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53 Historians on Obama

Stephen Kinzer

Brown University, author of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013)

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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?

Race will remain deeply significant. The symbolism of electing a black president was profound, both for the U.S. and the world. This may emerge as his greatest contribution to American political history.

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)?

Obama’s election will be seen as transformative but not his presidency. His great appeal as a candidate was that he was not interested in traditional politics. That quality, inevitably, has not helped him in Washington. Yet even if he had Lyndon Johnson’s legislative skills, it’s hard to imagine that he could have achieved much more in Washington’s poisoned political climate. The Bush and Obama presidencies may one day be seen as ushering in an era of intense partisanship that prevents the country from addressing vital issues.

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?

Many of Obama’s supporters are depressed that such a seemingly bold figure turned out to be so wedded to the traditional mainstream. This is the result of self-deception, as Obama himself suggested when he observed that many of his supporters had projected their own hopes and assumptions onto him. Because of his race, and perhaps because he had voted against the Iraq War, it was possible to think of him as a vaguely radical figure. Some now see him as an example of how relentlessly Washington pulls politicians into established policy paradigms. Future historians, however, will realize that in addition to that evident fact, Obama never presented himself as a transformative figure in any way other than symbolically. He is a disappointment only because many people expected him to be something he never promised to be.

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?

Given Obama’s troubles in Washington, he might have chosen to appeal directly to the American public, over the head of Congress. He seems to have the rhetorical and conceptual tools necessary to use the “bully pulpit” power to great effect. Forging a popular coalition, however, requires a galvanizing inspirational agenda. His policies were too moderate to electrify the public.

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’?

If Obama can leave office without any substantial U.S. military engagement in the Middle East, that will be his greatest foreign-policy legacy. He will be seen as the president who finally realized that this 70-year engagement has encouraged tyranny, crippled Arab societies, and exposed the U.S. to profound new threats. Breaking the cycle of intervening, withdrawing, and then returning to clean up the mess would be truly epochal.

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?

There is no Obama coalition. Bill Clinton had the brilliant insight that the Democratic Party could win elections by transforming itself into the Republican Party. Obama might have tried to pull the party back to its New Deal roots but chose not to do so. He will be seen as having had little lasting impact on his party’s identity. The coalition that swept him to power has come apart, largely because it was not undergirded by any clear long-term strategy or goals.

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’s most important economic choice was the decision early in his administration to ask those responsible for the economic collapse to repair it. That will be seen as contributing to the growing economic gap separating our wealthy elite from the rest. Rather than advocating serious economic reforms, Obama, perhaps inevitably, embraced the policies of the moneyed class that financed his party and campaign. Those policies produced impressive economic gains, but the benefits accrued almost entirely to a small group of 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?

Building a relationship with Iran that recognizes the two countries’ common strategic goals, ends the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and allows for the expansion of freedom in Iran in a way that could provide a model of gradual change to nearby countries.

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

Enacting a form of national health insurance, even though the bill he signed is a clumsy behemoth tailored in large part to accommodate the interests of powerful industries, will be seen as an important achievement.

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

It has fallen so far amid the white noise of Washington that it can only rise as these partisan debates are put in historical perspective.

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

His demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “step aside” was shortsighted. And although it is perfectly reasonable not to have a strategy to deal with every problem the moment it emerges, it is not reassuring for a president to say “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

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

The symbolism of his rise to the presidency may be seen as overshadowing his achievements.

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

Yes. History will remember the forces Obama mobilized to propel him to office and the racial breakthrough he represents, more than the political battles he fought in Washington.

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

Tim Geithner, as the emblem of Obama’s decision to embrace the Wall Street economic agenda.

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

Another president might have decided to continue waging Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama may be remembered for being willing to face the reality of America’s defeat and the impossibility of long-term victory over locally based forces.

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

Staring into a video screen while watching American fighters kill Osama bin Laden. That image reminds us of how different our history would have been if George W. Bush had focused on achieving that goal and, after doing so, declared victory and withdrawn American forces from the region.


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