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‘Divided States of America’ review: Frontline’s hard look at Obama presidency


PBS' "Frontline: Divided States of America" charts President Barack Obama's ultimate failure to bring "hope and change" to Washington or the country. Credit: District 7 Media / Andrew Geraci

THE SHOW “Frontline: Divided States of America”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Over four hours, “Divided States” charts President Barack Obama’s ultimate failure to bring “hope and change” to Washington or the country. With commentary by reporters from various newspapers, and officials from both parties, it begins at the beginning, eight years ago, and ends with the recent election. “Frontline” veterans Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser are the producers.

MY SAY “Frontline’s” two-night perspective is a long story told in a minor key. It plays like a dirge for both Obama terms, and a dirge for the president himself. “Divided States” is grim enough — and then you arrive at the 50-minute mark in the second night when the unfolding tragedy turns into the worst kind of horror story. “Newtown” — the narrator says — was “the 15th mass shooting of Obama’s presidency, this time 6- and 7-year-olds.” The downward trajectory continues from there.

Draped in crepe, filled with dread, “Divided States” is a bummer. Didn’t anything happen over the last eight years that was even remotely upbeat or positive? Apparently not in Washington.

Explanatory journalism like “Divided States” has the benefit of hindsight, and in this instance also knows how the story ends, with Donald Trump about to be sworn in as president. “Trump was a rejection of everything Obama stood for,” says one pundit while “Frontline” concludes — in the opening minutes, no less — that he will leave the White House “with the country even more divided.”

With the most recent election as evidence, this “Frontline” certainly isn’t wrong. What’s so surprising is the particularly harsh assessment of Obama’s eight years and of the president. He’s portrayed, at least in his first term, as a callow newcomer to Washington who misread his constituents, Congress and the country itself. Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, offers an assessment that both sticks and condemns: “Polarization is the essential characteristic of American politics that Obama didn’t understand.”

“Divided States” does want to understand why a former reality TV star will be moving into the White House in a few days, and locates many reasons: Entrenched racism and a belligerent, obstructionist House and Senate driven by a furious electorate. However, the main reason in this particular assessment appears to be the man moving out in a few days.

BOTTOM LINE Exhaustive, but also exhausting, this is a relentlessly downbeat tour of the past eight years.


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