Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Harry Stout

Yale University, author of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (2007)

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?

It’s not just that Obama is the first black head of state in the U.S. but the first one in Western society. I remember Tony Blair commenting “I’m not sure this could happen in the U.K.,” and I think he was right. Slavery is clearly America’s spiritual holocaust—a collective trauma whose effects are still being worked out in a racially bifurcated society that sees civil rights in radically different and opposed terms. No one can think back on the days of his European tours and first inauguration without realizing just how shocking and transformative his election was for American society. As one who has spent a decade writing about the role of religion in America’s Civil War, I realize just how conflicted Americans were and are over the baleful legacy of slavery.

Nobody said it would be easy being the West’s first black head of state and that’s certainly true with Obama. Going all the way back to the Skip Gates and Reverend Wright controversies, it is clear that his identity as a black American and head of state would be in high tension. Just as the prophetic role of a preacher (Wright) and the pragmatic role of statesman (Obama) inevitably pose conflicts, so also Obama’s identity as a black male and his identity as president pose herculean challenges.

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)?

First, there nothing especially new about these gridlocks and hatreds. George Bush had his haters, and so did Bill Clinton. I do believe that Obama’s race serves as an inner accelerator for the hatreds, but no more so than Bush’s invasion of Iraq. My second thought is that the “hatreds” are not as deep seated as they are in many other countries today or in America on the eve of the Civil War. Recall that in the 1850s congressmen had to check their weapons with the sergeant at arms before entering the House and one was caned to near death. We use phrases like “culture wars” to describe the gridlock and hatred, but that is inaccurate. Nobody is shooting. Nobody is assaulting legislators from the other side of the table. Again, the mother of all culture wars was the Civil War, claiming over 1 million casualties before the bloodletting ended—a total that makes Iraq look tame. And then consider the times when collective traumas bring parties together and transcend politics as usual. I’m thinking of the hush on the floor of Congress and the explosion of applause when Gabby Giffords returned to the House for the first time to cast her ballot. At that moment, there were no Republicans or Democrats, just Americans. And, of course, the united response to 9/11.

That said, I think that Obama was in over his head in understanding how to deal with Republicans in Congress—and Democrats too, for that matter. I contrast him with, say, Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to work congressmen and speak their language. Obama’s measured distance (sometimes called “aloof”) stands him well when tempers flare and the call to arms grows deafening, but it doesn’t charm Congress. Rather, I’m afraid, it marginalizes them and they respond in kind with hurt feelings and anger at someone who just doesn’t seem to care about the hard work of governing. In this sense, even as his person is transformative, his presidency is not.

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?

Certainly the environment is a ticking time bomb and the economics of oil and financial recovery have, for the moment, trumped the sacrifices necessary for a substantial green turn in the environment. Yes, there have been halting steps, but will history view them as the moment of decision when he/we decided wrong? Could the environment become the slavery question of the 21st century? Slavery and anti-slavery issues destroyed the second two-party system of Whigs and Democrats, leading to the third two-party system of Republicans and Democrats. The third two-party system has far outlasted the other two and appears invincible for decades to come. What is the catalyst that could destroy the third two-party system? I think there would be nothing healthier than its demise. Everyone is so comfortable in their roles today with their own lobbyists lavishing millions of dollars on them. Imagine if one were to die? Where would the lobbyists go? There is one thing that terrorizes both parties, whether they recognize it or not, and that is the death of the other. Suddenly all the old conventions would be turned on their head and we would have to start from scratch. Might the environment be the catalyst?

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?

I’m of the Garry Wills school, which argues that the “imperial presidency” came of age with atomic weapons and will never disappear. So in that sense Obama neither weakened nor strengthened the presidency. As long as the president, and only the president, has his finger on the atomic trigger, there will be no more powerful person on the face of the Earth. It’s hard to “escalate” an authority that is already absolute. The president, as commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful nuclear state, stands sui generis. His (or her) “executive power” is ultimately unchallenged and unchallengeable. Only death or impeachment would change it, and then, of course, he wouldn’t be president any longer.

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’?

I think that in the perspective of history, the Obama foreign policy will be judged a success. I think it was Obama who said something to the effect that there are no home runs in foreign affairs, only singles, and I think he is generally right. There are, of course, strikeouts, and the Bush Iraq War and the Clinton Rwanda debacle were clear strikeouts. At this point, I don’t sense any strikeouts. I think recent American presidents have avoided catastrophes because they have had the sense to rely on their State Department and not go out like a gunslinger. The State Department doesn’t have its finger on the atomic trigger, to be sure, but it does bring a wealth of experience and perspective to foreign affairs that has no equivalent in the domestic arena. I’m not sure how many American deaths American foreign policy directed in the Obama administration, but I’m certain that they don’t come anywhere near World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Is America “weaker” in the Obama administration then in the Bush? I doubt it. Neither could effect significant change in the Middle East or Africa, but both managed to hold a world together that always threatens to careen into chaos. Who would have predicted there would be no nuclear strikes 70 years after World War II? And lately the administration can point to some real triumphs in the energy deal with China, the success of sanctions against Russia, and the diplomatic recognition of Cuba. So all in all, probably as good as could be expected in a world riven with suffering and pain.

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 would rephrase this question to read: Will the Obama years come to be seen as a major realignment in democratic politics” (with a small d), and I think the answer is yes. Democratic politics are threatened by the power of money as never before. I’m not speaking only of lobby money, though that is entering a unique stratosphere in the Obama years that makes it virtually impossible for third parties to gain a hearing. I’m also speaking of congressional money. How many millionaires are coming out of Congress every year? It’s frightening. I’m presently writing a family history of a 19th-century Kentucky and Ohio family named Anderson. The father, Richard Clough Anderson, was a Revolutionary War hero who fought with Washington, Monroe, and Lafayette. His first son, Richard Clough Anderson Jr., graduated from William and Mary and served several terms in the Kentucky legislature and then in the national Congress. At one point, he had to drop out and return home because the pay of a congressman could not support his growing family. How the times have changed!

As far as the Democratic Party itself is concerned, I think it will have significant longevity alongside the Republicans for the simple fact that the two parties have together conspired to make it virtually impossible for a new two-party system to emerge. Yes, there can be shifts, as, for example, when the white South moved radically from Democratic to Republican, but shifts do not effect longevity; they only alter the lobbyists and causes on which the parties depend for their survival. Yes, I’m cynical about the current two-party system, even as I’m passionate about the democratic meaning of America. But I don’t think this is anything new. To go back to my Anderson family, these were passionate patriots who fought and governed for the early republic. But they hated two things: politicians (at least not their own) and banks. Their contempt and hatred for politicians as greasy deal-makers was as passionate as today’s hatred for both. And I guess this brings me back to Churchill, who said something to the effect that democracy is messy and profoundly greedy, but I just can’t think of anything better.

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?

I almost always answer either/or questions with a both/and. Yes, the Obama administration helped save the economy, and, yes, Obama’s economic legacy will be seen as lackluster. The American economy saved the American economy, pure and simple. Over two centuries, a set of principles has been in place that is ultimately self-correcting, albeit with considerable pain and anxiety. Human beings don’t save the economy. Business cycles save the economy, and these are not politically dependent so that politicians assume neither praise nor blame in accounting for their booms and busts.

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 the biggest single action Obama could take would be to pardon the Bush administration and CIA for torture. This would avoid a messy trial and endless finger-pointing, but at the same time confirm what any even tempered, non-biased observer would recognize: namely, torture when they see it.

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

I would say single biggest achievement would not be health care but the climate deal with China.

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

Doesn’t virtually every president’s reputation improve with time? So too with Obama.

Which of Obama’s speeches and phrases will be the most enduring?

His first inaugural was for the ages simply because of who he is.

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

I would say most effective as commander-in-chief. He managed to hold the world together for eight more years, and every year is back to square one in a nuclear age.

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

No, JFK didn’t live long enough to transcend his rhetoric, but Obama has. In the end, I’m impressed with how Obama has become more human over the years and less an image of “the first black president.” People—even people in his own party—will argue and jaw with him now as if to say the blinders are off, now let’s get down to real business.

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

Susan Rice.

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

Reduction of troops on the ground.

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

The photograph of Obama and cabinet watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden in real time.