Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Paul Kahn

Yale Law School, author of Putting Liberalism in Its Place (2004)

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?

We have discovered that we can elect an individual who happens to be black, but we cannot address the continuing problem of race in America. Although few people speak publicly about race, Obama’s race has been a major factor in polarizing American politics. Democrats have now thoroughly lost the South: What they have really lost is the white-male vote. One cannot know how much of this is due to racism, but it is hard to believe that southern white populism is aligning with Wall Street because of common interests. The president has been relentlessly attacked, disparaged, and disrespected. This rejectionist attitude is tied to his race. Despite his generally moderate policies, the president has been a target of the widespread fear that federal policies often amount to a transfer of wealth from the white middle class to the poor blacks and Latinos of the urban ghetto. The great symbol of this mythical transfer has been Obamacare: the president’s signature issue.

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)?

His presidency will be seen as located at a transformative moment in American politics: the point at which gridlock became institutionalized. We are now at a point where the institutional inertia of our political organization will regularly produce divided government. The House is securely in the hands of the Republicans; the Presidency is securely in the hands of the Democrats; the Senate will be contestable. The stability of the House is rooted in the concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas, helped along by legally unchallengeable gerrymandering. The stability of the Presidency is rooted in the demographics of the national electorate. Couple to this a primary system for House and Senate seats that tends to push candidates away from the center. We are, in short, likely to see a continuation of the structural politics Obama has faced from the beginning: a Congress pushing to the right; a President pushing to the center left. There is little reason to expect compromise because the sides of this dispute do not share the same electorate and the primaries produce ideologues.

Future historians will not blame Obama because there will be no illusion that more could have been done. That illusion will disappear as the pattern of unbridgeable division becomes the norm. The country will come together in emergencies—particularly foreign crises—but the federal government will remain dysfunctional for the most part. State and local governments will become more important in response. Some will have resources to move forward; others will be starved for resources. This will produce a country of even greater regional differences as some areas develop and others are left behind. Major problems of a national scope will not be addressed, or they will be addressed only with half-measures unlikely to succeed.

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 acted to strengthen an office that was trending weaker. His unilateral actions were an institutionally necessary response to a dysfunctional political situation that was rendering the presidency powerless. When a president cannot even get a budget passed or keep the federal government open, he must turn to unilateral actions if he is to achieve any of his ends. This is not presidential imperialism but a president barely keeping his head above water. The increasing use of executive orders will be the pattern in the future precisely because of the pressure to respond to events and the political necessity of making at least minimal progress on one’s political agenda. This is what the president has had to do on immigration and climate change, for example, because there was simply no possibility of congressional action. Moreover, despite their loud complaints, Congress is often satisfied with this arrangement. It allows representatives to avoid taking responsibility for actions or policies that may go wrong or that have to be done but which they cannot sell to their political base. Congress is notoriously unwilling, for example, to take action with respect to the use of force. That does not mean it always objects to presidential action; rather, it means Congress wants to be able to criticize the president if things don’t go well.

The system of separated powers can cause gridlock. But it is also a flexible mechanism by which institutions respond to each other in ways that reflect actual political power. Presidential initiatives will push forward; they will be checked by Congress (and occasionally the courts) making countermoves. The presidency is not a depository of an abstract quantum of constitutional power. Power’s source is political. A president must earn the power that he plans to deploy. This means that the presidency is not strengthened or weakened in the abstract. Obama’s successor will face the same problems of claiming power and winning or losing in the game of 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’?

People tend to forget that Obama came to the presidency after the worst American foreign-policy debacle in our history. The consequences of Bush administration misjudgments are still roiling the Middle East. They have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of displaced persons, strategic instability, and the loss of thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars. Obama will be judged a tremendous success for stopping the hemorrhaging, trying to extract American from these disasters of our own making, and for bringing some modesty to American projections of force. He realized that the age of American unilateralism was over and that to believe that America was a hyperpower able to work its will in the world was a dangerous myth. Historians will judge his policy prescription of “Don’t do stupid things” as precisely the right reaction to eight years of incredibly stupid things done by American leadership.

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 will be held to account for doing less that he might have done to institutionalize his coalition. His campaigns were broad-based but his techniques of governance tended to be narrowly based. Rather than try to mobilize his supporters, he relied on policy experts and believed that he could use reason to persuade his political opponents to compromise. The compromises rarely came; the base lost the belief that anything would be produced and then lost interest in politics. Obama had the charismatic potential to repeatedly mobilize his supporters to put pressure on American politics. He chose not to, yet at the same time his opponents on the right were relentlessly organizing and turning people out to keep up the pressure. America has entered a time when successful politics will require a full-time commitment. That requires either ideological fervor or substantial wealth. So far, the right has shown itself to be far better positioned in both of these respects, leading to the Democratic debacle of the last election.

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?

The administration will be judged to have performed moderately well. Obama will be seen as having pushed for as much as he could get from a Congress that often seemed to be more interested in his failure than in economic recovery. While a president can do a lot unilaterally, he cannot create a stimulus when the funds have not been allocated. Nor does he have it in his power to engage in financial regulation when the laws have not been passed. Certainly more should have been done in the form of investment in infrastructure, education, alternative energy, and job training, but none of this is up to the president alone and Congress was not prepared to do any more. Obama was not willing to try to change Congress by bringing to bear extraordinary popular pressure. Of course, no one can know whether he would have succeeded had he moved in that direction. In the long run, his administration will be judged favorably compared to economic policies pursued by Europeans over the last six years. But for Obama’s pushing Congress to do more than it was inclined to do, America would have slipped into the sort of fiscally conservative policies that have proved quite disastrous in Europe.

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

He is likely to make an appointment to the Supreme Court. He needs to find a jurist who can stand up to the political conservatism that is driving the contemporary court.

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

Bringing America close to universal health care.

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

Much improved. He will be seen as having tried to bring American policy in line with American power in a changing world.

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

His campaign rhetoric (“Yes, We Can,” “Change we can believe in”). His second inaugural.

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

One of our greatest orators, but not clear to what long-term effect the rhetoric worked.

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

No. It will be noted that he was the first black president, but his accomplishments (and his failures) will be the focus of attention for some time.

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

Hillary, if she becomes president. Kerry, if she fails.

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

The reduction of troops. Drones target individuals; troops fight wars.

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

The Obama family on Election Night, 2008.