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Miriam Pawel

Author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (2014)

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 election represented such a significant breakthrough for this country that race will have to be an important, enduring aspect of his legacy and a very significant factor in future assessments of his presidency. Furthermore, analyses of the divisive politics that hampered his presidency, the rise of the tea party, and the reactions to many of his initiatives, will, with the passing of time, be written more through the lens of race. Race has influenced his presidency in obvious ways, such as his response to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. But race has played a more subtle role as well. From the beginning, both the political and the popular response to actions of the Obama administration have been influenced by race in ways that have yet to be acknowledged and that future historians will explore in depth.

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)?

He will be blamed for not getting more done, particularly during his first two years when Democrats controlled both houses. It is difficult to see how his presidency can be viewed as “transformative” when so many of his policies represented a continuation of the past rather than a break. Where he has broken ground, such as Obamacare, the scope of the initiatives have paled in comparison to the size of the problem.

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?

Global warming and climate change. Though he has gotten little credit for his efforts and they have come late in his term, he has committed the United States to actions which—if carried through—could make a significant difference.

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?

Viewed in a historic context, rather than in the hyperpartisan context of the present, his recent use of executive actions will be seen as in line with his predecessors. His recent actions on immigration, for example, seem to fall well within the ambit of prior presidents, and went some measure toward reestablishing his credibility with a key constituency after years of timid action that had fallen far short of expectations.

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’?

History will look more kindly on his foreign policy, precisely because he will be judged against his predecessors. Because of who he is and what his election represented, he changed how the world sees and reacts to the United States. His Cuba policy will stand out, both for substantive reasons and also because it was bold, unexpected, and became an inflection point that changed the conversation when he was in deepest political trouble and most needed a boost. His weaknesses include the deteriorating relationship with Russia and his inability to deal effectively with the Mideast, especially Syria and Islamic fundamentalism. The American military footprint in the world has shrunk under Obama, but future historians will argue over how much Obama was responsible for that shift.

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?

I believe we are in the midst of a realignment of the electorate that is driven by the changing demographics of this country and the empowerment of previously disenfranchised groups. Obama was the beneficiary of this shift, but I think it is still to be determined whether the changing composition of the electorate equates to a lasting political realignment or the formation of a new coalition—much less a lasting one.

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?

Historians will give the cyclical nature of the economy most of the credit for coming out of the recession, but Obama will get credit for certain bold moves, such as saving the auto industry. The agreement he forged and the government’s intervention in the auto-industry bailout will be viewed by future historians more favorably than they were at the time.

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

A bold action to free the current generation from its crippling college debt.

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

His election.

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

If history is a guide, it is likely to have improved, since that seems to be the pattern for modern presidencies.

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

His comments about race; “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

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

Consoler of the nation.

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


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

Valerie Jarrett.

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

Reduction of troops on the ground.

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

Election Night, 2008, in Grant Park, Chicago.