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Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010)

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 president’s contributions were sometimes remarkable, but Obama’s primary legacy is his destruction of political idealism for the foreseeable future. He proved an impressive steward of the traditions of his party since the 1970s, which have been to moralize American power and humanize American markets—both dubious goals in themselves. Where Obama differed from all others in his tradition was his brief but unforgettable achievement of a surprisingly large consensus around a belief—or delusion—that Americans rarely entertain. Put simply, it was that American politics could and must fundamentally change. Hard-bitten realists welcomed Obama’s immediate return to type, after his election, as confirmation of their cynicism, but the truth is that we will never know what would have happened if Obama, on the strength of his first electoral victory, had tried to live up to the hype. We do know that the energies he conjured will not reappear soon and are less likely to do so because he summoned them for so ordinary and predictable a set of policies.

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’?

Obama’s optical approach to foreign affairs was to allow those outraged by the excesses of the prior administration to don their set of rose-colored glasses again so as to regard America’s role as that “the indispensable nation” that would make the world a better place. To be sure, the harsh realities of that role were hard to screen out with pretty colors, but then the glasses had been smashed and repaired before. Meanwhile, those with eyes to see knew there was much more continuity than change with earlier policy—the decision to approach terrorism as a war in the first place; the compensation for the dirtiness of capturing enemies with expansion of airpower, whether old style or unmanned; and the continuation of a surveillance regime that adapted the imperatives of national security to a new technological age. Some contended that Obama’s legacy was to expand executive power yet further, but this was chiefly true with respect to a gridlocked domestic policy, rather than international affairs, where humanitarian rationales for war had been seen before, envelopes pushed (or laws broken) with respect to the use of force before, and international norms treated as advisory rather than obligatory before. All this is to say that Obama’s presidency showed that America has not yet outlived the Cold War when it comes to the “imperial presidency,” for better or worse.

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 coalition is the one that has succeeded ever since the Democratic Party decided to spurn the white working class and build a powerful engine of electoral success that welded coastal elites voting against class interest for moral reasons with racial and ethnic minorities across the land. Initially this choice seemed quixotic, as Ronald Reagan showed how Republicans could turn that choice to its advantage. Now it seems to be one with great longevity. But it is also a coalitional strategy that is perpetually at risk, as the left flank of the Democratic Party can point out how far, in practice, the party serves the wealthy elites who fund the candidates and who turn out to act against their own interests much more rarely than they believe.

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 both saved the country from ruin in a crisis and saved it in a way that restored the main elements of the status quo ante. He squandered the opportunity for transformation that crisis had provided before in American history, letting it go to waste.

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

Even though he became famous for his soaring oratory, Obama’s standard oratorical role became that of soother-in-chief. Before he took power, he used rhetoric to summon passion, but once he took power, he learned to use it as to warn against extreme emotions. Even on the day he was elected, he noted that his victory was not itself “the change we seek, only the chance to make that change.”Eventually his rhetoric appealed to the impersonal “arc of the universe,” that old counsel of trust in providence that is actually intended to breed passivity. It was a radical shift.


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