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53 Historians on Obama

Joseph Ellis

Author of Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (2013)

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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?

The first thing that will always be said about the Obama presidency is that he broke the color barrier, a major step in the long, liberal march. But his eight years in office will also expose the latent racism that lingers in the country and that fueled wildly irrational responses from critics who rejected his leadership as illegitimate.

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)?

Obama will not be blamed for the dysfunctional Congress, though perhaps he will be criticized for failing to recognize gridlock until his second term. His presidency will not be seen as “transformative” initially. Over the years, however, depending on how the Affordable Care Act fares and how catastrophic climate change becomes, he has a good shot at the title.

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?

First president to take climate change seriously.

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?

Much depends on how long the current gridlock and plutocratic culture persists. The longer it does, the more his executive action will appear bold and essential.

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’?

His major achievement will be the recovery of a bilateral approach to foreign policy after the Bush-Cheney years of unilateralism, the improvement of our relationship with Western allies, the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the toning down of the fear-based hysteria about terrorism. In the Middle East, much depends on his decisions about ISIL. His long-term stature will ascend if he reduces the America footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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?

No major alignment akin to FDR’s capture of the South, or then Nixon’s recapture by Republicans. There will be a major realignment based on the Hispanic vote in the Southwest, but that will occur because of Republican recalcitrance more than Obama’s leadership.

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?

Obama’s narrative will triumph because the U.S. recovery will look even better as Britain and Europe stagnate, China struggles, and Russian collapses.

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

He’s just done it. Open the door to Cuba.

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

Creating a national-health-care system that will eventually look as attractive as Social Security.

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

Over the next 20 years, Obama’s standing will move from the top of the bottom third to the bottom of the top third of presidents.

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

No idea about his speeches. I hope to hear a farewell address in the mode of Washington or Eisenhower.

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

What has been treated as a weakness, namely his coolness and detachment, will come to be seen as a strength.

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

No. Only martyrs get to endure as mythical images.

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

Hillary Clinton, but only if she is elected president.

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

The reduction of troops. Drones, in fact, have made that possible, but the absence of oversight will haunt Obama’s reputation unless he imposes safeguards in his last two years.

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

The picture of Obama, in shirtsleeves, watching as the SEAL team enters the hideout of Osama bin Laden.


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