The Obama History Project
History Will Be Very KindBy Jonathan Chait
History Will Eviscerate HimBy Christopher Caldwell
Historians Weigh In on Obama
The 53 Complete Questionnaires
Democrats nominated Barack Obama in 2008 to extract America from George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure and to spread more fairly the proceeds of a quarter-century-old boom for which they credited Bill Clinton. The Election Eve collapse of Lehman Brothers changed things. It showed that there had been no boom at all, only a multitrillion-dollar real-estate debauch that Clinton’s and Bush’s affordable-housing mandates had set in motion. It also showed how fast historians’ likely rankings of presidents can shift: Clinton went from above average to below average, Bush from low to rock bottom.
Obama may wind up the most consequential of the three baby-boom presidents. He expanded certain Bush policies — Detroit bailouts, internet surveillance, drone strikes — and cleaned up after others. We will not know for years whether Obama’s big deficits risked a future depression to avoid a present one, or whether the respite he offered from “humanitarian invasions” made the country safer. Right now, both look like significant achievements. Yet there is a reason the president’s approval ratings have fallen, in much of the country, to Nixonian lows. Even his best-functioning policies have come at a steep price in damaged institutions, leaving the country less united, less democratic, and less free.
Health-care reform and gay marriage are often spoken of as the core of Obama’s legacy. That is a mistake. Policies are not always legacies, even if they endure, and there is reason to believe these will not. The more people learn about Obamacare, the less they like it — its popularity is still falling, to a record low of 37 percent in November. Thirty states have voted to ban gay marriage, and almost everywhere it survives by judicial diktat.
These are, however, typical Obama achievements. They are triumphs of tactics, not consensus-building. Obamacare involved quid pro quos (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” etc.) that passed into Capitol Hill lore, accounting and parliamentary tricks to render the bill unfilibusterable, and a pure party-line vote in the Senate. You can call it normal politics, but Medicare did not pass that way. Gay marriage has meant Cultural Revolution–style bullying of dissenters (notoriously, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the Mozilla founder Brendan Eich). You can call this normal politics, too, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not pass that way.
Obama’s legacy is one of means, not ends. He has laid the groundwork for a political order less answerable to voters. His delay of the Obamacare employer mandate by fiat, his provision of working papers to immigrants by executive order — these are not applications of old tricks but dangerous constitutional innovations. After last fall’s electoral rout, the president claimed to have “heard” (presumably to speak on behalf of) the two-thirds of people who didn’t vote. And he has forged a partnership with the country’s rich — not the high-earning professionals calumniated in populist oratory (including his own) but the really existing Silicon Valley and Wall Street plutocracy.
For a generation, there has been too much private wealth in politics; Obama’s innovation has been to bring private wealth into government. He has (with others’ help, certainly) begun to emancipate the presidency from Congress’s control of the budget. In 2013, JPMorgan Chase, Obama’s most important early contributor, paid the Justice Department about $20 billion in fines (involving no high-level prosecutions), all of it redeployable by the administration. Federal stimulus funds incentivized states to approve Bill Gates’s Common Core curriculum. Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, a private endeavor, has been adopted with modifications by the White House.
Under the nation’s first black president, race relations regressed. At times maladroit (insulting a police officer for arresting his friend Henry Louis Gates, unaware the cop was an expert on racial profiling), at times unlucky (calling anger over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson “understandable” as rioters torched Ferguson, Missouri, on split screen), at times ethnocentric (Eric Holder’s arguments on behalf of “my people”), the administration alienated sympathetic whites. Mitt Romney won three of five white votes in 2012, and exit polls from 2014 show this to be a floor rather than a ceiling. Obama may be remembered the way Republican California governor Pete Wilson was after he backed the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in 1994—as one who benefited personally from ethnic polarization but cost his party and his country dearly by it.
Obama’s reputation will also have something in common with that of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed history and technology have a direction and that his job was to align his country with it, no matter how illogical or undesirable it might appear to his countrymen. Like Gorbachev, Obama will be esteemed in certain quarters a generation from now, but probably more by foreigners than fellow citizens, and more by his country’s enemies than its friends.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
*This article appears in the January 12, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.