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53 Historians on Obama

Theda Skocpol

Harvard University, co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012)

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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?

Some distance from this period will let us clarify exactly how race mattered during the Obama presidency. Not so much because of his own skin color or cosmopolitan background, but because of the fierce and shameful stoking of racial fears and divisions that Obama’s political opponents have pursued. Social fears about new immigrants and about African-Americans—especially those with political power or who are considered “out of place”—persist among older and less-educated whites, a significant minority of the U.S. population. Younger Americans have largely moved to a new place on race, which is why Obama could be elected in the first place. But once he was, the ultraright media-political complex decided that stoking older and conservative whites’ racial fears and anger was a good tactic to pursue as part of an all-out effort to weaken Obama and block Democratic initiatives. To their shame, quite a few Establishment. GOP politicians and elected officeholders openly catered to the racial anger and fears about brown immigrants that helped to give the tea-party upsurge much of its popular emotional force. In the course of time, such GOP moves will be seen as the main way that race mattered in this period and will become a stinging source of regret and shame to almost all Americans, including to most future Republicans. Marked by a rabble-rousing white South Carolina politician yelling “You lie!” to the first black U.S. president during the ceremonial occasion of the State of the Union Address, this was not a good chapter for the U.S. center-right. “Shame,” called out then–Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi when that happened, and she was so right.

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)?

Scholars are already pretty clear that a radicalized Republican Party committed to all-out obstruction has been the primary source of gridlock. But of course, for the electoral short term, these tactics have worked to keep President Obama from delivering much of what he hoped to do to buoy the prospects of ordinary Americans. Blocked much, but not all. During the first two years, transformative laws were put in place—such as the Affordable Care Act, which (pace Senator Schumer) is delivering more and more economic help and health security to millions of low- and middle-income Americans, and which will benefit even more people as time goes on and political obstruction weakens. This landmark law is on a par with Social Security and Medicare.

Now, too, the economic recovery from 2008-9 is gathering full force and delivering more jobs and slightly better wages to the majority. In his second term, Obama will continue to use executive actions to help millions in specific ways. By the time he leaves the White House, he will get more credit for economic-policy accomplishments—and he will look very good indeed in the hindsight of history.

Overall, Obama’s presidency is setting the nation on a new governance path. But this presidency is better defined as “pivotal” than as “transformative.” It opens the door to transformations it cannot immediately or fully accomplish. The full realization will require another Democratic presidency or two and, ultimately, successes by Democrats and moderate Republicans in recouping congressional and state-level losses to the ultraright that they sustained in 2010 and 2014.

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?

Right now, media and political commentators are fixated on superficial, short-term national popularity and opinion polls. That is not the right way to assess any presidency, especially not a second-term presidency (and Obama’s polls are not so unusual for a second-term president). New policy directions and accomplishments and the groundwork laid for new political coalitions are better measures that come into sharper view with the passage of time. Even if Democrats lose the presidency in 2016, the Obama transformation will resume when the next Democratic president takes office in 2020 or 2024.

Another important measure of a presidency is the forces it unleashes on its own political leading edge. We are finally seeing grassroots movements about racial justice in policing. We have seen movements for immigrant rights, to which the president has finally responded after legislation failed. And, of course, the Elizabeth Warren upsurge is now taking shape with some force on the progressive edge of the Democratic Party. I do not expect it to become a presidential movement; Warren’s influence will be in the Senate and in reshaping national debates, not as a successful challenger to Hillary Clinton. But the Warren boom will broaden the party’s agenda and stiffen its backbone in some important economic battles. The Obama presidency has both provoked and opened space for this left-leaning challenge.

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?

“Strength” in the abstract is not a useful term or measure. Domestically, Obama has done relatively little through executive action or orders, but the things he has chosen to do—especially on immigration and in response to global warming—will be seen as significant breakthroughs or attempts to deal with overwhelmingly pressing issues in a gridlocked era.

In foreign policy, Obama leaves the left unhappy, but he has actually done a lot to redirect military and diplomatic foci—including wrapping up a huge, wasteful U.S. ground commitment to the Iraq War and invasion without any treaty-signing ceremony and trimming back our Afghanistan involvements. These have been very hard to pull off, and the left gives Obama insufficient credit for doing what he has done. Also, the left forgets that Obama always promised to use unremitting force against specific terrorist groups, wherever they operated in the world. He has done that, and if he had not—for example, not bagged Osama bin Laden—we might be looking at an extreme-right presidency committed to massive war efforts right now. John McCain, Obama’s defeated opponent, still calls for a new hot war almost once a week.

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 actions abroad be judged against his recent predecessors?

World affairs are headed for more turbulence, so Obama will not be seen as achieving any huge breakthrough. But he will be seen as significant for his attempt to temper America’s commitment to a never-ending, vague, all-encompassing “war against terror”—as opposed to a series of tough fights against specific sets of terrorists. Obama’s presidency has been no-holds-barred in the specific tactics it is willing to use against Al Qaeda leaders and groups and now ISIS groups. But it has nevertheless tried to wean Americans and the military from huge, costly, ineffective invasions and occupations in the name of fighting terrorism in the abstract.

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?

Much here depends on whether Obama is followed by another Democratic president elected by a large voter turnout in 2016 including solid margins among Latinos, African-Americans, younger, and female voters. If so, then we will be sure that the new coalition for which Obama 2008, 2012, has been a marker is continuing to take shape. But Democrats have experienced huge setbacks in midterm-election prowess and, most important, in contests for governorships and state legislatures, and it remains unclear when or if they will learn to compete effectively in those vital arenas. U.S. electoral politics is likely to remain polarized and contradictory for some time to come—and it remains unclear whether Democrats, faced with a radicalized GOP, will be able anytime soon to put together the combination of effective governance for the majority and solid electoral backing that the Obama victories seemed to portend.

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?

No question on this one: Obama will get much more credit as time passes for saving the U.S. and global economy from a major crash and launching a robust and sustained economic recovery. The question mark will remain how equitable the recovery proves to be. Obama set out to enlarge opportunity and build a stronger economy from the bottom and middle up but has not been able, so far, to shape economic growth more than marginally in that direction.

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 may already have done it with the executive action redefining immigration policy.

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

The Affordable Care Act of 2010. Even if the Supreme Court forces another detour this coming summer, this reworking of insurance markets and vast expansion of health-insurance coverage is here to stay and will, over time, transform the practical relationship to government of lower- and middle-income working aged Americans. Together, President Obama and Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi were the driving forces behind the remarkable accomplishment of this legislation, wending their way through an infinity of obstacles to get it on the books. However the law is modified by Congress and courts from here on out, it is here to stay, a century-defining accomplishment in the last industrial democracy to resist using national government to ensure access to health coverage for most citizens.

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

It will vastly improve as the racial tensions of this time recede and Obama’s nascent political coalition and pivotal policy accomplishments come more clearly into view.

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

Maybe none. He hasn’t really given an especially powerful speech since his nomination-acceptance address in Denver in 2008. Everyone thought he would be a supreme presidential orator, but he has actually led by prodding and orchestrating legislative coalitions and lines of executive action.

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

President Obama has stayed the course in addressing the major challenges the nation faces in the face of fierce, unremitting attacks and obstruction. He will come to be recognized for his surprising effectiveness in that.

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

The right comparison and benchmark is Ronald Reagan, a president who presided over a shift in direction in American governance. Obama will be seen as bringing the nation to the threshold of a new era at home and abroad.

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

No one rivals Nancy Pelosi, Democratic majority leader in 2009–10, for second-most importance to Obama himself. Within the ranks of Obama-administration officials, the answer to this one remains unclear. It could be Secretary of State John Kerry if he pulls off a largely convincing anti-nuclear-weapon deal with Iran. In domestic policy, Obama has presided over relatively low-drama teamwork—and he has repeatedly tried to put Congress front and center for credit or blame, rather than his own aides and officials. Obama also takes his time and gives his administrators a lot of rope. This angers those who want instant responses and lots of presidential chest-thumping but has on the whole prevented hasty foreign-policy mistakes and some domestic missteps (though this approach was politically disastrous in the bungled Obamacare-website rollout).

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

Wrapping up the ground war/occupation in Iraq was the most important Obama move, particularly if he continues to refuse pressures for a renewed ground invasion of that region, as I believe he will.

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

The Obama family on the stage in Grant Park, Chicago, amid a huge sea of cheering people on Election Night in November 2008. With time, in short, the sense of enormous hope that marked the start of the Obama presidency will be the enduring image of a genuine turn (however initially fitful and troubled) in the trajectory of American society and politics. Obama’s presidency will be understood as bending the arc of history toward a more tolerant, inclusive, cosmopolitan, and innovative America better prepared to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.


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