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Andrew Bacevich

Boston University, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005)

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?

How much did it matter that John F. Kennedy was Catholic? It mattered in the sense that after his election being Catholic no longer constituted a barrier to the presidency. Yet JFK’s entry into the White House did not substantively affect the status of Catholics in the United States. Much the same is likely to be true with regard to African-Americans and Obama.

Breaking the racial taboo with regard to the highest office in the land was indubitably a good thing. But its implications are limited. Yes, there is a black elite and for members of that elite the sky’s the limit—you can teach at Harvard, become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and star in your own TV show.

But opportunities afforded to members of that elite don’t really tell us that much about race in America. On that score, recent controversies related to black males shot or choked to death by police, who then get off scot-free, are far more germane. The problem racism persists and will do so regardless of the Obama presidency.

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)?

It’s long past time for Americans to curb their expectations of presidents transforming anything. The “most powerful man in the world” is actually not all that powerful. He is neither a god nor an emperor. Nor will substituting “she” for “he” make a meaningful difference.

Why? For the obvious reason that the world is a complicated place, filled with nations, institutions, and individuals that have their own interests and aren’t inclined to roll over and do the bidding of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office. Don’t believe me? Ask Netanyahu. Ask Mitch McConnell.

In retrospect, it’s embarrassing to recall the “Yes, We Can!” jive that marked Obama’s ascent to the presidency. Of course, the media are partly to blame. The obsessive and irresponsible hyping of the next presidential race creates the impression that the fate of the planet hangs in the balance—we’re already seeing this play out again today. But ultimately, it’s the American people who are at fault. We are the ones who indulge the fantasy that installing the right person in the White House will “fix” things. It won’t. There are some things—a lot of things really—that just can’t be fixed.

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?

History will remember George W. Bush as the president who committed the United States to a doctrine of preventive war. Bush then put that doctrine to the test in Iraq with disastrous consequences. Barack Obama won the presidency in some measure because from the very outset he opposed the Iraq War, giving the impression more generally that he opposed the reckless and ill-advised use of force.

Yet as President Obama has not abrogated the Bush Doctrine, he has modified it. Thankfully, Obama has recognized that invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world is a dumb idea. But that does not mean that he has curbed the use of force by the United States. He has simply taken a different approach, preferring missile-firing drones and Special Operations forces to “boots on the ground.” Like his predecessor, Obama admits no limits to when and where the United States may use force. He has acted accordingly.

The Bush Doctrine lives on. With the passage of time, this will loom large as part of Obama’s legacy.

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 foreign-policy agenda has thus far produced little of note. He promised a responsible end to the Iraq War, victory in Afghanistan, a fresh start on relations with the Islamic world, an end to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a “reset” with Russia, and a “pivot” toward Asia that would somehow ease American nervousness about a rising China. Thus far he’s hitless in six at bats.

Obama’s biggest mistake was to overpromise. His second mistake was to surround himself with lackluster subordinates. While it’s surely true that his people give it their all, it’s hard to recall a foreign-policy team so lacking in spark or creativity. As was the case with his two immediate predecessors, Obama came to office knowing next to nothing about statecraft. He needed the counsel of a Stimson or an Acheson. Even a Shultz or a Brzezinski might have sufficed. He ended up with Thomas Donilon and Susan Rice.

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 deserves (and will get) some credit for preventing the Great Recession from becoming worse than it already was—not a trivial achievement. That does not qualify as the principal economic story of his presidency, however.

The big story is this: grotesque inequality combined with the continuing stagnation of middle-class incomes. Obama did not create these problems. He merely inherited them. Yet over the course of eight years in office, he did little to alleviate them. So while he may not be Herbert Hoover, he’s surely not FDR either.

The United States finds itself where Great Britain was a century ago: a very wealthy country that is declining economically. Obama did nothing to arrest that decline. It’s not clear that he even grasps the problem.

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

A deal with Iran that guarantees an end to Iranian aspirations to acquire weapons of mass destruction could be transformative—as big as Nixon’s opening to China.

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

Obamacare, which critics might tinker with but won’t repeal. Broad access to health care will take its place alongside FDR’s Social Security program and LBJ’s Medicare as a permanent fixture of American life.

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

With the passage of time, almost every president rises in the esteem of the American people. Even George W. Bush has benefited—undeservedly—from this phenomenon, which is utterly irrational. Obama is unlikely to prove an exception.

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

None. One of the unexpected surprises of this presidency is that it has proved so barren when it comes to memorable rhetoric. Obama’s term in office has been devoid of poetry.

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

The missile-firing drone employed as an instrument of assassination.