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53 Historians on Obama

Stephen Walt

Harvard University, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)

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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?

No matter how Obama’s presidency turns out, he will be remembered primarily as the nations’s first black president and as one who performed his job with grace, composure, dedication, and maturity. Given the troubled history of race relations in this country, that legacy is a considerable achievement all by itself.

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 presidency was restorative, not “transformative.” Steadfast Republican opposition thwarted some of his goals, but he was mostly stymied by the enormity of the tasks he faced: dealing with two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the overhang of the 2008 financial crisis. But one does hope that the party responsible for recent gridlock gets the full measure of criticism from future historians.

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 most obvious “under the radar” development was the appointment of a large number of judges to the federal bench. Their presence will have a lasting impact on American jurisprudence and has been largely unnoticed thus far.

But perhaps Obama’s least heralded achievement was his effort to prepare the country for its future as a genuinely multiethnic and multicultural society. America has always been a melting pot of sorts, but it was one whose central cultural elements were straight, white, male, and predominantly Anglo-Saxon. People of color will soon outnumber white Americans, religious diversity continues to grow, and differences in sexual orientation are increasingly accepted. By allowing gay Americans to serve in the military, by openly supporting gay marriage, and by celebrating the full range of diversity in the United States, Obama’s presidency may one day be seen as a watershed in the construction of a genuinely “rainbow” America. But then there’s Ferguson.

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?

Like all of his predecessors, Obama found executive power attractive and did not hesitate to exercise it. His main failure was not the use of executive orders, however; it was his reluctance to push back against the continued encroachments of the national-security state. He did little to limit the power of the Pentagon, did not wind down the overblown “war on terror,” and did not hold the intelligence community accountable for its various excesses. On the contrary, he continued many of Bush’s counterterror policies and protected the intelligence community from serious oversight. It was the Congress, not the White House, that finally began to hold these agencies accountable, beginning with the recent Senate report detailing the CIA’s “torture regime.” The lesson? The executive branch is mostly incapable of policing itself, which is why the separation of powers is a good thing.

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’?

Future historians will praise his calm and measured approach to foreign affairs and credit him with avoiding the catastrophic blunders that plagued the Bush administration. But unless he manages a major breakthrough in his last two years in office, his foreign-policy legacy will contain few achievements. There’s still no nuclear deal with Iran, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are worse than ever, there will be no graceful exit from Afghanistan, and major economic deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are still unfinished. Moreover, relations with Russia are much worse and relations with China are no better than they were back in 2009. Bottom line: He avoided disaster but did not leave the United States (or the world) in a substantially more secure position.

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?

Despite his clear popularity among younger Americans, Obama did not create a new coalition. Instead, he was simply adept at mobilizing groups that already tended to lean Democratic (women, Hispanics, blacks, labor, etc.). And as long as the GOP continues to be a party dominated by grumpy old white males, that coalition is likely to remain intact.

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?

Over time, Obama will get more and more credit for his handling of the U.S. economy. It is growing faster than any other advanced industrial country, and this trend is likely to continue until the end of his second term. Given that the economy was in free-fall when he took office, that is no small achievement. Moreover, the long-term economic impact of Obamacare could well turn out to be positive. The main blemish in his record is his twin failure to arrest rising inequality or reform a corrupt financial sector, but these omissions are likely to be downplayed when the history of his presidency is written.

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 could pardon Edward Snowden, John Kyriakou, Thomas Drake, and Chelsea Manning for their actions as whistleblowers and preemptively pardon George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other government officials who participated in the Bush-era torture regime. Snowden et al. broke the law but did so to alert the country to serious abuses. Bush and Cheney (and others) broke the law but did so because they mistakenly believed it was necessary to keep the nation safe. Pardoning the latter sends the unmistakable message that they broke the law but spares us all a deeply divisive effort to hold them directly accountable. Taken together, these pardons would reinforce our aspiration to be a nation ruled by law and not solely by power and would turn the page on a dark period in our nation’s history.

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

Without question, Obamacare.

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

He’ll look even better 20 years from now than he does today. Almost all presidents do.

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

Obama’s greatest speech was his address on race during the 2008 campaign. The 2009 Cairo speech was a brilliant rhetorical effort, but it turned out to be empty words.

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

He was most effective as a “normal” president, and he helped put the presidency back on a human scale. He was a devoted and involved father, a loving husband, a man with acknowledged (albeit minor) vices, and someone who made it clear that he did not regard himself as omniscient. As president, he showed that effective governing requires careful deliberation, discipline, and the willingness to make hard and imperfect decisions, and he let us all watch him do just that. Even when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier. In short, the country was in good hands, and future historians will give him full marks for that.

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

Yes, but for different reasons. JFK became iconic in part because he died in office and because his family and friends worked overtime to burnish his reputation. Obama cannot help but be remembered as the nation’s first black president, and that fact alone will tend to distract us from his achievements (and his failures) while in office.

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

Future historians are going to be very interested in the influence that Valerie Jarrett wielded throughout his entire presidency, and the verdict will be decidedly mixed.

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

Neither one. It doesn’t matter which weapons the United States decides to use to kill people it regards as enemies; the critical question is whether it continues to conduct such actions in many far-flung corners of the world. And Obama’s willingness to expand targeted killings by both drones and troops will be a dark shadow over a mostly positive legacy.

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

In an era of Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and YouTube, the half-life of an arresting image is getting shorter each year. But I nominate the iconic Shepard Fairey poster from the 2008 campaign, and the associated motto “Yes, We Can.” The excitement that he generated back then should not be forgotten, and that credo still speaks to a powerful current within American society.


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