Wednesday, February 18, 2015
A President looks for his place in history
It's that time in a president's tenure that his legacy starts to be evaluated. New York magazine asked 53 prominent historians to weigh in on Barack Obama. Gordon Wood called it a fool's errand and didn't participate, but most others did. Obama generally got high marks, although a few questioned his legacy. As of 2011, President Obama sat in the second quartile at #14. No other formal survey has been done since then.
One of the more pithy comments was by Samuel Moyn, who said, "the energies he conjured will not reappear soon and are less likely to do so because he summoned them for so ordinary and predictable a set of policies." Those sentiments were echoed by Stephen Kinzer and others. Jeffrey Tulis went so far as to say, "Obama has no public philosophy, save a commitment to pragmatism -- a kind of anti-public philosophy." But, Stephen Walt saw this as a good thing, saying that Obama "helped put the presidency back on a human scale."
Race was given a lot of consideration. Many saw this a transformative moment in American politics. Andrew Bacevich compared it to Kennedy's victory for Catholics, in that it removed a barrier, but has not substantively affected the status of Blacks in America.
Conservatives probably won't be too happy with the opinions expressed, as those historians on the Right offered even-handed assessments. For whatever reason, conservatives have chosen to treat him as a failure, even though he has done much more to maintain the status quo than he has to transform politics as we know it. Even the Affordable Care Act, considered his signature act, was an amalgam of conservative ideas, meant to bring Republicans to the table. Instead, they chose to line up against it, determined, it seems, to make Obama a failed president.
Any assessment of the President has to be taken in context with Republicans in Congress that largely chose to work against him. He was forced to make executive orders in order to keep the country moving. The recovery was largely predicated on his ability to work with Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve to provide the economic stimuli. He has also faced resistance among federal judges, as seen recently when a Texas federal judge blocked the President's immigration orders.
He has been able to make his stamp on federal judicial appointments across the country, but was unable to shift the balance in the Supreme Court. As a result, he has been put in a position to repeatedly fend off state challenges to the ACA, and a number of his executive orders, which have been taken all the way up to the USSC. It doesn't look like any of the conservative judges will step down in the next two years, but he has given the court a much more feminine face with the appointments of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
I think historians in the future will take this combative environment into consideration. Obama has been playing the "long game" ever since he came to the Oval Office. Andrew Sullivan called attention to this during the 2012 election. It is likely that Obama will leave a far greater legacy than we currently imagine.
If nothing else, he has returned a "normalcy" to the White House, and put a "giant roadblock in the rightward movement" in this country, as Jeffrey Alexander noted.