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53 Historians on Obama

James Mann

Author of The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (2012)

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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?

Of course historians will view race as an important factor in his presidency. This is true even though race does not on the surface appear to be a factor in his day-to-day policies and even though blacks may say they do not find much “blackness” in his outlook.

There is the simple fact that Obama was the first nonwhite president in American history. But more important I think historians will see clearly that the intense opposition to Obama on the political right sometimes had a racial component to it: hence the obsession with his Kenyan father, his birth certificate, and the broader, more amorphous attempts to define him and his actions as somehow alien to American traditions. Obama’s own thinking and intellectual style owed much more to Harvard Law School than to race—but the attacks on him (and on his wife and family) seemed to have deep, passionate emotional roots that cannot be fully explained by his style, his conduct, or factors other than race. Some Americans and some parts of the country had trouble accepting what his presidency symbolized—that the country was changing, and that whites were no longer so dominant a part of the population as they once had been.

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)?

I don’t think Obama will be blamed much for the gridlock: The opposition to him was too strong. His Republican opponents chose gridlock as a deliberate strategy. Historians will look back and say that the nature of Obama’s two-term presidency was defined by two decisions made just as he was taking office—one by him and one by the Republicans. One was Obama’s decision shortly before taking office to move forward on health care during his first year. The other was the even more surprising decision by Republican Party leaders in early 2009 to mount full-scale, all-out opposition to Obama, even in the face of his seeming popularity after the 2008 election. In the face of that determined obstructionism, Obama was able to succeed in his first two years to win passage of the Affordable Care Act and to revive the economy—not completely but far beyond what leaders managed to do in Europe and Japan. After that, it became increasingly impossible to get anything done. If Obama deserves blame, it is for his political failure in being unable after 2008 to win congressional majorities that would have weakened Republican power on Capitol Hill.

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?

The Obama administration will eventually be seen as having brought to an end the American efforts to hold to the outdated policy toward China that dated back to the Nixon-Kissinger era.

Obama, after roughly a year or so of sticking to the China policies of the past, began to discard them and to grope for something new. The old policies focused on the idea of “engagement”—hoping that talks and goodwill, and trade and investment, would integrate China into the international community and would also open up its political system. The new policy is still being worked out, but it centers on the notion that China sees power in 19th-century terms; is not interested in joining the American-led international community, at least without changing the rules; and plans on maintaining tight control of its one-party system for the foreseeable future.

Obama didn’t come to the White House planning to change China policy. But he happened to start his presidency at a time when China itself was changing its views and policies; after the financial crisis of 2008–9, it became far more assertive in its approach to the world. After a rough first year, Obama concluded that the old policies didn’t work and by 2010 began looking for new ones. He chided the alumni of the Bill Clinton administration that their past trade agreements were so loose as to leave him with too little leverage in dealing with China. It is too soon to say right now what will come of Obama’s “pivot” or rebalancing of American foreign policy to Asia—but for sure, historians will see that during Obama’s administration, the old China policies of the past four decades were quietly, gradually put to rest.

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?

Historians will find that overall, Obama has increased the powers of the executive branch, in the fashion of other recent presidents—disappointingly so, given the promises he made during the 2008 campaign.

I am not referring here to the Republican charges about Obama assuming “dictatorial” powers, which are mostly hogwash. But I do mean that in matters of war and peace, Obama has not only sought to retain the presidential powers he inherited but has sought to expand them. A classic example was Libya, where Obama didn’t follow the requirements to obtain congressional authorization within 60 days. The euphemisms and rationalizations were truly shoddy: First, his administration took the position that this wasn’t war but “kinetic military action.” Then later, it claimed the war-power provisions didn’t have to be followed because there were no American boots on the ground. (By that sort of logic, a nuclear war would not be war, either.)

The one time Obama went out of his way to seek congressional authorization for military action was in 2013, when he was briefly contemplating a missile strike on Syria—and that case is noteworthy because Obama had decided on his own he didn’t want to do it and was using congressional opposition to buttress his case. What a precedent: You ask Congress for approval of the use of force only when you’ve decided you don’t want to go to war in the first place.

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’?

Overall, I think Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time. His withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and his less-recognized reliance on German chancellor Angela Merkel to take the leading role in dealing with Vladimir Putin, were all part of a larger effort to create a more modest, sustainable role for the United States.

But this effort by Obama has been wavering and not always successful. Just when he believed he might be on the way to scaling back in the Middle East, he felt compelled to start a new military campaign against ISIS. He has, meanwhile, essentially replaced ground forces with the use of drones and airpower as the main instrument of American power in the Middle East.

Historians will also find that in his attempts to find a consistent philosophical basis for his foreign-policy decisions, Obama was a failure. He took office as a determined realist in the tradition of Brent Scowcroft, turning his back on the Green Movement in Iran. After two years, he became swept up in the early idealism of the Arab Spring, deciding that the old dictators and monarchs of the Middle East were relics of the past and should give way to democratic governments. But the Arab Spring turned out rotten for Obama and his idealism—in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, just for starters. And so, by his second term, he went back to a rediscovered realism once again.

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?

Once again, as in foreign affairs, I think Obama will be recognized more for the epochal change he sought to bring about than for his lasting accomplishments. He sought to bring about a new Democratic coalition that joined together middle-class white liberals with racial minorities, Hispanics, and young voters. That effort, and the remarkable results of the 2008 and 2012 elections, were a short-term success that forced everyone in politics to adjust. But I don’t think this is a change that will prove as enduring as the Democratic successes of the Franklin Roosevelt era or the Republican successes of the Reagan era. Those earlier coalitions were based not merely on demography but also on deeper underlying attitudes and beliefs about the role of government in American society. So far, at least, we don’t see that in Obama’s coalition.

Whether the Obamian coalition endures depends at least to some extent on how the Republicans react to it: If they follow policies on immigration so inimical to Latino voters, or policies on abortion and gay rights so hostile to young voters, that these groups remain overwhelmingly Democratic, then you would have the makings of a long-term coalition. I’m not convinced the Republicans will be that dumb.

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?

Sure, the Obama administration may be exaggerating a little bit if it talks about saving the county from a Great Depression—but not much. The thrust of that narrative is true. Historians will place much greater emphasis than we do right now on where the American economy stood when Obama took office. Does anybody remember these days what things were like in 2009—the economy contracting at rates of 6 percent annually, unemployment rates of 9 to 10 percent, the Dow below 7,000? Obama may not deserve all of the credit for the turnaround but certainly a good deal of it: the stimulus package, the auto bailout. If the Republicans had taken the White House in 2009, we might not have an auto industry in the United States today. Certainly the fact that Europe and Japan have failed to recover as well as did the United States counts for something: Obama avoided the pitfalls that the leaders of other countries fell into.

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 three candidates would be an Iran deal, immigration legislation, or closing Guantánamo. I guess if forced to choose, I’d pick the Iran deal, because Guantánamo has more symbolic than practical importance and because immigration legislation, if it ever passed, might be a bipartisan product, with the Republicans claiming credit, too.

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

Getting a form of national health insurance passed, where previous Democratic presidents, from Truman to Clinton, have all failed.

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

It will have improved because the economic revival and the accomplishments early in his presidency will be given greater weight, while the messy second term will be judged less harshly.

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

There has been lots of soaring rhetoric, but I don’t think any of the phrases in it will be remembered as much as the bluntness of his foreign-policy justification: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

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

I think I’d describe his most effective mode as Cool Rationalist. He avoids getting sucked into emotions, passions, or short-term thinking—for better or worse, depending on your own views of any particular issue. There are lots of other roles and character traits that Obama displays at various times, but Cool Rationalist is the one on which he is most consistent.

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

No—JFK never got legislation enacted that was as sweeping as Obamacare.

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

The most powerful figures inside the White House were Valerie Jarrett and Denis McDonough, but they operated more as instruments of Obama’s influence than as consequential figures on their own. I guess I’d pick John Brennan, the figure with cardinal-like bearing and hidden influence, who consistently protected the CIA’s interests, both from his job on the National Security Council in the first term and as CIA director in the second.

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

The two are closely interrelated: The use of the drones enabled the reduction in troops, and the reduction in troops led to the use of the drones. The use of the drones has greater historical importance because it is a new form of warfare. But the reduction in troops carries far more practical and political importance: stationing American troops inside another country affects that country’s politics, more of its people, and more American military personnel.

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

His swearing-in.


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