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.
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.