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53 Historians on Obama

Matthew Lassiter

University of Michigan, author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (2006)

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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 election of the nation’s first African-American president will remain a watershed in interpretations of American history. The view that the United States has become “post-racial” is certainly wrong, but the idea itself is a reflection of a pervasive “colorblind” discourse that Obama himself has utilized successfully and that operates in ostensibly nonracial but always deeply racialized ways. Teachers will assign Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech to capture the racial dynamics of this era, but they also will discuss Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, Missouri, to illuminate racially discriminatory policing and the disproportionate representation of black men in prison. With greater historical perspective, Obama’s policy orientation as a pragmatic liberal Democrat, more than his racial identity per se, should come to explain his outlook and the opposition that his policies have engendered more than the simplistic racial explanations sometimes offered.

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)?

The determined Republican resistance to Obama’s domestic policies will be a major factor in assessing his accomplishments and failings, without doubt, especially the conservative movement’s willingness to shutter the government and hamper the economy to achieve political goals. But the Obama administration’s own mistakes in dealing with Congress, and its inclination to search for middle ground in almost all circumstances rather than rallying the base when necessary, will ensure that the president won’t receive a “pass.” At the same time, Obama is likely to get credit not only for legislative breakthroughs such as health-care reform (with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, of course) but also for shifting the terms of political debate and using executive orders effectively on issues such as global warming, LGBT rights, and mass-incarceration/criminal-justice reform. And he will receive praise for pushing measures such as gun control and immigration reform, although scholars on the left will criticize the president’s timidity and tendency to compromise too quickly, while those who emphasize the power of institutions will focus on the limits of any president’s influence on the domestic front.

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?

The Affordable Care Act of 2010, which represents a breakthrough in health-care reform that both Truman and Clinton tried and failed to accomplish and has the potential to be a political winner for the Democrats in the long run, a main reason why conservative opposition has been so intense. The legislative compromises with various corporate interest groups and the debacle in implementation clearly weakened Obama’s presidency and the effectiveness of the policy itself, but the enactment of a major social-welfare program is a significant accomplishment that builds on Social Security and Medicare, could well provide the framework for expansion toward universal coverage in the future, and comes close to establishing decent health care as a basic right of citizenship. If the U.S. Congress and federal agencies improve and extend the health-care system in the next few decades, “Obamacare” could lead millions of working-class and middle-income voters to credit the Democratic Party with a program that enhances quality of life and provides more economic security for those who have been losing ground for decades.

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?

Obama’s foreign policy has continued the modern trend of a powerful executive branch and a weak/reactive Congress in military affairs around the world, so in that sense Obama has maintained the pattern of strengthening the office of the presidency in foreign policy. From the perspective that the U.S. should not start wars and intervene in other nations without a robust public debate and formal congressional approval, multiple actions of the Obama presidency represent strategic victories and dangerous escalations of executive power at the same time, as with George W. Bush and other predecessors.

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’?

By changing the tone and arrogance of the Bush administration’s projection of American power abroad, Obama accomplished something significant just by shifting the perspective of many nations in the world toward the United States, even when the transformation has been more discursive than policy-oriented. The intervention in Syria will probably be seen most negatively, the drawdown in Iraq the most positively, and the reengagement with Cuba the most overdue but still welcome.

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?

Obama’s 2008 coalition has been underappreciated in the rush to highlight the tea-party mobilization—winning working-class white voters at rates similar to or better than many previous Democratic nominees, winning southern states such as Virginia and North Carolina by recognizing that the fast-growing parts of the South are part of the United States and not writing them off as a lost cause, competing in interior western states such as Colorado by targeting suburban professionals and Latinos. The allegiance of younger voters, Latinos and Asian-Americans, high-tech workers, and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that Obama mobilized effectively should continue. Obama’s ability to appeal to a multiracial American electorate by emphasizing commonalities and universal aspirations is one of his greatest political strengths. It’s also crucial that Obama showed that embracing LGBT rights could be a political asset and not a liability. But American politics has not realigned in the past two elections—closely contested elections will be the norm for the foreseeable future.

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 entered office facing a daunting economic situation and had to expend much energy and political capital cleaning up the mess that he inherited, not just because of Bush’s policies but because of the boom-bust cycle that presidents from both parties encouraged, from dot.com stocks to the housing bubble. The administration’s economic policies will be assessed positively in terms of preventing things from getting worse and if anything will be criticized for not providing enough Keynesian stimulus. While Obama belatedly identified income inequality as a pressing political issue, the stagnating/declining incomes for working-class and middle-class Americans is something the administration has not successfully countered, although neither has any other president of either party since the early 1970s. The hardest political question to answer is why a president whose economic policies are essentially moderate and quite business-friendly has faced such anger from Wall Street and other sectors of corporate America, not just tea-party ideologues, during an economic recovery that has disproportionately benefited the finance sector and the most affluent Americans.

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 global-warming/carbon-pollution reforms and immigration-policy reforms will be major legacy-shaping events, as will taking the side of full LGBT equality. But a radical transformation of criminal-justice policy with the goal of dramatically reducing incarceration rates and redressing racial bias and disproportionality in policing and prosecution procedures, while fighting crime through a public-health approach, would place his presidency firmly on the side of the central civil-rights issue of our time.

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

Health-care reform.

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

Improved.

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

“A More Perfect Union,” also the second inaugural (including the embrace of gay rights), and the 2004 keynote at the Democratic convention that launched his national career.

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

Orator.

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

That’s possible, but less likely, since the JFK mythology has so much to do with the tragically shortened presidency.

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

Hillary Clinton will probably be seen as the most consequential in a general sense, especially if she is elected the next president, but if criminal-justice reform continues in a meaningful way that reverses dominant trends of mass incarceration, Eric Holder might be seen by historians as the political appointee who had the greatest transformative impact.

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

Military drones, although both would have happened regardless of the president.

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

The four members of the Obama family together on Election Night in 2008 and at the first inauguration.


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