Transforming America: Barack Obama in the White House. Edited by Steven E. Schier. Lanham, MD: Rowman 8: Littlefield, 2011. 289 pp.
Edited volumes that summarize the state of a current presidential administration and target an advanced undergraduate student audience are commonplace. Yet, Transforming America: Barack Obama in the White House offers something unique. It is a determined effort to cull together the important developments of the first two years of the Obama presidency, exploring whether it has been a "clarifying" and "directive" presidency (p. 2). Although it concludes that the Obama presidency is unlikely to live up to the hope that many had for its transformation and significance (p. 272), the book effectively describes the extent of political and policy change under Obama.
Organized into thirds, the book covers the historical and electoral (Part I), governance (Part II), and policy (Part III) legacies. It presents standard topics in presidential studies, including foreign policy (Chapter 11), relations with Congress (Chapter 7), and electoral politics (Chapter 1). The book also addresses more tangential--but still centrally important--topics such as changing American demographics (Chapter 2), religion and politics (Chapter 4), and Obama's policies as they relate to women, minorities, and gays (Chapter 9). Two of the best chapters, for their sheer level of detail, are Raymond Tatalovich's summary of the Great Recession (Chapter 10) and Nancy Maveety's account of the president's judicial appointments (Chapter 8).
A persistent consideration of the book and particularly of Part I is the reconstructive nature of the Obama presidency, whether 2008 was a "critical" election that ushered in a new era of party alignment. The sense is that Obama was to be reconstructive, given large majorities in both houses of Congress, a landslide victory in the Electoral College (and the first Democratic president to receive over 50% of the popular vote in thirty-two years), popular enthusiasm, and the perceived favor of the news media. Despite early and potentially transformative policy successes, John J. Coleman (Chapter 3) concludes correctly, however, that it was not the president's individual prowess to bring coalitions together, but rather their very presence in his first two years that created opportunities for significant policy change. A reconstructive presidency Obama's was not meant to be.
Indeed, the Obama presidency became constrained...