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Jill Lepore

Harvard University, author of The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012)

With the caveat that his administration is not yet finished, and two years is a long time, how will history judge Obama?

More important than assessing Obama’s legacy, in my view, is the evolution of the presidency itself. Arthur Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency (1973) was an argument about the history of the office, but it was most directly a response to the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Jeffrey Tulis’s The Rhetorical Presidency (1987) bears a similar relationship to the administration of Ronald Reagan, even though Tulis’s initial formulation of the idea predates Reagan’s election. Both Schlesinger, a historian, and Tulis, a political scientist, saw the power of the executive branch growing, but differently. Schlesinger was interested in powers that the president had taken from Congress, Tulis in the way the president bypassed Congress by appealing directly to the people.

On the eve of Obama’s election, I’d have said that his would be a rhetorical presidency. Obama was such a stirring orator during his campaign, and so much of Congress was likely to be opposed to so much of his agenda, that appealing to the people directly seemed almost inevitable, and certainly wise. But, so far, this hasn’t been a rhetorical presidency, or even an imperial one; instead, it’s been a secretive presidency, as was George W. Bush’s. There’s a sense that Obama has been essentially bunkered in this office, much as his predecessor was.

Most historians who made predictions about Obama’s presidency were wrong. The very notion of forecasting the legacy of any given president is, I suspect, an artifact of the rise of the presidential biographer. Presidential biographers tend to place an extraordinary emphasis on a single officeholder at the expense of an inquiry into the relative power of the three branches of government and of the workings of democracy itself.