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Joyce Appleby

UCLA, author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2011)

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 fact of his election as a black man will have a long historical resonance. Although Obama himself has infrequently invoked race in his reactions to events, he has appointed a significant number of talented black men and woman. Eric Holder has run the Justice Department with an acute sensitivity to racial issues. Michelle Obama has been a powerful presence. Their and other black officials’ contributions will create an enduring legacy.

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)?

Gridlock will remain a strong factor in weighing blame for the country’s staying in neutral, but it has in fact hemmed in Obama’s scope of action, which, enlarged instead of restricted, could have made him a transformative president.

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?

Looking back, I think historians will find more consistency and wisdom in Obama’s foreign-policy decisions and initiatives. It is also a significant feature of Obama’s life that he has had few failures, which has left his personality without the toughness that drubbings can create.

Will future historians conclude that Obama weakened or strengthen the office of the president? Will the policies he enacted without congressional cooperation represent a strategic victory or a dangerous escalation of executive power?

Obama’s resort to executive action is part of a continuing trend associated with the “imperial president.” Part of this comes from the growing importance of executive realms like foreign policy, but also from the forcefulness of a series of presidents.

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 actions abroad be judged against his recent predecessors?

Obama’s caution will become salient in contrast to his predecessor. He will also be judged as more attentive to world events than Clinton. How his decisions will be judged depends mainly on what happens after he leaves the White House. Hard to predict now what will be seen as wise or foolish.

Will the Obama years come to be seen as a major realignment in Democratic politics? How would you predict the longevity of his coalition?

It’s hard to see a realignment. His black constituency has long been a part of the Democratic constituency; Hispanics and Asians will vote Democratic as long as the Republicans remain xenophobic. Nor will southerners be enticed back into the party even with a white male candidate. As far as I can tell, his coalition has roots deeper than his 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?

Again, the intransigence of the Republicans on economic issues will be invoked to explain his inability to provide more stimulus and infrastructure improvement. Presidents have far less influence upon the workings of the economy than people realize. Still, the shrinking debt, soaring stock market, and record as the world trailblazer in recovery from the 2008 recession will all redound to a positive assessment of Obama’s economic leadership.

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

Prosecute those American officials that tortured detainees and publicly censured their enablers such as CIA officials and legal theorists. He won’t do it.

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

Obamacare, which will grow in importance and forever be linked to his name.

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

His speech announcing his immigration initiatives.

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

His strikingly new presence as a disciplined, unruffled thinker with few of the characteristics of a politician.

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


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

Eric Holder.