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53 Historians on Obama

Alfred McCoy

University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (2012)


How much will Obama’s being black matter in the end? In, say, 20 years, will it be a major or minor aspect of his presidency and, to the extent that it will matter, in what specific way will it matter most?

Race has been a defining, at times dominant, facet in U.S. political culture for well over 150 years. For the next 20 years and perhaps a bit longer, Obama’s role in breaking through that racial barrier and becoming the first African-American to assume the powerfully symbolic role as head of state will remain a paramount achievement.

Will future historians blame Obama for not getting more done in a climate of Republican obstructionism, or will he be given a pass for it? More generally, to what degree will his presidency be seen as “transformative” (the word he used to describe the Reagan administration)?

In future years, historians will interpret the Republican obstructionism and the fiery passions of his tea-party opponents to a single, central factor: race. The vilification of Obama will likely be seen as the last, desperate gasp of prejudice during the years that America was experiencing a historic transition to becoming a genuine multiethnic society. Obama’s steely reserve in facing down such determined opposition and ingrained disrespect will prove memorable.

In assessing Obama’s historical legacy, what do you believe will be the aspect of his presidency that is currently least understood or misunderstood? In other words, for better or worse, what single thing looks smallest now but will matter most to future historians?

His establishment of the U.S. cybercommand in 2009 will likely mark the moment that U.S. global-force projection began a historic shift from the Cold War’s heavy-metal military of aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, and tanks to an agile array via aerospace and cyberspace.

Will future historians conclude that Obama weakened or strengthened the office of the president? Will the policies he enacted without congressional cooperation represent a strategic victory or a dangerous escalation of executive power

His domestic programs will likely be considered part of the incremental growth of the social safety net that started with the New Deal. Some of his more controversial reforms, health care and immigration, will be regarded as mundane policy choices, baby steps toward more lasting reforms. In the arena of foreign policy, by contrast, his initiatives will represent a bipartisan continuation of rapid growth of U.S. presidential power that began under President George W. Bush. In effect, Obama has placed a bipartisan imprimatur upon the neoconservative effort to recover all the powers of the U.S. presidency for unilateral action constrained in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Through impunity for torture in defiance of the U.N. Convention, global surveillance to control allied leaders, domestic surveillance for internal security, and drones for extrajudicial execution, Obama has accelerated the expansion of U.S. executive power.

Assuming no dramatic shift in world events between now and 2016, which parts of Obama’s foreign-policy tenure will be judged most positively and which most poorly? Overall, how will his actions abroad be judged against his recent predecessors’?

On a positive note, Obama will be remembered favorably for his multilateral initiatives, including the climate agreement with China, collaboration at international climate conferences, joint air operations in Libya, and diplomacy against Russia’s moves into Ukraine. On a more negative note, his unilateral exercise of U.S. power through drone warfare, weaponization of space, and global cybersurveillance will remain controversial and may attract more criticism in years to come as their long-term costs become apparent.

Will the Obama years come to be seen as a major realignment in Democratic politics? As a historian, how would you predict the longevity of his coalition?

Obama’s election and reelection were manifestations of deeper coalition within the Democratic Party between middle-class liberals who favor government policy grounded in secular rationality and groups aspiring to full equality—women, African-Americans, and Latinos. Until the Republican Party moderates the symbolic wedge issues that simultaneously sustain its conservative base and alienates Obama’s current supporters, that Democratic coalition will hold.

Will future historians concur with the administration’s own narrative of having saved the country from another Great Depression? Or will Obama’s economic legacy be seen as a lackluster performance or, worse, a failed attempt to reform the U.S. economy in any meaningful way?

With Europe stagnant from doctrinal austerity and major Asian economies mired in crony capitalism, Obama’s record of modest Keynesian stimulus, impartial economic regulation, and encouragement of economic innovation will stand out as a comparatively stellar record.

What single action could Obama realistically do before the end of his term that would make the biggest positive difference to his historical legacy?

Combine an international climate agreement with expansive domestic measures for environmental protection.

What will be seen as Obama’s single most significant accomplishment?

Affirming the role of government as a vehicle for progress at home and abroad.

Will Obama’s reputation have improved or declined in 20 years?

As U.S. power declines slowly, painfully for the next 20 years, Obama will be remembered as a rational leader who balanced multilateral diplomacy with the unilateral exercise of military power in aerospace and cyberspace to make the best of a bad situation.

Which of his speeches an phrases will be the most enduring?

Acceptance, Grant Park, Chicago, November 4, 2008.

In which presidential mode was Obama the most effective: orator, legislator, commander-in-chief, consoler of the nation, or some other mode?

Prime minister, the rational leader of government.

Will the image of Obama overshadow his accomplishments, in the manner of JFK?

No, he is a two-term president with a lengthy roster of achievement at both home and abroad

Who will be seen as the most consequential member of his Cabinet or senior staff?

John Brennan, for presiding over drone warfare at the White House and completing the impunity for torturers as CIA director.

Which will prove to be more significant: the reduction of troops on the ground or the increase in the use of military drones?

Obama will be remembered as the progenitor of drone warfare and cybercombat.

What will be the most lasting symbolic image of the Obama presidency?

Acceptance speech, November 4, 2008, Grant Park, Chicago, a triumphal moment for all Americans that began our collective redemption from the curse of slavery upon this continent.

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