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53 Historians on Obama

Mike Davis

UC Riverside, author of City of Quartz (1990) and Planet of Slums (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 first African-American president largely ignored left-behind black people. He spent most of eight years avoiding confrontations about municipal bankruptcies, intractable poverty, the plight of older suburbs (like Ferguson, Missouri) and super-incarceration. He saved GM but not Detroit.

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)?

Future historians will be puzzled by Obama’s lack of political realism—for example, his quixotic attempt to compromise with the Republican leadership long after the tea party had turned any common ground into scorched earth. Or, conversely, his reluctance to campaign with the necessary give-’em-hell Harry Truman aggressiveness for congressional Democrats. Like Jimmy Carter, he seemed to fantasize that he could govern as a nonpartisan president, luring both parties back to some imaginary tranquil center. Fatal delusion.

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?

Obama, putting the national-security agenda first, abdicated a historic opportunity to use his bully pulpit to address the public-health crisis with an invitation to China to become a vital partner in building a global safety net. Disease evolution is accelerating in poor supercities, but the pharmaceutical industry has largely abdicated the development of new anti-virals and antibiotics. Currently the larger part of humanity has no realistic prospect of benefiting from extraordinary advances in genetic medicine; indeed, 2 billion people are still waiting for the dignity of a toilet.

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?

The Obama years have been a catastrophe for American freedom, perhaps a point of no return. In 2008, it was still possible to imagine that the power grab of the Bush-Cheney era was reversible, which is why millions of us voted for Obama. Instead, the president has consolidated and expanded the powers of secret government while offering only token opposition, if that, to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

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’?

The one noble moment was the administration’s support for the Arab Spring. Otherwise, Obama foreign policy has been incoherent and conceptless, especially toward Russia and China. The White House pressed the snooze button on nuclear-arms reduction while feigning at a new Cold War. A major reason why Putin remains so incontestably popular inside Russia has been the Obama administration’s refusal to acknowledge Moscow’s legitimate grievances about NATO expansion—a complete betrayal of Reagan’s promises to Gorbachev in Reykjavik. China policy, meanwhile, has been an intellectual and political comedy. The “pivot toward Asia,” sending a handful of Marines to northern Australia, as if the South China Sea was subject to the Monroe Doctrine, was a ridiculous provocation.

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?

2008 appeared to be a watershed moment in American history, comparable to 1932 as the advent of a new-immigrant electorate. But the New Deal in its first six years was a realignment in depth, turning younger voters into lifetime Democrats, not just FDR fans. The Obama White House, thinking only in presidential terms, has taken demographic momentum for granted, failed to mobilize its base in crucial midterm elections, conceded populist politics to the right, and gift-wrapped the border and mountain South as a present to the Republicans.

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 will be remembered for reprieving the bankers without genuine structural reform as a quid pro quo. Restoration of Glass-Steagall should have been his minimum objective; instead, we got a toothless and cosmetic Dodd-Frank that leaves the ancien régime intact. Likewise, the administration sat on its hands or applauded while giant information and internet monopolies took control over everything from our shopping habits to our love lives. The unspoken word in the Obama years: antitrust.

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

Draft a bill of rights for the mentally ill as legacy legislation.

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

However flawed and inferior to a ­single-payer system, Obamacare laid the foundation for universal coverage and health care as a human right.

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

His March 2008 speech in Philadelphia.

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

Obama’s most impressive quality has been his dignity—and his family’s—in the face of relentless defamation.

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

The JFK analogy is entirely apt.

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

Sonia Sotomayor—a great Supreme Court appointment.

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

Drones.

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

The bittersweet memory of his inauguration and the reunion of American hope it briefly signified.


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