:

        Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

        In the strictest legal context, the GOP cannot be charged with treason, but if you define treason as actively working against the proper operation and functioning of the US Government and it’s citizens, then treason is the only word that applies.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/17/2017 - 01:33 pm.

    Did Obama fail

    Or did we?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/17/2017 - 03:20 pm.

      If His Goal

      Was to blunt the progressive sensibilities of his voters so he could allow the point one percent to grab an ever larger share of an increasing economic pie while continuing to throw gobs of our national treasure down the corporate welfare rat hole known as the Pentagon budget, he was a wild success.

      On the other hand, he failed in passing a TPP that was negotiated in secret by corporate lobbyists. When Democrats pushed hard for more free trade that costs the working class ever more jobs, many of those working class voters choose someone who did not call Obama’s TPP “the gold standard.” Obama tied his party to a boat anchor in pushing TPP, Korea Free trade, and CAFTA. The election did not go swimmingly.

      If his goal was to build the Democratic Party, he failed on a mind numbingly colossal scale.

      If his goal was to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so union organizing drives would actually have a decent chance of success, he failed. But since he didn’t lift a finger to get it passed by a Democratic Congress, maybe he he didn’t fail. Maybe he just said it to get working class votes in 2008. And maybe working class union voters remembered that in 2016, and choose a different direction.

      • Submitted by chuck holtman on 01/17/2017 - 04:12 pm.

        I agree with your critique

        Except your last four words. Trump voters didn’t choose a different direction, they chose the same direction, but at a much faster speed.

        I guess I also wouldn’t lay so much on Obama. It’s been the sustained effort of the entire Democratic party establishment for the past 30 years, and Obama was much more a product of that, than a cause. Without such a broad-based effort, I don’t think an electoral college majority could have been assembled to refute the elite by electing an apex predator of the elite.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/17/2017 - 05:09 pm.

          I’m glad that you qualifid your comment

          by referring to “an electoral college majority”, since a record breaking majority of voters voted against him, and thus chose a very different direction.

          • Submitted by chuck holtman on 01/18/2017 - 08:26 am.

            Even 10% of the vote for Trump

            Would have demonstrated a broad and profound failure of the Democratic establishment

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/18/2017 - 12:54 pm.

              Most of the presidential vote

              is a function of party affiliation. So the majority of people who voted for Trump would not have voted for ANY Democrat. The Democrats definitely campaigned poorly, but that was in failing to capture the 204% of the vote which would have swung the electoral votes of a few borderline states to Clinton.

              • Submitted by chuck holtman on 01/18/2017 - 01:21 pm.

                Yes, but I’m not talking about the 2016 campaign.

                I’m talking about the distinct abandonment of progressivism, and of governance for the welfare of the many, that characterized the Democratic side of the 1970’s retrenchment of concentrated wealth and, of course, has followed a pretty straight course since. The Democrats might have governed for a century by serving the general welfare, but the Democratic establishment decided that a place at the trough would be more rewarding, even if as the junior partner.

                • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/18/2017 - 05:12 pm.

                  The last ‘progessive’ Democrat was McGovern

                  and we saw what happened.
                  The most successful Democrat (and the one who did the most for general welfare) was Clinton, and he did it by abandoning the leading edge of Progressivism.
                  I assume, BTW, that by pre-1970 progressive Democrats you are referring to the Democratic party of JFK and LBJ.

                  • Submitted by chuck holtman on 01/19/2017 - 10:01 am.

                    The Clinton era certainly was one of relative prosperity,

                    with causation for that of course subject to debate. But I would say that the underlying policy foundations, and importantly the long-term electoral strategy (framing for hearts and minds), both were cemented into a disastrous course during that era.

                    As to your last comment, I’m not characterizing pre-Carter Democratic administrations or implying that they embodied progressivism. I’m saying that the mid-1970’s were a time of wealth’s decisive retrenchment following the scare of the late 1960’s, when it appeared that democracy might succeed in creatively disrupting the status quo, and that at that time the Democratic establishment made the choice in favor of wealth, and against democracy, that created the opening for the authoritarian party, over the course of the next 40 years, to present itself as the party that will serve the common man’s freedom and prosperity, culminating (I use that word with apprehension) in an apex representative of the grasping elite ascending to the presidency as the tribune of the people.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/18/2017 - 05:06 pm.


                Should have been 4%

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/18/2017 - 07:20 am.

    First Evening

    As far as the first two hours (aired Tuesday night), I thought that there was a naive, uncritical acceptance of the way GOP leaders characterized events in Obama’s first year. There was discussion of the now well known meeting of GOP legislative leaders on the night of the inauguration. But after that, the narrative by Eric Cantor and others was one of “how can we channel the energy of the Tea Party?”

    In fact, GOP leaders saw it both as an opportunity and a huge danger. McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor were scarred to death of the Tea Party. The Tea Party began primarily as a reaction to Wall Street bailouts. There was no discussion or analysis of the way Dick Armey and Koch backed elites turned the Tea Party into a movement against the ACA, and in favor of politicians who had no intention of reigning in Goldman Sachs and the mega banks. Frank Luntz and Eric Cantor still have vested interests in how these events are characterized today, and their viewpoint is valid, but more analysis by others would have been enlightening.

    What was very interesting and telling was the way Obama could have had the mega banks in his cross hairs, but WENT OUT OF HIS WAY TO PROTECT THEM. And he got nothing for his efforts from conservatives or progressives! That moment tells us a lot about Obama and his true beliefs as a corporate Democrat, despite his characterization by some as a socialist.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/18/2017 - 07:33 pm.

    Overall story

    i mostly agree with Mr. Phelan’s review of the first two hours. But my impression is that the filmmakers were trying to show that the ACA has become a symbol of a divided country. With the operative word being “symbolic” because if it hadn’t been the ACA, it would have been something else. If he’d done nothing at all, they would have attacked him for that, just using whatever was available to build up the birther lies, and then blaming him for that too. The film did make an interesting point about how the birth certificate story became a way for Trump and the other birthers to express their racial resentment in acceptable terms.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/18/2017 - 09:15 pm.

    When Obama was elected, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt… until bombing Libya… Two major, unforgivable, huge, etc. problems created by Obama have nothing to do with the Republicans and Congress: Total failure in the international arena and great success in spoiling race relations on domestic scene. And now he ended up with ridiculous pardons… and anti-Israel UN resolution.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/19/2017 - 10:53 am.


      He leaves office with the highest approval ratings of any President since Roosevelt.

      Total failure on the international scene is better measured by lives lost and material costs of war. Chart 2001-2009 vs 2009-2016 on that criteria and you’ll have to agree that “total failure” is hyperbole.

      Even Trump concedes, in one of his countless contradictory statements, that for the US to have an effective role in the Mideast we can not be 100% in the bag for Israel on every issue. A 2 state solution is the position of almost every leader of any credibility and UN resolution affirms that.

      Any spoiling of race relations can be traced to Obama’s single greatest fault in the eyes of countless conservative voters: he’s not white and they ain’t happy about it.

      And we did not even get to the economy he inherited and the one he is passing on.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/19/2017 - 05:05 pm.


        He’s not white, he’s smart, articulate, and does not defer to white people just because they’re white, and they ain’t happy about it.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/19/2017 - 08:28 pm.

        How to measure success

        If we measure the success or failure of a President by “lives lost and material costs of war,” FDR, whom you mentioned, failed spectacularly… so let’s leave it at that.

        Middle East, to the best of my knowledge, is not limited to Israel so it wasn’t what I was talking about when I mention total failure in the international arena; I meant Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Russia… do I have to continue? As for Israel, two-state solution is great, just like a sip of cold lemonade is great in a hot day… but not when it is 40 below.. so maybe it would be smart to wait until it will get warmer there (for example, Hamas is not ruling Gaza anymore…)

        Sure, Obama is not white so he was in a unique position to finish all that racial animosity once and for all by saying that if he could become a President, everyone can achieve anything through hard work and racism is not an excuse… Instead, he chose the opposite path, a mistake which is worse than a crime (“It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake” – Joseph Fouche, Napoleon’s chief of police, on execution of the duke d’Enghien in 1804).

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/20/2017 - 10:44 am.


          I specifically said compare the Obama foreign policy to that of his immediate predecessor and if you cited Obama as “Total Failure” then you need to tell us what is ten times worse than total failure because the root cause of most current foreign affairs issues can be traced to GWB’s disastrous 911 response: the worst decision by a US President in 100 years.

          You disparaged Obama on the UN vote on a two state solution and that is what I replied to: it was the right thing to do and the majority of world leaders agree on it. And the idea that new Israeli settlements should proceed unabated while we wait for the lemonade sipping hot day is completely unworkable and a primary reason why Hamas is ruling Gaza.

          And if you believe Obama could have ended racial animosity once and for all by any combination of words you need to get out some more: the post racial society is not just around the corner and the Inauguration of one D Trump today proves that.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/20/2017 - 07:40 pm.


            You said “Total failure on the international scene is better measured by lives lost and material costs of war,” and that is what I did; you did not suggest comparing Obama to his predecessor. Of course, the current state of international affairs has little to do with Bush: Libya, Syria, Yemen, Russia, Ukraine… all of those problems appeared as totally new in the age of Obama… and Iran’s problem may be traced back to Carter actually. On the other hand, Bush had to respond to 9/11 but who caused 9/11 to happen? If you blame Bush for Obama’s problem, it would be logical to blame Clinton for Bush’s problem.

            Referring to the world leaders in discussing Israel is like allowing parents to decide if their child is better or worse than other children. Considering the UN track record on Israel (it was condemned more than all other countries combined), the preferences of world leaders are clear. Now, the primary reason Hamas is ruling Gaza is actually the opposite: Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza which resulted in Hamas gaining power there. Of course, blaming settlements for lack of peace is totally illogical considering that there had been no peace before the first settlement was built sometime after 1967.

            Where is the proof that post racial society is not here? Sure, it got worse in the last 8 years but, as many things in life, it got worse because it didn’t get better which it could have and should have under Obama. And of course, Trump’s election has nothing to do with race except many people were tired of being called racists while they were not and even voted for Obama before.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/19/2017 - 10:53 am.

    Failed opportunity

    Obama campaigned as a progressive candidate and dialed that back to consensus liberalism when he got elected. He was he best president of my lifetime (54 years) but in end party elitism and mediocre ambition prevailed. If the movie claims that the Grand Bargain was a lost opportunity that only reveals the bankrupt centristism of the film makers. The Grand Bargain would have been a bust and Obama was right to walk away from it.

    On the other hand, he should have held tight to one of his primary and basic campaign promises which was a public option within that ACA. To have spent so much political capital and good will upon a fatally flawed plan was perhaps one of his biggest mistakes.

    The problem with Obama and democrats in general is they don’t look beyond the next election, and they walk away from every battle lost rather than come back and fight another day. They saw the ACA as their ONE AND ONLY chance rather than the first round in a serious a battle. Had it failed, they would never attempt again, this is the fatal flaw. The health care crises was and remains a “real” thing for Americans, it’s not just a political ploy. Had the first attempt failed voters would have blamed congress and Obama may have acquired even more political capital and good will to come back and fight another round for a better plan.

    Beyond that, Obama failed to continue building Obamacare. Obama and democrats essentially trapped themselves in a deal for a seriously flawed non-solution. While the ACA did have some good qualities, it was really just met minimum requirements, for instance guaranteeing coverage despite pre-existing conditions (While this may seem “revolutionary” for American’s it’s a standard feature of almost every other health care system worth noting on the planet) while helpful, this didn’t resolve the issue of affordable coverage since there were no effective controls on deductible’s or premiums. So for 6 years we got no serious recognition of Obamacare’s flaws and absolutely no progress towards an even better system. This is why the majority of American’s now support a single payer system like Medicare for All and Bernie Sanders generated so much excitement and support for a great leap forward.

    One of the first Sanders supporters I talked to, a young man in his early 20’s, told me his main reason for supporting Sanders was health care. He said he had coverage but his $5,000 deductible would wipe him out in a nano second if he actually needed serious health care. Nor did he have $5,000 on hand to pay medical bills in meantime. So despite having coverage, he stayed away from the Doctor because he still couldn’t afford to seek medical attention. This is a situation millions of Americans found themselves in and the only ones benefiting from it were the insurance companies who were collecting mandated premiums while not paying for health care. This is a crises neither Obama, Clinton, or the democrats in general would even recognize let alone try to resolve.

    In the end I think the centrism of Obama undermined his credibility and that of the his party. That may have played a very significant role in Trump’s election. The democrats ended up losing million of Obama voters to Trump in this election cycle because democrats contained rather than embraced populism.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/19/2017 - 05:26 pm.


      It’s unclear whether Trump gained a significant number of Obama voters. It is quite likely that if Obama had been able to run for a third term he would have won.
      What killed Clinton was the Obama voters (blacks and other minorities) who sat out the election, allowing Trump to win with a record setting small vote total.
      Note Obama’s current high popularity ratings — a lot higher than Trump’s.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/20/2017 - 11:19 am.

        Oh let’s be clear…

        Absolutely Trump was a completely beatable candidate, the guy and his campaign were a train wreck, his party is in shambles and spent almost as much time denouncing their candidate as they did promoting him. He enters office as the most disliked and distrusted and unpopular president in US history. Obama or any other competent candidate would have defeated him. Clinton was simply one of the few candidates that could have lost to Trump, and she did, that was predictable, and it was predicted. This was a monumental fail of judgement on the part of democratic primary voters, not an unstoppable wave of Trumpism.

        Clinton’s defeat was narrow, in fact she won by 3 million votes. But she needed more votes to defeat Trump in the battle ground states and to capture the EC. Under these circumstances she simply couldn’t afford to lose Obama votes to Trump, or have Obama voters stay home. One estimate I saw was that around 7% of the 60 million that voted for Obama switched for Trump, that would be around 4 million votes. Even if we cut that in half it’s significant in a election this tight.

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