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Jeffrey Alexander

Yale University, co-author of Obama Power (2014)

With the caveat that his administration is not yet finished, and two years is a long time, how will history judge Obama?

Obama has put a giant roadblock in the rightward movement in the United States. Even though the social cultural movements in the country have kept moving to the left over the last half-century—race, gender, sex, environment—the national government has kept moving to the right, very much including Bill Clinton, who moved to the center-right and publicly gave up on the idea of government!

Obama came from a different place—he was a participant in these social movements himself—and he drew a line in the sand. He has restored the integrity of “big government.” He’s done a number of things that only big government can do, including regulating various aspects of Wall Street. Of course the test case of all of this is Obamacare, which seems to be working very well. He has shown the power of the government to do good and, by doing so, has powerfully restated the case for the liberal, progressive tradition. Obama’s presidency has been caught in a whiplash of the left being dissatisfied with him and the right being furious at him. He’s polarized the right because he’s refused to do what Clinton did. He could have moved to the center; he could have compromised more with the Republicans; instead, he wanted to draw a line around a progressive agenda and protect it.

Between the midterm loss in 2010 and his unexpected reelection in 2012, Obama conducted a two-year course in political education against the right-wing policy, and he won a very spirited and vital conversation. It is important to recognize that we no longer see a giant social polarization as we had in the 1960s and 1970s—the left has won that fight. What we have today is political, not social, polarization, and this reflects not Obama’s weakness but his ideological steadfastness and his performative power. He’s done a tremendous service to the progressive tradition in this country; we will see this much more clearly as we move forward in history.

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’?

We’re just now beginning to see how Obama has been moving the country into a post-imperial foreign policy, which involves a willingness to talk to partners and enemies alike. The right wanted to keep military force in Iraq and demanded we put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Instead, we’ve seen Obama do a jujitsu with Iraqi internal politics, turning lemon into power-sharing lemonade, and work with the Europeans behind the scenes. The result is what now seems like an effective containment strategy for ISIS, eventually a rollback. And in the European crisis, Obama has worked intensely with the Germans, French, and British and quietly forged an extremely effective response to the Russia invasion, both economically and militarily. I haven’t heard any applause for these remarkable accomplishments, but they will not escape future historians, and they are certainly leaving the U.S. in a much strong position internationally than the nation that emerged after the Bush-Cheney years. Similarly, I haven’t heard anyone talk about China’s move toward soft power, and what a vital pivot away from aggressive military brinkmanship this represents. Again, it’s entirely to Obama’s credit, which he hasn’t yet received. He has forged military and economic alliances with China’s neighbors even as he has continued to engage the Chinese leadership, telling them the U.S. supports China’s “peaceful rise.” The enormously significant announcement of China-U.S. cooperation on global warming is an indication of how Obama’s quiet “talking” diplomacy has born results.

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?

One of the favorite sports of the last six years has been comparing Obama unfavorably to LBJ and Roosevelt. As in those two great Democratic presidents got so much done and Obama hasn’t, and the reason is that Obama lacks political skills. This is entirely unjustified. The issue is not political skills but social context. Both LBJ and Roosevelt came to power in the midst of dramatic social crises, crises that had produced, and were produced by, giant social movements from civil society—the labor movement for Roosevelt and the civil-rights movement for Johnson. In the background, those movements helped carry forward their reforms. Roosevelt had the Depression, and LBJ had the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I think people like Robert Caro do Obama a disservice when they implicitly compare him to LBJ. The Bush-Obama policies quickly tamped down the panic of economic crisis, so there was never anything like the potential social responsiveness to radical government intervention of the Great Depression years. Equally important, there have been few social movements of the left during the Obama years, movements that provide exterior power to push him, and which he can co-opt with progressive reforms in a manner that legitimates him with the center. In a sense, Obama has had to been his own social movement, and this puts him in vulnerable territory. The exceptions—the gay and lesbian movements and the Hispanic mobilization around immigration—show exactly what I mean, for in these areas Obama has been demonstrably responsive.