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Aram Goudsouzian

University of Memphis, author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (2014)

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?

Obama’s blackness will always matter, because race has always mattered. One hundred and 43 years after the abolition of slavery, less than a half-century after the dismantling of Jim Crow, a man with black skin assumed the presidency of the United States of America. In this moment, the clouds of political fracture probably obscure that achievement of historical importance. But decades from now, schoolchildren will learn this about Barack Obama, even if they learn nothing else.

At his best, Obama has not only served as an inspiration for black people in the United States and the world, but also communicated dignity and intelligence to a broader public. Yet like Sidney Poitier in the movies, he has seemed extraordinarily conscious of projecting restraint, of avoiding the label of an “angry black man.” I imagine him thinking “What will Fox News say?” every time he appears in public. In the current historical moment, when protesters on the streets are urging us to recognize the basic humanity of black people, I wish Barack Obama would let us see him as a person, too.

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)?

Ronald Reagan’s tenure was undoubtedly transformative. He built a conservative coalition that included Cold War hard-liners, laissez-faire advocates, and Christian Evangelicals. He shifted the center of American politics. When he started as president, vast American majorities approved of existing government programs and tax rates. Eight years later, the political mainstream’s core assumptions had changed—“big government” liberalism was taboo. The Democratic Party has adjusted in his wake. Bill Clinton won office as a centrist “New Democrat,” disassociating himself from his tax-and-spend predecessors.

To a great degree, Barack Obama operates in this same political context. The Affordable Care Act has been the great liberal achievement of his age, but it inspired such a massive backlash that Republicans have controlled much of the political conversation about it, and it has served to mobilize conservative grassroots organizing. Obama’s own reluctance to build personal relationships with members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, has contributed to the climate of legislative gridlock.

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?

Historians tend to search for answers to present-day concerns. In the future, more and more scholars will almost certainly be devoting more attention to the history of immigrants from Central America, including the course and implications of federal immigration policy.

So even though Obama’s recent executive action on immigration has received a great deal of attention—including gripes about presidential overreach and legal debates over constitutionality—it may have a greater long-term impact than the current political fracas. According to one poll, almost 90 percent of registered Latino voters support the measure, which promised to protect over 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation. It is projected that the number of Hispanics in the United States will double by 2060, which means that one-third of the nation’s population will be Hispanic. Obama’s executive action may not only help stabilize the Latino population in the United States but also cement much of that group’s loyalty to the Democratic Party.

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 one hand, Obama has navigated foreign affairs with pragmatism and flexibility. He has reduced the military ground presence in the Middle East, prevented mass terrorist attacks on domestic soil, dulled the global perception that the United States is at war with Islam, and killed Osama bin Laden. His administration generally has gestured toward multilateral cooperation. The right blasts him as failing to project the United States as a dominant global power, and the left gripes about torture, drones, and surveillance, but in general, Obama has mopped up George W. Bush’s mess and exercised American power with responsibility.

On the other hand, Obama has failed to “brand” his foreign policy. What does he stand for? He has appeared halting and hesitant at times, such as after Syria’s use of chemical weapons or during the crisis in Ukraine. His essential pragmatism has meant that he has not developed a narrative for the place of the United States in global affairs. The Bush Doctrine may have been misguided and irresponsible, but it was based on clearly articulated core principles. Whether by design or not, there is no Obama Doctrine.

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?

It is not yet clear that the presidency of Barack Obama has created a new and lasting coalition along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Perhaps his impact on the trajectory of American political history will better resemble that of Richard Nixon—a candidate who captured a base of voters disaffected by the prevailing climate, yet not someone who reframed the major terms of political debate for the next few decades.

In 1968, Nixon appealed to a “Silent Majority” of mostly white working-class voters alienated by antiwar hippies, “Black Power” militants, and knee-jerk softy liberals, and then he won reelection based on his record and weak opposition. But during his time in office, he did not redefine the role of the federal government. Nor did he brand the Republican Party with a set of conservative core principles that defined the coming era. Reagan would do those things in 1980.

Obama has his “coalition of the ascendant,” which includes millennials, racial and ethnic minorities, and college-educated women. Those groups are rising in numbers and influence, and the Republican Party is doing little to appeal to them. But Obama still operates in a larger conservative context wrought by the Reagan Revolution, just as Nixon navigated in the aftermath of the New Deal and the Great Society. Today more people identify as conservative than liberal, and that conservative base turns out for all elections, unlike many of the voters in Obama’s coalition.

The Democratic Party is still waiting for its Ronald Reagan.

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?

When it comes to Obama’s economic policy, lots of people need to take a deep breath. The right wants to see him as a scheming socialist bent on nationalizing the economy, while the left bemoans him as a corporate toady. Obama is just a centrist Democrat, that’s all. He backed TARP, which came out of the Bush administration. He refused to nationalize banks or just let them fail, and under his economic team’s guidance, the banking industry recovered well. He did not let GM and Chrysler collapse, but he did not take them over, either, and those auto manufacturers rebounded under his administration’s supervision. ARRA was a relatively successful fiscal-stimulus plan, even if conservatives cried about big government and liberals bemoaned its limits. The Dodd-Frank Act has provided necessary regulation to Wall Street, but it has not hamstrung economic growth.

So, yes, the Obama administration has fostered the recovery from the Great Recession, though it obviously has not sparked an economic boom. There are plenty of positive indicators: rising home prices, GDP, and industrial production. The record on jobs is more mixed: The economy is slowly adding more jobs, but wages remain stuck, and there are twice as many long-term unemployed workers than when Obama took office. Yet in that same time frame, stock prices have doubled and corporate profits are soaring.

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

The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among others, are igniting our current, historically transformative moment in the black-freedom struggle. So far, Obama has stayed in the middle of the road, pleading for mutual understanding and civility. He does not need to protest on the streets or tweet #blacklivesmatter, but he does need to stand on the right side of history. He has the experiences, insight, and pulpit to explain the perspective of poor black people to the United States and the world.

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

The Affordable Care Act is the most transformative piece of legislation during the Obama years. Serious proposals for a national-health-care program date back to the Progressive Era, and Harry Truman backed a single universal comprehensive health-insurance plan. But interest-group politics and fears of “socialized medicine” kept derailing these initiatives. After the failure of the Clintons’ plan, it seemed like national health care was once again a dead issue. Obama campaigned on it, got it through Congress, and survived the backlash.

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

It should increase. For all his inability to work successfully with Congress, he did help the economy rebound from a disaster that he inherited, pass the Affordable Care Act, reduce American troops in the Middle East, and win reelection. He built such high expectations during the 2008 campaign that his actual tenure was inevitably disappointing, but from a historical distance, we will better appreciate his time in office.

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

His most memorable speeches are all from his first campaign: “A More Perfect Union” during the Jeremiah Wright controversy, the victory speech on Election Night in Grant Park, his first inaugural address. Since then, I can’t recall one speech that felt like a historic moment—it seems like Obama has made a conscious decision to avoid inspirational rhetoric.

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

LBJ loved wrangling legislation through Congress; Nixon thrived on diplomatic intrigue; Reagan was a master communicator of big ideas; Clinton felt our pain. Obama doesn’t hang his hat on any particular political style—it reflects his pragmatism, but it also speaks to why his political legacy might feel so slippery.

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

No. Kennedy’s assassination meant that his image became reality—in popular memory, his martyrdom papered over his mixed record on the big questions of his day: the Cold War and civil rights. Obama, by contrast, has a longer and more substantial record of governance. His admirers respect his character and point to his accomplishments. But he does not inspire any more. We watched his hair turn gray.

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

Is it too obvious to say Hillary Clinton?

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

The ramped-up use of military drones may trouble future historians, but in the big-picture narrative of the wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration will be responsible for dialing down the troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for dealing with the unforeseen consequences of the military intervention and withdrawal.

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

I would like to think that it was during his first inauguration, when Obama reached down to hug John Lewis, the representative from Georgia who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and laid his body on the line, again and again, so that African-Americans could win the basic rights of citizenship.

But if we’re going to be honest, it was probably during the 2009 State of the Union, when Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” That moment was cheap, nasty, and disrespectful—a depressing emblem of the era in which Obama has governed.