Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Crystal Feimster

Yale University, author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (2009)

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?

It is difficult to imagine a future in which the election of Obama as the first African-American president will not be understood as marking a fundamental shift in the history of the black-freedom struggle. In 2008 only five African-Americans had been elected to serve in the United States Senate—Obama being one of them. In 1870, Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African-American senator. Five years later, Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi took the oath of office. It would be nearly another century, 1967, before Edward Brooke of Massachusetts followed in their historic footsteps. Carol Moseley Braun broke new ground in 1993, becoming the first African-American female to serve as U.S. senator. In 2005, Barack Obama of Illinois became the fifth African-American to serve and third to be popularly elected. The chances that a one-term black senator could be elected to the highest political office seemed improbable, if not impossible.

Whether by placing Obama’s election into the longer narrative of the civil-rights movement or by examining the ways in which 21st-century-era civil-rights activists have pressured the first black president to address their campaigns for racial and economic justice, historians will be forced to grapple with race in new ways. Moreover, I am convinced that his election, like his presidency, will change the way that historians write about American racial politics. Without question, it will be much more difficult for historians to ignore the centrality of race in American politics.

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)?

In his first campaign Obama naïvely promised to work for bipartisan cooperation on major votes. The Republican Party, however, staked its future on a strategy of opposition—they would obstruct President Obama at every turn. It is hard to say whether or not historians will judge President Obama for failing to get more done in a climate of Republican obstructionism or marvel at what he did in fact manage to accomplish. I suspect the answer will depend on which historians we read. An environmental historian might judge Obama’s accomplishments in the face of Republican obstructionism differently from a historian of capitalism. Historians of gay and lesbian history might well see Obama’s presidency as “transformative.” What might a women’s historian have to say about his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court? Will scholars of African-American history blame President Obama or Congress for not doing more to eliminate poverty and unemployment in black communities? Without question, President Obama has accomplished much in his six years in office, from passing the Affordable Health Care Act to turning the American automobile industry around; from the raid on bin Laden’s compound to pushing Hosni Mubarak out of power; from repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; from immigration reform to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba—indeed, the list goes on and on.

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?

President Obama’s efforts on behalf of women and girls are one of the least understood or commonly overlooked aspects of his presidency. From creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, which produced the first comprehensive federal report on the status of American women in almost 50 years, to appointing two women to the Supreme Court and a strong team of women leaders to his Cabinet and White House staff, President Obama has taken concrete steps to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Women’s historians will be especially interested in the ways in which President Obama has expanded economic opportunities for women, fought pay discrimination, increased women’s access to quality and affordable health care, worked toward combating sexual assault on college campus and in the military, and expanded services for victims of domestic violence and their children.

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

I think President Obama could take action on both gun control and police reform in ways that would have useful and long-term implications for how we think about crime and punishment in the 21st century.

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

I find it challenging to think in terms of a single defining accomplishment—in part because I think that many of President Obama’s successes are interconnected—from his stimulus package and the Affordable Health Care Act to immigration reform.

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

Obama’s reputation, like most presidents, will improve in 20 years.

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

Obama’s “Remarks on Trayvon Martin,” which were both personal and political, not only brought national attention to a conversation about racial profiling and police brutality but also gave traction to a growing protest movement that has continued to organize and expand in the aftermath of the police killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

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

I think the image of Obama as the first African-American president will shadow his overall accomplishments, much in the way that his race has shadowed his presidency.

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

If Hillary Clinton is elected the first female president in 2016, I suspect women’s historians will see her as the most consequential member of his cabinet. But legal historians and scholars of African-American history will agree with the New York Times’ editorial board in declaring Eric Holder as one of most consequential attorneys general in United States history.