Salon’s Thomas Frank: Obama Blew His Chance to ‘Put the Right Out of Business Once and For All’

How do you visually represent a missed opportunity? In a Sunday column for Salon, What’s the Matter With Kansas? author Thomas Frank suggests one answer: given the Obama administration’s repeated failure to deliver much-needed leftist change, the future Obama presidential library and museum should be “designed as…a mausoleum of hope.”

Obama’s salient mistake, Frank asserts, was that he “propped up” the obviously discredited “shitty consensus ideas” of the Reagan era. He expects that the museum will portray Obama “as a kind of second FDR: the man who saved the system from itself. That perhaps the system didn’t deserve saving will be left to some less-well-funded museum.”

Frank believes that the museum will make excuses for Obama’s inaction by exaggerating the power of Obama-era conservatives: “What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.”


From Frank’s piece (emphasis added):

…How will the Barack Obama Presidential Library, a much-anticipated museum of the future, cast the great events of our time?

…The task facing the makers of the Obama museum…will be…to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t…to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open…when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery…It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in—and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.

…Obama will be presented as a kind of second FDR: the man who saved the system from itself. That perhaps the system didn’t deserve saving will be left to some less-well-funded museum.

...As president, Obama has been reluctant to take the reinvigorated right too seriously. But as legacy-maker, I predict that [his museum] will work to make them seem even crazier and more unstoppable than they actually are.

…Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches?...Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks?...

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight…

…What will the Obama library have to say about the people who recognized correctly that it was time for “Change” and who showed up at his routine campaign appearances in 2008 by the hundreds of thousands?

It will be a tricky problem. On the up side, those days before his first term began were undoubtedly Obama’s best ones. Mentioning them, however, will remind the visitor of the next stage in his true believers’ political evolution: Disillusionment. Not because their hero failed to win the Grand Bargain, but because he wanted to get it in the first place—because he seemed to believe that shoring up the D.C. consensus was the rightful object of all political idealism…

Perhaps there will be an architectural solution for this problem…

…My suggestion to the designers of the complex: That the Obama Presidential Library be designed as a kind of cenotaph, a mausoleum of hope.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters