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53 Historians on Obama

Thomas Holt

University of Chicago, author of Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (2010)

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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?

The supreme irony of a black man occupying the presidency is that it unleashed an onslaught of racist vituperation and behavior not witnessed since the 1950s. Whether this is indicative of the frantic death-throes of a vicious ideology or its revival and new life is impossible to say. But its notable that few people speak any more of Obama’s election as evidence of the emergence of a “post-racial” America. On the other hand, the mere fact of his successful presidential tenure—and it will be so regarded by any fair-minded historian—must change the nature and assumptions of all but the most rabid, unreconstructed racists. In brief, hereafter we cannot think of African-Americans (and by extension some other racialized minorities as well) in quite the same way, but it is as yet unclear what that change portends. It could, for example, simply exacerbate the distinction between the overachievers and those William Julius Wilson called “the truly disadvantaged,” cementing the comfortable conviction that no structural changes are required to achieve a just society.

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)?

Given the bold, public, almost unbridled contempt senior Republicans have shown for this president (e.g., “You lie!,” “Make him a one-term president”), it’s difficult to see how future historians could neglect Republican obstructionism as a major factor in shaping events over the past six years. Whether Obama’s presidency will be seen as “transformative” depends to some extent on the Congress and president elected in 2016, because many of his initiatives to date (except for ACA) are vulnerable to being muted or even reversed. I believe ACA is not as vulnerable, because like Social Security, it will become part of the social compact, notwithstanding current poll numbers. Contrary to punditspeak and conservative mythology, Reagan’s most enduring transformation was the creation of extreme economic inequality, mainly through tax policies future Democratic administrations dared not roll back. In fact, in many ways they exacerbated that divide. Obama will get some credit for finally rolling back the more egregious of the tax inequities, but the economic divide has only grown wider during his watch nonetheless and will likely grow even more in the future without additional steps to reverse it. In short, the prospect of this period being transformative lies in the hands of future or emerging Democratic leaders.

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 aspect of this historic moment least evident in contemporary assessments is the impact the Obama phenomenon will have had on the character and future direction of black leadership in America. Any serious national African-American leader in the immediate future will have to show a capacity and skill to build political coalitions across racial—as well as class—boundaries even as he or she creates a solid base within African-American communities. Historians may recognize that this, ironically, was precisely the transition Martin Luther King Jr. was attempting on the eve of his assassination.

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?

The history of the past century shows that all president have sought to expand executive power. It is inherent to the modern presidency and its geopolitical context, regardless of what the occupant might have intended to do when running for the office.

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’?

Expanding and then contracting the war in Afghanistan will come to be regarded by historians as a canny political move (with debates over whether intentional or not). That is, immediate withdrawal would have crippled every other foreign-policy initiative, while expanding the war ironically paved the way for ending it. Of course, historians can appreciate such things in the abstract, distanced from the lives spent in the process. In any event, Obama’s policies will look good compared to the blunders and sheer stupidity of his immediate predecessors.

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?

Although some see a new electoral majority defined by ethnic and racial minorities and the young voters coming of political age during the Obama years, I suspect this realignment will be as short-lived as all the others trumpeted over the past half-century (Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, Nixon’s “New Republican Majority,” and Reagans’). From a historian’s perspective, it’s worth considering whether term limits on the presidency has derailed the possibility of party realignments as traditionally understood. One might ask, for example, whether there would have been as long-lived a New Deal coalition if FDR had left office after two terms? Four terms allowed Roosevelt time to shape the political consciousness of a generation.

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?

There will be no consensus; historians and pundits will argue both sides—glass half-empty or half-full.

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

Negotiating a multinational treaty to address climate change would likely be an enduring legacy, notwithstanding the fact that it won’t be ratified by the current Senate.

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

ACA, or Obamacare, is easily the signal accomplishment of this president, assuming current efforts to unravel it will be defeated (which is the most likely outcome). It’s an achievement that will put Obama in the ranks of FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare) because of its enduring impact on the average American’s well-being for years to come. He won’t need bridges and airports named after him since opponents already did him the favor by naming it “Obamacare.”

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

Although vastly unappreciated in the current political climate, his accomplishments to date will earn him increased popularity well into the future.

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

In hindsight, the speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize—and again much underappreciated now—defined the image of the reluctant-warrior presidency and sketched the moral paradoxes of wielding great power; it will become the subject of much study, by history scholars at least.

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

Much as Clinton was, Obama was at his best oratorically when evoking compassion and consoling the nation at moments of great tragedy, like the Sandy Hook school massacre.

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

As the details of this period fade, the Obama era is likely to be remembered by the stark contradiction of the first black president presiding over a nation more intensely divided by race than at any time in recent decades.

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

The most consequential member of his Cabinet or senior staff will be the one who stayed with him throughout his two terms: Valerie Jarrett.

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

Drone warfare is likely to be the most unfortunate legacy of the Obama presidency (along with the expansion of the security state), having established precedents for future administrations, much as Bush’s aggressive military policies and “war on terror” left precedents for his.

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

Years hence, the most enduring image of this president will be the scene of his first inaugural, framed by the Capitol built by slaves and the memorial to Lincoln, who presided over their emancipation. That scene captures the poignant contradictions of the man and the nation at that moment in its history.


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