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Mark Lilla

Columbia University, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007)

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?

To any historian with a long view, his election and (don’t forget) reelection will be seen as another sign of the declining significance of race over the past 50 years. No one sees that today. We’re constantly told that we need to “talk about race” and then talk about talking about it. Our children learn that racism is always present and will be until the end of time. Anyone who grew up around real, hard-core racists in the ’60s (as I did), who never saw African-Americans in media except as cowards, fools, clowns, or killers, who never saw a black man in a suit or a black women with a briefcase, and remembers being woken by grief-stricken parents the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, will look upon the new race-consciousness with a distanced, sociological eye. Tocqueville noted that before the French Revolution, the dissatisfaction of the people became unbearable when inequality was declining, not rising. This makes psychological sense: The more people see themselves as equal, the less acceptable remaining differences become. The Obama years will be remembered at the period when class and not race became the great social cleavage in early-21st-century America.

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?

Good historians pay attention not only to what political figures actively accomplish—wars won, legislation passed, but to what they prevent from happening, a negative but real accomplishment. By that measure, Barack Obama accomplished a lot. He was elected and then reelected largely because he wasn’t the other guy—not the failed war president, not the clueless millionaire, not the Fox News candidate. There was no major realignment or transformation in the cards, given the electorate and the inability of either party to make sense of the new world economy. Transformation to what? In a period when the Republican right was becoming every day more blind, hysterical, heartless, and cynical, Obama kept his finger in the dike and that was huge. Future historians will ask: If Romney had been president and the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court, what would America have looked like in 2015? The question answers itself.

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’?

In time, historians will see how significant Obama’s lack of prior experience in foreign affairs was. Americans now distrust experience. They assume that all we need in our leaders is fresh eyes and a soul unsullied by the Beltway or the U.N. Our best and brightest do not go into the diplomatic core, our congressional foreign-policy committees are chaired by provincials, and the National Security Council is staffed with area specialists. No one has enough experience or the temperament to take the long view and see the big picture. President Obama was no different. He did not have enough experience to draw on to articulate his own distinctive approach to foreign affairs, leaving the American public and the world in the dark about his intentions and capacities. The evaporation of his “red line” in Syria says it all. What would his foreign-policy record have been had he stayed in the Senate for one or two more terms before becoming president? That is the interesting counterfactual question.

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 best thing he could do, for himself and the American people, would be to talk to us—tell us what he is aiming at, what our challenges are, especially abroad. He may be our mutest president.

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

Barack Obama will go down in history as the best prime minister America has ever had.

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

I can only hope it is the picture of him with his defense team in the bunker waiting for news about the strike against bin Laden. That was his shining moment.