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53 Historians on Obama

Annette Gordon-Reed

Harvard Law School, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008)

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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?

The president’s blackness will matter a great deal 20 years from now. Mainly because I think it shaped how many Americans viewed him, and gave ammunition to his opposition. They could manipulate free-floating racial animus to help determine what he was and was not able to do while in office. It also determined the extent to which he was able to use “the bully pulpit” to rally the American people to various causes. American presidents can expect opposition. That’s the nature of the game. His blackness fueled the level and, in many ways, the very demented nature of the opposition to him. Government officials, who should have known better or had a better sense of honor, have felt that liberties could be taken with him—even though he is in the office of the presidency—that could not be taken with a white man. The examples are well known— Republican Joe Wilson yelling out that he was a liar during the State of the Union, the governor wagging her finger in his face on the tarmac as if he were some errant child that she had automatic authority over. And, of course, that craziness about the birth certificate—suggesting that he was ineligible to be president. That is nothing but a code for saying that he’s black and should not be president. But none but the most benighted would be willing to say out loud that “a black person” or “a nigger” is not supposed to be president of the United States. So they talk about it in a roundabout way, couching it in fake law-related terms.

On the other hand, I think Obama’s being black will influence the way that young people—I mean little kids, black and white—see the world. They would have grown up thinking nothing of the idea of having a president—the leader of the free world, as they say—who is black. That, and having a black family living in the White House, will speak volumes about what is possible in the world and what America is. Having a black First Family is important symbolically, as it suggests that the United States is not a “white” nation.

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)?

This is related to what I said before. With the normal caveats about inability to predict the future, I think he will not be faulted for Republican obstructionism. He has gone a long way toward reaching across the aisle. Was it McConnell who said that his sole purpose was to make sure the president was not reelected? Imagine that—not that his sole purpose was to do what is best for the American people, nor to be the best senator that he could be—but to ensure defeat of the president. He went on to suggest that they could work with the president on certain conditions—which were basically that he become a Republican. But even when Obama adopted measures they had championed, the Republicans switched gears and said they were now against such measures. I don’t recall people being as impatient with McConnell’s really preposterously irresponsible statement and disingenuousness as they were with the president’s alleged lack of schmoozing ability. Some of the people on the other side do not think a person like him, that is to say, a black person, should be president. And now they want him to sit down and make nice with them? So, when the dust has settled, I am confident people will look back at this moment and see who had the real problem here.

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?

I think it’s Obama’s appreciation for the long game. He has a remarkable amount of patience and willingness to wait matters out without jumping precipitously to take actions at the behest of pundits and observers. “Why won’t he lead?”—as if leadership involves being unwilling to wait for the moment and be willing to jump precipitously to take actions at the behest of people who talk but do not have the responsibility for making decisions.

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?

Presidents have the authority to issue executive orders, and he has issued fewer than many. Again, this whole business about the illegitimacy of his using powers that other (that is to say, white) presidents have used is very much tied to the discomfort with his use of authority. Congress has been utterly unwilling and recalcitrant about dealing with him in order to move the country forward. Things must be done. We shouldn’t have to wait eight or 16 years until there is a president they like.

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’?

Well, the things he’s done lately—beginning to open the door to Cuba will be judged favorably. I have visited the country, and the people there deserve a better life. I hope opening the doors will help usher that in. He inherited a terrible problem with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the detention center in Guantánamo. The situation in the Middle East is as messy as it has ever been for eons. I am not the person to opine on this one. That seems an intractable problem for which no president of the United States, I think, can rightly be held accountable. There is only so much that we can do. We should help, but we are not the answer.

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?

I have been surprised that there was not more use of the tools that brought people together to organize for his election. The Hispanic population and young people are central here. My guess is that the Republican nativism will turn off large segments of the Hispanic population. Young people do not vote in the numbers that they should. It seems the young require some particular spark to get them going. The key is figuring out, cycle after cycle, how to keep that potent electoral force energized.

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?

At this particular moment, the stock market has hit record highs and the unemployment rate has fallen steadily. Still, the recovery has been slower than people wanted, and the jobs produced are not lifting enough people out of poverty. The U.S. and other industrialized countries are going through some serious structural changes. I think the president will be credited with not letting things blow up totally but may be faulted for not doing more to help people who were harmed during the mortgage debacle. He has spoken forcefully of the need to raise the minimum wage, and that has been put on the table in places where we might be surprised to see it. But any talk of fairness—or the problems of inequality—bring howls of outrage about socialism.

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

I think he could do one more speech about race in the wake of Ferguson, Garner, et al. A speech that would reflect on the historic nature of his presidency and how it fits within the structure of problems we face today, and how we might go forward. I am sure such a speech would be ridiculed. There is so much bad faith out there. But if done the right way, it would help to shape his legacy. I do believe we will get better.

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

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Although it is hard to ignore his being elected and reelected as the first black president of the United States.

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

I think it will have improved as people get used to the idea of having health care for all.

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

I think the speech he gave at the Democratic convention that launched him onto the national stage and the speech he gave on Election Night in 2008 will be his most enduring speeches.

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

As a Leader on the World Stage.

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

The images of all presidents who are remembered, to some degree, shadow their actual accomplishments. I do not think the JFK comparison apt. He did not finish his first term. His tragic death, quite naturally, shaped the way people viewed him—a young, handsome man cut down before his promise could be fulfilled. Obama has met the basic standard required of presidents who go on to be thought of as “great.” He won two terms and—many people think in these terms—he was a wartime president. He presided over the termination of the country’s No. 1 enemy—Osama bin Laden—and brought a version of ends to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For all its problems, he has opened the door to health care for all.

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

Valerie Jarrett and Eric Holder.

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

The increased used of military drones. We’ve reduced troops on the ground on many occasions throughout U.S. history. Using drones brings us into a Brave New World or a quite unsure new world.

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

I think it will be an image that was technically before his presidency: the image of the Obamas in Hyde Park on Election Night 2008. That signaled a change in the country that has the potential for making us even stronger.


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