Baker continued by noting that, even to his supporters, Obama was not quite what their ambitious hopes for him had conceived during his meteoric rise in the 2008 election. Because he had promised so much – saving the climate, uniting the country and other major promises for a politician to make – people on the left found Obama's compromises frustrating and disappointing.
Yet, what makes this analysis of his presidency so important is not just what it tells us about the first black president, Baker explained. The fact that Obama was too left and yet too right “tells us about ourselves.”
“We are at this moment a polarized country,” Baker acknowledged. He explained that the last four to five presidents promised to unite the country once they take office, and all have failed. Obama won 98 percent of the densest populated counties in 2008, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 98 percent of the sparest populated counties in 2012.
“Politicians do have a responsibility [for political polarization] but we also have to look in the mirror,” Baker said. Furthermore, while American polarization is nothing new, it has manifested itself in a new form.
The new element in elections is that Americans are no longer starting from the same foundation of information and facts, noted Baker. Instead of deriving all information from around three TV networks and a handful of newspapers, Americans are now able to garner information from thousands of websites and news outlets – many of which have a distinct bias, or aren’t even based in facts.
“People live in their own factual worlds,” Baker said. “No wonder we don’t get along well; we don’t even live in the same environment.”
In some ways, Baker said, President Donald Trump might be a better fit and indeed a parallel for the current political moment of a divided nation. Trump is at heart, Baker explained, a divider – not a uniter, as so many previous presidents have strived for. In this sense, Trump may very well be, according to Baker, an accurate reflection of the American public's present political pulse.
Under the Obama administration, however, try as Obama did to build compromises and a legislative middle ground, there was not a single month during his eight years where a majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track, Baker explained. While part of that might have been due to Obama’s struggle to perfect his politicking skills, part might instead be due to the times - where people may indeed crave extremes.
Baker noted that, in the latter part of his presidency, Obama attempted less and less to reach across the aisle. After setting a precedent by passing the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote, Obama was in some ways left to govern with executive orders.
“When you live and die by executive orders, that means the next guy can undo it,” Baker said, noting that this was exactly what Trump has done with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The skew towards policy change stemming from executive orders has left Obama’s legacy more unsettled than any other president's in recent memory. While presidential legacies are often debated and discussed for 10 or 20 or 30 years, Baker said, what’s unusual in Obama's case is that his successor has “make it a mission in life to undo so much of what his predecessor has done.”
Baker explained that, while most new presidents promise “new directions” when they take office, they don’t usually spend time actively undoing what the previous person has done - as has been the case with President Trump in his early administration.
Covering the current political moment is indeed a challenge, Baker said, noting that the New York Times particularly has received a fair amount of criticism. In response to criticism of his own bias, Baker explained that analysis is different from opinion. Importantly, he said, it’s based in facts. And facts, said Baker, are what Americans should - despite its recent criticism - continue to expect from The Times.
“If you want to go to the other sides and listen to the partisan website that’s fine, but when you’re done, come back to us [The New York Times] and we’ll help you sort through it,” he said. “That’s our job.”
The talk took place at 7 p.m. in Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium in Robertson Hall.
This article previously stated that the talk took place in Dodds Auditorium. The same space has been renamed to Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium. The 'Prince' regrets the error.