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.


  1. CONservatives do not appreciate the fact that President Obama's popularity ratings are HIGHER at this point in his administration than are Reagan's and Bush II.

    Sadly, this is a point lost on Democrats who fail to take advantage of this in promoting the Obama agenda and in improving upon ACA which has proven to be a success.

    I cannot honestly blame Republicans and other CONs for continuing to attack Obama. That is a major part of their agenda and always has been. After all, they openly stated that their principle goal was to make his a one term administration and a failure. In this they have failed - but they persist. As always, it is the Dems, their silence and passivity in the face of this onslaught of hate with radical right cynicism, that is the real problem.

    But that is the way they choose to be, then so be it.

  2. Here are two snippets from Rudy Giuliani’s remarks at Wednesday night’s Republican dinner event that has everyone talking.

    "I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America."...."He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country,"

    Questioning an adversary’s love of country is one of the oldest tricks in gutter politics. It's a no-risk gambit for which you don’t have to prove your charge even if you could. These despicable remarks came from none other than the man praised as America’s mayor after 911. Now he seems to relish tossing out the red meat to the slobbering mob as though he were running for something.


  3. As for the President’s legacy, we’re a long way off from fully appreciating the significance of the Affordable Care Act, primarily because it remains besieged by those who haven’t given up on the hope of killing it.

    The first steps towards normalizing relations with Cuba could be equally historic.


  4. Good article on the "Politics of Stupid" that the GOP is playing,

  5. The amazing thing to me is that Rudy was once seen as a "moderate." The GOP does have a way of bringing the "stupid" out of you with its radical tail wagging the dog. The part that killed me is that he didn't consider any of his comments racist because Obama's mother was white.