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53 Historians on Obama

Kimberly Phillips-Fein

NYU, author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (2009)

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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?

Obama’s race will certainly matter in how historians see his presidency, and the symbolism of his election will remain important. But what has already faded is the hopefulness around his election and the idea that it means that we somehow occupy a “post-racial” moment. In part, this is a question of the sharp racial reaction that Obama’s presidency has elicited in some corners of the right. But more deeply, the events of this past summer in Ferguson and the growing awareness of the destruction that the criminal-justice system wreaks on black communities have already made clear how much of a fantasy the notion that his election would in and of itself erode racial hierarchies always was. Over time, the stark contrast between Obama’s presence in the White House and the continued reality of racial inequality is likely only to appear all the more unsettling.

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 find it hard to imagine that the Obama administration will be seen as transformative in the sense he himself ascribed to the Reagan years, and historians aren’t likely to simply hold the Republicans responsible for this. After all, Obama did have a Democratic majority during his first two years in office—a time when the political and economic ideologies of his predecessors were being questioned far more deeply because of the financial crisis—and yet even at this critical moment, there were substantial continuities with George W. Bush’s presidency, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. More deeply, Reagan (like Roosevelt before him) is viewed as a transformative president even by those who disagree with what he accomplished because he helped to articulate new visions for thinking about the relationship between the government and the citizenry. Obama’s governing ideology has been more cautious, even in situations that have called for a far more dramatic response.

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?

One part of Obama’s first term that’s been almost entirely forgotten already is his tepid endorsement of the Employee Free Choice Act, which helped to consign it to failure and with it any chance for a broadscale revival of the labor movement in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The continued implosion of the labor movement—especially marked by the assault on public-sector unions, one of the only remaining areas of union strength—will likely be seen as one of the major trends of these years, and Obama’s failure even to treat this as a major problem will be recognized as one of the defining qualities of his style of centrist politics.

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’?

What’s striking even today are the areas of continuity with Obama’s predecessors: the war in Afghanistan, the failure to close Guantánamo, the continued military presence in Iraq, the escalation of surveillance through the NSA. I’m hoping that the administration will make records publicly available to historians rapidly enough that it will be possible for scholars to conduct real archival research into its foreign-policy choices and especially the evolution of its programs to monitor domestic politics—but I’m not that optimistic that this will come about as quickly as it should, especially given the administration’s hostility toward whistleblowers and those it feels have leaked information to the press.

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?

I suspect that future historians are likely to focus on the rising inequality in the American economy during the Obama years, the deepening precariousness experienced by people who once anticipated a greater level of security and prosperity, and on the poisonous impact this has on the entire American political system. The crash of 2008 and its aftermath may come to be seen as a moment when greater reform was possible—a resolution to the crisis that placed greater weight on holding the financial system accountable and on aiding middle-class people who were hurt, as well as a chance for a deeper reassessment of the basis of the American economy, an opportunity to pursue policies that could have restored a greater level of equality. This didn’t happen, and it’s the great missed opportunity of the Obama presidency.

Instead of aiding cities (witness the ultimate failure of Detroit) or homeowners in any expansive way, or focusing on green jobs or other efforts to stimulate the economy while using the government to lead the country toward a real reckoning with climate change, Obama’s stimulus packages were focused on the least politically challenging kinds of infrastructure development, while banks received resources with few strings attached. The contrast with the early New Deal years remains striking. The administration’s narrative has already been challenged by the Occupy movement, and it may be that with time, the tentative stirrings of social movements focused on economic inequality will appear one of the lasting legacies of these years, if not of the Obama administration itself.

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

Yes; Obama’s coolness, his rhetoric, his style, and his personal autobiography (which he has used to such stunning political effect) will be remembered even as the actual complexity and disappointments of his presidency recede.

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

They’re flip sides of the same coin, in a way—but the use of military drones, which shifted the nature of warfare in ways that make it dangerously remote from human agency, will prove to be more significant.

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

Probably the “Hope” poster from the 2008 election. It sums up how people felt about Obama and the degree to which he became an icon. It’s appropriate, too: The tension between symbolism and substance is one of the things that’s defined his presidency overall.


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