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Jonathan Darman

Author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America (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?

Race is central to the American story, and even an elementary version of that story will always include the nation’s first black president. So 20 years from now, schoolchildren who know the names Washington and Lincoln and Kennedy and King will probably know the name Obama too. But Obama’s biographers will be drawn to more than just the milestone. Historians looking back on a period concern themselves with questions that its contemporary journalism left unanswered, and so many of the unsolved mysteries of the Obama era surround his race. How much did race motivate Obama’s most passionate opponents? At what moments did Barack and Michelle Obama feel they were being held to a different standard because they were black? Pundits have postulated that Obama struggles to show emotion because of fear of looking like the “angry black man.” When and how did Obama actually feel that constraint? Were there things Obama wanted to do, issues he wanted to champion, fights he longed to fight, but couldn’t because he was conscious of what the country would and would not accept from its first black president? Most simply, how did a country come together to elect an African-American to the White House twice, even as it remained fundamentally divided by race? We don’t have good answers to these questions now, so we should expect future historians to spend a good deal of their time trying to answer them.

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)?

It’s unlikely that after considering other factors—say, the influence of money in our politics or the polarization of the electorate—that historians will say Obama deserves the lion’s share of blame for gridlock. But to the extent they do focus on his management and legislative style, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be kind. Historians are always drawn to moments where words and action don’t align; there’s nothing more revealing than a promise that isn’t kept. Try watching Obama’s 2004 convention speech—the event that launched him as a national figure—or any of the speeches from the 2008 campaign about transforming our political culture, without feeling deeply depressed by all the good things that never came to pass. Scholars will long note the discrepancy. And they will hold Obama to account for it, maybe not for his failure to deliver on his promises but for promising in the first place.

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?

President Obama’s actions suggest that he is truly passionate about climate change in a way that I don’t think we have fully grasped. Clearly he hasn’t done enough; the planet’s prospects remain dire. But it’s important to consider how little political incentive Obama has had to do anything about climate change. In the Republican Party, climate denialism has become virulent during his presidency, not less. Powerful Democratic donors are passionate about the issue, but the Democratic base has been far less inclined to demand action on climate than it has on health care, financial reform, or social issues. Obama could have easily gotten away with talking soberly about the issue but never really doing anything about it. Instead, he’s done a lot: tough EPA constraints on coal, a meaningful accord with China to cut emissions, serious stimulus spending on clean energy, new emissions standards for cars and trucks. History may well reveal that Obama showed more personal courage on this issue than any other.

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?

A puzzle at the heart of the Obama presidency: Even as he (and his recent predecessors) has consolidated an alarming amount of hard power in the presidency, the president himself seems to have less and less influence over the course of the country and its people. There’s no instance in the past six years where the president staked out a direction or goal for the country and the people en masse thrilled to the call. It’s partly a problem of this president, whose cotton-candy rhetoric sounds so nice and then quickly disintegrates, but mainly a problem of modern communications. We’re so fragmented and siloed, a president can’t just “speak to the country” anymore, not in the manner of FDR or even in the manner of Reagan or Clinton. It will take a generation’s distance to see if this is an Obama-specific problem or not. Will a more clever successor ditch the tired tropes of sober East Room addresses and press conferences and find some more effective way of moving the country as a whole? Or is the American president destined to be a weaker figure presiding shakily over a disunited nation?

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’?

Historians will be more charitable to the Obama foreign policy than are contemporary commentators, if only because historians will spend more time thinking about Obama’s predecessor. The Bush-Cheney administration delivered vast and lasting damage to America’s reputation in the world, to the country’s alliances and to Americans’ willingness to engage overseas. With a generation’s distance, it will not be so surprising that the Obama administration failed to right the course in eight years’ time. Obama won’t be considered a great foreign-policy president; his admirers depict him as a principled realist and great chess player, but his decision-making has been too politically motivated and reactive. Still, the Obama struggles and failures will mostly appear as predictable consequences of the Bush-Cheney years.

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?

Historians will note how close the country came to the brink in the fall of 2008 and early 2009, and they will give Obama’s economic team great credit for avoiding the catastrophe. The Obama team that grappled with the financial crisis shared many of the best traits of FDR’s administration in the spring of 1933—they were intuitive, adaptive, and deeply realistic. But Obama won’t (and shouldn’t) get the same credit that FDR gets for truly saving the country in the darkest days of the Depression. FDR’s brilliance in 1933 was not only to take decisive action but also to lustily embrace the theater of the presidency in order to convince Americans that he was doing everything he possibly could to turn things around. Americans rested easier because they believed there was someone who was brilliantly, joyfully, totally in charge. Obama didn’t try to put on a performance like that, not in the first months of his presidency, not ever, really. That’s partly why six years after the calamity, the country still hasn’t seemed to find its way.

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

A meaningful, comprehensive global climate accord from the 2015 U.N. summit in Paris.

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

The Affordable Care Act—he did what generations of Democrats before him could not.

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

Improved—at 20 years, most presidents look better. Plus, Obama will have written his own history of his presidency, and it’s likely he’ll have written it well.

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

The 2008 race speech in Philadelphia (at the height of the Jeremiah Wright hysteria) is a speech for the ages and suggests a political leader who believes his audience is sophisticated enough to grapple with complexity and contradiction.

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

No, JFK had armies of loyalist mythmakers who were singularly focused on immortalizing his legend in the months and years after his death. Obama will work to enhance his own legend with his memoirs, but he won’t have anything close to the Kennedy image machine.

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

Obama himself. No president is good at everything. Some presidents (Reagan comes to mind) succeed because they give broad power to aides who excel in precisely the areas where they themselves fall short. Obama has never done that (except perhaps for a brief period with Rahm Emanuel), and his presidency has suffered for it.

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

The increase in drones. Presidents will long note that a war-skeptic like Obama not only embraced drone warfare but paid essentially no price for it with his peace-loving base.

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

The Obama family clutching hands on the stage in Grant Park on Election Night, 2008.