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Beverly Gage

Yale University, author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror (2009)

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)?

For better or worse, most presidents are judged on what they accomplish, not on how much they might have accomplished if Congress had decided to cooperate. In popular memory, the president looms especially large, while Congress tends to fade into the background. (Who was president in 1935? Who was Speaker of the House? Probably you can answer the former but not the latter.) We tend to praise the remarkable productivity of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, for instance, and of Lyndon Johnson’s first few years, without acknowledging those presidents’ overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. Despite more difficult circumstances, Obama is unlikely to get a pass when measured against these predecessors.

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?

How we judge Obama’s use of executive power will probably depend on who and what comes next. Executive power—like “states’ rights”—is one of those issues that tends to be judged for its results, not strictly by principle. Today’s conservatives object to Obama’s use of executive power not solely (or even primarily) because they oppose concentrations of power but because they object to what the president is doing with that power. Similarly, liberals who favor Obama’s executive action on immigration often opposed George W. Bush’s use of executive power in matters of war and covert operations. This partisan divide has a long history. For many decades, liberal historians championed the use of executive power in domestic initiatives such as the Great Society and New Deal. It was not until the Vietnam War and the scandals of the Nixon era that this growing concentration of power became known, in Arthur Schlesinger’s words, as the “imperial presidency.”

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?

A bit of both. It’s important to remember just how much worse things could have been: If the Great Recession had followed the path of the Great Depression, the stock market would have lost about 90 percent of its value by the end of Obama’s first term. Instead, it reached historic highs. Partly because the economic crisis was contained, however, the possibilities for transformation of the economy—and of the country’s economies of power—ended up being far more limited than in the 1930s. In the end, Obama tweaked rather than transformed the balance of power between business and government, much less between employers and workers. The Great Depression became the heyday of American union organizing, one of the factors that led to a decrease in economic inequality during the 1940s and 1950s. Under Obama, inequality has continued to increase, and unions have continued their slow, steady, and seemingly inexorable decline.

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

Getting elected—twice.

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

It will improve—as many presidents’ reputations do, compared to their last few years in office. Just look at Nixon.

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

Obama was a great campaigner and debater; he will be remembered for his ability to move an audience, not for his ability to move Congress.