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James Kloppenberg

Harvard University, author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011)

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?

As is true with most of these questions, the answer will depend on what happens between now and then. If Obama’s presidency is remembered as the moment when America finally elected a black president and began, in the aftermath of his presidency, to face up to how much of the criticism he received while in the White House was racially motivated, then his election will appear to have been an early signal of a historic change. If, as seems much more likely in the wake of Ferguson, America continues to ignore the legacy and the present consequences of centuries of racism, and if the U.S. remains as deeply divided by race as it has been since the origin of slavery, then his election will appear an anomaly, a fluke made possible by the Great Recession, and African-Americans will continue having to deal with systematic exclusion and structural inequality of the sort that has become even more deeply entrenched since the civil-rights movement and the legislation of the 1960s.

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)?

Future historians will see much more clearly than today’s commentators that only for the first two years of his presidency did Obama enjoy a clear Democratic majority in the House, and that the majority he needed in the Senate lasted only until Scott Brown was elected to take Ted Kennedy’s place in the midst of debates on health care. The limits on the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, and the reform of the financial system, which seem now to be his major achievements, were made necessary by the opposition of Republicans and the more conservative members of his own party. Those who think he might have accomplished more, and who think, for example, that he should have done what Lincoln, FDR, or LBJ were able to do, have not been paying attention to the sad facts of the elections of 2010, 2012, and 2014. Obama never enjoyed congressional majorities of the sort necessary to make sweeping reforms, and if he had tried to pressure members of Congress as Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ did, there would have been instant publicity and instant hysterical criticism. U.S. politics in the age of immediate full disclosure is dramatically different from politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, which makes congressional majorities crucial for substantial change. Even Reagan accomplished little after his first two years in office, and Clinton and George W. Bush likewise found themselves stymied for almost all their eight years.

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 the prevention of a worldwide depression will look pretty significant. If the $800 billion stimulus was not enough—as even the president and his advisers understood—it was all they could get at the time. They assumed they could go back and offer more pork later, and the refusal of Republican congressmen to take such offers was largely unprecedented. Was it another sign of how much of the opposition to Obama had to do with his race? We’ll know when we see how conservatives deal with the next Democrat in the White House. If their intransigence is permanent, we will have seen the last of government as we know it and the U.S. will continue sliding toward Third World status as our superrich continue to distance themselves from those for whom public services matter. Historians will understand that the degree of opposition to government spending that is enabling our infrastructure to disintegrate and our social safety net to fray is unprecedented in U.S. history. From 1787 until recently, it was taken for granted by Hamiltonian Republicans and even Reagan Republicans (his rhetoric notwithstanding) that the involvement of the federal government in the economy is crucial to the nation’s prosperity. Historians 20 years from now will see more clearly that the extreme anti-government ideology of the contemporary Republican party has no precedent in U.S. history.

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?

There has been absolutely nothing “dangerous” about the Obama presidency. The danger has come from those who fling around such terms. He has made much less use of executive orders than any of his five predecessors.

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’?

Obama’s mantra about not doing stupid stuff, if he can stick to it, will go down as a dramatic change from the stupid stuff done by many of his predecessors ever since World War II ended. The list is so long that it would be tedious to recite it here. It’s hard to point to any great triumphs in foreign policy during Obama’s presidency, but that means he’s on the same level as just about everybody who has followed FDR. What have been our “successes” since WWII? When the USSR finally collapsed under the weight of its own incoherence, the U.S. was quick to take credit for it, but I think historians 20 years from now will see even more clearly than scholars do now just how contingent that outcome was—and how little U.S. foreign policy had to do with it. It’s possible to applaud some of our humanitarian efforts, but otherwise it’s hard to identify parts of the world that we have helped make better in the last six decades. Like all other major powers, we pretty much tend to what we perceive to be our own interests.

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 don’t think we can see signs yet of any emerging coalition. If Obama’s election was the result of a larger turnout of young and African-American voters, and if those voters return to their usual dismal levels of turnout in future elections, things will look bleak for Democrats and Obama’s victories will appear to have been the consequence of his own appeal rather than a sign of any lasting change. The results of recent congressional and statewide elections are not encouraging for us progressives. Perhaps the future lies with Hispanic voters, but I think Democrats may be kidding themselves if they think Hispanics are more likely to remain Democrats indefinitely than were Irish or German or Russian immigrants.

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?

Yes, he will be seen as having saved the world from depression for the reasons outlined above. He did all he could do, and if it wasn’t enough, that’s because of the intransigence of his opponents in Congress. The blame for the state of the economy should be laid at the feet of voters in 2010, 2012, and 2014. When they chose to elect a majority of conservatives committed to rolling back taxes and government spending, they turned away from progressives who could tackle the problem of runaway inequality. Returning taxes to the levels of the Reagan years, dramatically increasing the minimum wage, and undertaking sufficiently ambitious spending programs to undo the damage done by three decades of retrenchment are the obvious steps to address the problems of our economy, and the majority of those representatives and executives elected at the state and national level are committed to continuing the policies that have put us in our current mess.

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

The Affordable Care Act, if it survives and is widened as Social Security and Medicare were eventually.

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

It’s got nowhere to go but up, which will happen for the reasons outlined above.

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

His speech at the 2004 Democratic nominating convention laid out the theme of nonpartisan problem solving that was his trademark throughout his campaign and in his first inaugural. It remained the principal theme through most of his best speeches, including the one after the Tucson shooting. It remains the most persistent issue in his addresses, which is appropriate because its absence has been the most important cause of his inability to accomplish what he was elected to accomplish.

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

The fact that most people would be unable, in 2014, to characterize him as effective in any of those modes speaks volumes for the unending waves of abuse he’s had to endure. I don’t think there has been another president since Lincoln subjected to same quantity of venom.

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

Not if the Affordable Care Act survives and becomes as important as it might become. Democrats tried to institute national health care for a century. He succeeded.

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

Depending on how the financial reforms look 20 years from now, Elizabeth Warren’s work on consumer protection might seem as important as anything else.

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

That depends as much on the next two years as the next 20. We’ll find out whether we can actually withdraw those troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (which looks less likely every day) and whether the drone strikes actually diminish the appeal and power of violent Islamic fundamentalism or merely feed the anger that generated that radicalism in the first place. If our allies as well as our enemies in the Middle East continue funding for those radical groups, it’s hard to see that any amount of conventional force or high-tech bombing will weaken them. We’ve had 13 years in Afghanistan with almost nothing to show for the trillions we’ve spent, and we’ve made Iraq little or no better than it was under Saddam Hussein. Why Obama deserves the blame for those failures remains a mystery to me.