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Obama and Trump eras get smart, substantive (and long) look on ‘Frontline’

In an unusually ambitious, and not-totally-successful project, the great PBS series “Frontline” tackles the history of U.S. politics from the rise of Barack Obama to the rise of Donald Trump to the present moment over four hours on Tuesday night.

Yes, four hours. Technically, they’ve divided it into two two-hour documentaries, aired back-to-back, one starting at 7 and the other at 9.

That’s a lot. I previewed it all in one night and will summarize it below, but I can’t imagine a very large audience will stay to the end. As always, “Frontline” is smart and substantive. The first part, the Obama segment, was much stronger in my view, but maybe that’s because the news is all Trump these days.

Starting with Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention — a breakthrough moment before Obama was even a U.S. senator — the film presents Obama as the symbol of a generational change, the poet of “hope and change,” (although, as commentator Matt Bai says in the film, “hope and change is not an agenda.”)


As Obama rises to the presidency in 2008, against the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, the film focuses on Palin, whom the filmmakers seems to think paved the path for Trump. “If you want to pinpoint a moment when the right completely rejected the left, it was the Sarah Palin moment,” says former McCain campaign chair Steve Schmidt.

New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb says that on Obama’s inauguration eve, Republicans gathered at a Washington steakhouse and wondered if they were facing a wholesale rejection of themselves by the country. But rather than trying to co-opt any of Obama’s issues or supporters, they resolved to block and defeat his agenda in every way, at every turn.

The Bush presidency was ending in a near financial collapse, and voices on the Democratic left wanted to punish the banks for causing it, which would have appealed to the party’s left base, but Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner convinced Obama that that approach would make things worse, advice that steered Obama away from some leftier impulses in the party.

But energy in the Republican Party was on the far right, epitomized by the Tea Party moment, perhaps an important moment in what would become the transition from Obama to Trump. The Tea Party was seemingly launched by a TV reporter, Rick Santelli, going on a crazy rant on TV against the alleged big government takeover of everything.

Obama decided to make health care reform his first term big project. But, although he had favored something much more like single-payer health care, he settled for the relatively moderate Affordable Care Act, which seeks to reduce the ranks of the uninsured by a collection of smaller measures, while preserving most of the features of private health care. (This is me, not the film talking. Considering that Obamacare barely passed by a single vote, I have always assumed that a more radical plan could not have passed. But Obamacare was always assailed as a crazy left plan by its righty critics.)

During the health care debate, Sarah Palin reappeared as one of the voices of various big lies, like the famous “death panels.” Schmidt identifies Palin, and this moment, as a symbol of the “post-truth” era, where you could say crazy stuff like “death panels,” and never back down, and sort of get away with it.

The film also focuses on the sudden meteoric rise of Glenn Beck, symbolizing the rise of Fox News and righty talk radio that (the film says) helped turn Fox into a “vast outrage machine.” Beck, for example, talks of Obama (whose mother was white) as having “a deep-seated hatred of white people.”

Another breakthrough moment occurred when an obscure House backbencher, Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelled out “you lie” while Obama was addressing the House.

Schmidt, who left the Republican Party in 2018, says that an outburst like that, in the past, would have led to immediate demands that the member apologize, maybe even resign, but “instead what happened is that he raised a couple of million dollars overnight. … What’s the lesson there: There is no longer a punishment for dishonesty or craziness. Instead, it’s rewarded.”


Obama, hoping to recruit bipartisan support for a health care expansion, avoided single-payer or anything that could be honestly called socialized medicine, but Republicans made the ACA the symbol of their resistance. It passed the House 219-212 with no Republican votes.

The birther movement, contending that Obama couldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in the United States, was racist and post-fact, and was led by Donald Trump, among others. That infuriated Obama, who singled Trump out for ridicule at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner with Trump in the audience, which so upset Trump that Roger Stone says that was the night Trump decided to run for president.

The whole approach of blocking and vilifying Obama was working for Republicans, who took control of the House in the 2010 midterms.

The Republican 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who wasn’t that kind of guy, felt he had to make a trip to Vegas to have his bid blessed by Donald Trump. (The footage of Romney trying to look as though he appreciated Trump is slightly painful.)

But the 2012 election was not about bringing the country together. Au contraire, both parties were in “stop the other guy” mode. Obama was, as you know, re-elected.

Six days after the election, Donald Trump filed an application to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.”

After the horrible Newtown school massacre, Obama tried to take on the gun control issue, but in the newly polarized Congress, progress on divisive issues was impossible. After a modest gun control proposal failed, Obama called it a “pretty shameful day for Washington.”

The famous police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement continued to divide the nation over guns and race, and Republicans surged to a big wave win in the 2014 midterms.

During his last two years, Obama all but gave up on legislating and did what he could with executive orders.


Not yet an announced candidate, Trump started talking about building a big border wall, and getting Mexico to pay for it. There’s footage of an appearance by Ann Coulter on the Bill Maher show (“Politically Incorrect”). Maher asked whom she predicted would be the Republican nominee. Coulter says Donald Trump, and the audience bursts into laughter.

Soon after Trump announced his candidacy, Palin endorsed him.

Obama urged us to resist the draw to tribalism: “We can’t afford to go down that path,” he says. ”It contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”

I’ll stop there, for fear of going on forever. Part 2, which also airs tonight, at 9, is all about Trump.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/13/2020 - 09:54 am.

    The Tea Party was very much about putting bankers in jail and breaking up the big banks, at the grass roots level. It was not just a far left desire. Probably a lot of independents did not want to see bankers rewarded for blowing up the economy. Who here has seen the clip of Obama laughing, “all choked up,” about bankers using bailout money to give themselves massive bonuses? Ten million foreclosures later and a mostly indifferent response from Obama made many a working class voter give up on Dems.

    I have not seen the documentary, but it sounds like PBS wants to blame Republican “fake news” for the rise of Trump. That is a good deal more convenient than taking a hard look at how economics the last fifty years has been one long tale of both parties acting in the greatest transfer of wealth in history, from the poor, working and middle classes, to the top 10%

    Liberals and Dems of the professional class are still in denial about that. Which is why Trump is likely to win in 2020.

    • Submitted by Erik Granse on 01/13/2020 - 11:17 am.

      The claim that the Tea Party was about holding banks & bankers responsible seems pretty revisionist to me; while there was a large left-leaning movement (Occupy), I didn’t see any similar action (or rhetoric) from the other side of the spectrum.

      The only goals I hear the Tea Party espousing are for lower taxes and less regulation.

      While Democrats have been consistently disappointing on policy and action, programs like the ACA and creation of the CPFB are clearly designed to help the majority of Americans. Tax cuts which flow preponderantly to the wealthy are the only policy prescription Republicans have offered for decades.

      The idea that real, tangible policy failures are the cause of Democratic losses doesn’t hold water.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/13/2020 - 06:57 pm.

        Most of the people in the early Tea Party wanted to hold banks and bankers accountable for the housing bubble. But as soon as the Tea Party went national, it was overtaken by Republican apparatchikes who turned the messaging to what was acceptable to establishment Republicans. After that the Tea Party basically folded, because most of the people who got in early wanted little to do with the establishment. But Trump was paying attention, he spoke directly to those working class people (many of whom whould have voted for Bernie), and they voted for him.

        As for the ACA being about helping most Americans, there are many who will say that it has been good for turning Health Care into an exercise in racketeering. $6,000-8,000 deductibles is not Health Care, it is bleeding people until they are dead.

      • Submitted by Marcia Wattson on 01/14/2020 - 08:29 am.

        Amen. This emphasis on Democratic complicity in the trends of the past 40 to 50 years toward income and wealth inequality is overblown and very counter-productive. Republicans have a field day ridiculing Democrats for policies that address inequity, and Democrats puff themselves up in righteousness for being more progressive than their moderate compatriots. This is getting us nowhere. Hasn’t anyone noticed how effective it has been for Republicans to stick together, No Matter What?

        • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/14/2020 - 11:10 am.

          Dems sticking together for Bill Clinton and Obama got us the deregulation of the banks, NAFTA, media and agricultural consolidation, mass incarceration, corporatized globalization, total surveillance, eternal war profiteering and epic income inequality.

          In other words, precisely what we have/would have gotten from Republicans.

          As Chomsky said, there is one party with two branches called the business party.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/15/2020 - 10:22 am.

          The complicity we’re discussing is very real and historically documented. Just google: “The New Democrats” and read the wiki about it. If you want more there are volumes upon volumes available. The Clinton/Gore/Biden neoliberals captured the Party in the 1980’s and transformed it into a moderate Republican Party. To this day they are more comfortable reaching across the isles than they are reaching out the liberal sitting next to them.

          It’s not really a moderate or “centrist” position, it’s just conservative, and it left multiple crises on the table for decades because their elite benefactors were perfectly comfortable with their status quo. This is why so many Americans were willing to roll the dice on Trump in 2016 rather than hand it off to another “moderate” Democrat with no message and no agenda beyond simply getting elected. It’s very difficult to overstate the complicity and complacency of the Democratic Party over the last 40 years.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/13/2020 - 11:38 am.

    There is no longer a punishment for dishonesty or craziness. Instead, it’s rewarded.”
    Pretty much says it all!

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/13/2020 - 11:43 am.

    Democrats have, on the whole, not been as aggressive, and certainly not as friendly to “hard-working Americans” of modest means as they have been in previous decades (even previous centuries), but they still have those instincts, which can’t be said for Republicans. Erik Granse’s last last two sentences seem spot-on to me, and at the state as well as the federal level.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/13/2020 - 12:31 pm.

    I think of Biden, in particular, and other alleged moderates in the dem primary and wonder: just who do you think you’ll compromise with? Biden, in particular, was on the front line in the battle for the ACA against the GOP’s “no-to-everything” strategy. Yet, he’s now running on a quaint platform that recalls simpler days when Senators might actually negotiate in good faith & compromise. Those days are long gone & dems need to start acting accordingly.

  5. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/13/2020 - 02:49 pm.

    It’s probably a little early to be making documentaries of the Obama Era, and much, much too early to be making them on the monstrous Trump, who has yet to have weathered his senate impeachment trial. So the Trump portion of this project was ill-advised from the start and I wonder why producers thought it necessary. The rise of the woefully unqualified, amoral conman Trump in 2015-16 could be covered in the Obama segment, and that’s where the Trump “story” should have left off for the time being.

    Obama’s presidency was intentionally destroyed by the conservative movement, and he has himself to blame for much of it, as he must have heard scuttlebutt that the Gravedigger of Democracy, Mitch McConnell, had immediately resolved to use every means possible to block every Obama initiative he could, the country and election of 2008 be damned. Yet Obama kept pining for dialogue and compromise with a party and movement that believes both compromise and Government by Dems to be illegitimate–even (especially?) when supported by a majority of the citizens! We are already hearing the same “Good Repub” idiocy from the hapless Biden, which must cause the Gravedigger and his Repub team to simply collapse in laughter when they hear such simpleminded nonsense bleated.

    Certainly Obama (and Dems) electing to insulate the Wall Street wizards from their deserved comeuppance for causing the Great Recession, while moving forward with health care insurance reform–that great La Brea tar-pit of doom–will be seen as the crucial mistake that caused the Dems to lose the House in 2010 and end whatever chance there was for reform of the nation after the catastrophe of Bush/Cheney.

    But overall, the Big Picture theme of the years 2000-2020 will have to be the final destruction of American democracy by the conservative movement.

  6. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 01/13/2020 - 06:37 pm.

    “But overall, the Big Picture theme of the years 2000-2020 will have to be the final destruction of American democracy by the conservative movement.”

    Considering it is exclusively members of the left agitating for restrictions of the 1st amendment, rescinding the 2nd and abolishing the electoral college, that’s a fairly bizarre statement.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/14/2020 - 09:48 am.

      It depends on perspective. The SCOTUS eviscerated the first by equaring money with speech & granting corporations the same rights as people. They’ve likewise misinterpreted the second by igoring the clause “as part of an organized militia,” besides treating the right as entirely unlimited – an interpretation not even grated the 1st amendment. Thirdly, there’s an argument to be made that the electoral college is anti-democratic & it’s abolishment would give more power directly to the people, which would make our system more democratic, not less.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/16/2020 - 05:42 am.

        You just made Connor’s points for him. Most traditionalists would disagree with you on all points.

        • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 01/16/2020 - 10:14 am.

          Most traditionalists don’t understand the language of the Constitution. Tradition is not legally binding.

        • Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/17/2020 - 08:31 am.

          What Connor does not understand is that government by minority faction cannot remotely be termed “democracy”, whatever the dead hand of a sclerotic 18th Century constitution may command. Placing one’s reliance upon the (absurd) electoral college gives the game away….

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/14/2020 - 09:21 am.

    I’m not seeing anything new here. I can’t imagine why I’d watch this in the first place let alone stay on to the end.

    The fact that McCain drove the party into the hands of the Tea Party by bringing Palin into the ticket is a mundane observation. The only thing that’s kind of weird is the position held by McCain fans on the on both sides of the Isle that this was some kind of natural disaster rather than a really stupid thing for McCain to have done. They seem to be trying to portray it as something that happened to McCain, rather than something McCain caused to happen.

    Likewise the fact that Republicans chose to practice perhaps the most vicious and strident form of partisan politics in US history is beyond obvious. What’s weird is the fact that “moderate/centrist” Democrats failed to recognize the reality in front of them. Obama and Biden continued to act as if they’d get some kind of cooperation from their “friends” on the other side of the Isle. Biden still clings to this delusion.

    Yes, Obama either ran as a liberal that he’s not, or retreated into “centrist/moderation” post election. Ether way his moderation ended up being a disaster for his presidency, his Party, and the nation. Obama’s party was trounced, his “legacy” is in tatters, and the multiple crises Democrats left on the table for 8 years set the stage Trump’s appeal. The decision to put HRC on the ballot sealed the deal and here we are. But we already know already know all of this, so I hope Frontline doesn’t spend 4 hours recapitulating common knowledge.

    I think at this point if Frontline wants to do some critical and important historical work, the only thing they need to reveal and describe is the Republican descent into Neo Fascism, and the Democratic complacency and complicity in THAT descent. The value of that historical observation is obvious to everyone but those Democrats who continue to cling to the delusion that they can “work” with these Fascists, or that simply defeating Trump will return our nation to normalcy.

    The only really important observation we can make of Obama and his presidency is that while his election was historic, and his term was competent, smart, and free of controversy, ultimately it was a failed presidency and a failed Party regime that left us with Trump.

    The most important observation we can make about Trump is that he’s a Fascist, and his Party has/had been descending into Fascism for decades.

    If this isn’t the subject of this Frontline episode, I don’t see the point in watching it.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/16/2020 - 10:14 am.

      Just one case in point. At the time of Obama’s election, I participated in the Strib’s online forums, and I became aware of a few hyper-Republican types whose purpose in life seemed to be to call everything they didn’t like “Marxist.”

      There were only two issues that the right and left agreed on. The first was that elder abuse was horrible and that those who abuse older people, whether in nursing homes or in family situations, should be severely punished. Some of the right-wingers were so nasty about other topics that it was a relief to find out that they were opposed to elder abuse.

      The other issue that the righties and lefties agreed on was that the financial institution executives and employees whose machinations caused the 2008 crash should be punished somehow.

      Obama and Congress could have levied severe penalties on these executives (firing with no severance pay, jail time, etc.), passed tough laws against this kind of chicanery, and gained political capital.

      Instead, these executives received light slaps on their Rolex-bedecked wrists and were even allowed to keep their gazillion-dollar bonuses, because, as Obama said, “Contracts are sacred.”

      However, shortly afterward, when it came time to bail out the auto industry, contracts were no longer sacred, and the auto workers were forced to make major concessions.

      I was never on the Obama bandwagon, as so many people I knew were, because even though he pulled off a good imitation of a leftist firebrand, his actual words were vague. Still, I was glad to see Americans elect a black man, especially after I drove down Lake Street on election night and saw people getting the news on their cell phones and jumping up and down and hugging one another.

      But what a squandered opportunity! Obama had a large portion of the public eating out of his hand, and if he had had the will to effect change and the political savvy that Reagan had, he could have done great things.

      Do you know what an alternative universe version of Reagan who wanted universal health care would have done? He would have gone on TV, addressed the nation earnestly, explained his program in simple terms, and asked everyone to contact their House and Senate representatives. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan era clearly, you know what I mean.

      Now imagine an alternative universe version of Obama, fresh from being elected by enthusiastic voters, going on TV and telling people to contact their House and Senate representatives to support severe penalties for the banksters and new laws to prevent this kind of problem from happening again.

      Sigh.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/17/2020 - 08:25 am.

        Absolutely Ms. Sandness. And here’s another thing: You don’t seek Republican permission, you fight for the best proposals that will actually solve problems and provide the best relief to those who need it.

        I’ll never forget the sinking feeling in my gut when Obama went from a guy with a health care plan to a guy who would sign whatever Congress came up with. Single payer never made it onto the room, but that was no surprise. But when even the public option was take off the table as the first order of business (after a year of claiming it was a corner stone of his plan), it was time to say: “Goodnight Gracie”.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/20/2020 - 03:59 pm.

          It was even worse than that.

          I remember how Democrats howled in protest when Dick Cheney held closed-door meetings with oil company executives.

          However, when Obama held closed-door meetings with insurance company executives, that was evidently all right. When I heard about those meetings, I wondered whether we would get real reform, and my misgivings were correct.

          If I were Ethics Czarina, I would ban all closed-door meetings with any industry group to avoid even the appearance of corruption.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/17/2020 - 01:15 pm.

    Yes Mr Udstrand I entirely agree with your statement ….”I think at this point if Frontline wants to do some critical and important historical work, the only thing they need to reveal and describe is the Republican descent into Neo Fascism, and the Democratic complacency and complicity in THAT descent. The value of that historical observation is obvious to everyone but those Democrats who continue to cling to the delusion that they can “work” with these Fascists, or that simply defeating Trump will return our nation to normalcy….”
    It seems the work being done to out fascism is not being done as well by conventional news shows as by what lovely falls to what we refer to as entertainment. I must say American Experiences McCarthy was not as bad has I thought but what is missing still is the impact on the average shmoos. I have been checking into the Watchman series and this was being done in that series at the link. I was astounded when I saw this appear and had to search wether my eyes deceived me. Apparently they did not. We first must name the evil as you suggest. News is not doing too well at doing that. Here is the link…https://www.vox.com/2019/11/25/20981767/watchmen-episode-6-fred-trump-recap?fbclid=IwAR355L5kTrprBTDb6IjltM6tml1_gQKASccHgJimMuOpXWXa3-HWIYzIIpY

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