In all likelihood, history will treat Obama pretty well.
New York Magazine had a lot of fun this week publishing their “Obama History Project”, a great symposium of various historians debating what President Obama’s historical legacy will look like. It’s a great read but even the historians that got surveyed point out it probably doesn’t mean a whole lot. In fact the piece opens with one historian noting how silly the whole project is due to the fact that historians are notably bad at predicting the future:
“It’s a fool’s errand you’re involved in,” warned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood when approached recently by this magazine to predict Barack Obama’s historical legacy. “We live in a fog, and historians decades from now will tell their society what was happening in 2014. But we don’t know the future. No one in 1952, for example, could have predicted the reputation of Truman a half-century or so later.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to guess how Obama will go down in the history books. Personally I’d side with Jonathan Chait who argues in an accompanying essay that Obama will be treated quite well by future historians. Chait gives the typical argument you expect to here from liberal fans of Obama. That is he lists the long list of consequential policy changes that Obama has overseen and points out how important they have been and will continue to be.
You can love or hate Obamacare as you prefer, but it’s clear that it’s having a huge impact on America, which means historians will likely cite it as a huge success for Obama, even if they disagree with the policy. Likewise I’m not a fan of the policies of Ronald Reagan, but I’d never argue he was a failure. He was actually quite successful at getting what he wanted done.
Two other factors will probably make sure Obama’s legacy only gets better in the post Obama era. First of all he’s young and pretty healthy so ex-President Obama will likely be around for years to help shape his own legacy, the same way Jimmy Carter’s post presidential good works have raised his stature. Likewise Obama is pretty popular with young people meaning that the future historians that were in college and graduate school under Bush or Obama will likely carry a positive impression of Obama (and a negative impression of his predecessor) with them throughout their professional lives. The same way that baby boomers tend to lionize JFK even though he was not a very accomplished president in a lot of ways.
If there’s one final factor that will impact Obama’s legacy it’s the weakness of many of the critiques of his presidency. They largely consist of a list of bad things, mainly in foreign affairs, that have happened since 2009 that are then blamed on things Obama did or didn’t do. The problem with these sorts of criticisms is they assume that there always was some policy or thing Obama could have done that would have given us the outcome we’d prefer, that is to say they are chock full of magical thinking. Not everything happening in the world is controlled by America and not everything in America is controlled by the president; Barack Obama really isn’t the Green Lantern.
Which doesn’t mean that an effective criticism of Obama’s tenure as president couldn’t be written, one certainly could. It’s just that the president’s detractors haven’t done a good job writing such a critique as of yet.
For example it’s possible that future historians will blame things like rising inequality and decline workforce participation rates on Obama, but far more likely they will recognize these trends as just part of the changing nature of the global economy. After all these realities are happening in developed economies all over the world. Likewise revolution and turmoil in the Middle East probably has more to do with the collapse of the (highly dysfunctional) old order that dominated the region since the end of World War I than anything the president did or didn’t do. A president McCain probably would have fought more wars in the Middle East, but it’s hard to see how he would have magically transformed Egypt (or anywhere else) into a perfect liberal democracy.
The total failure of our military adventure in Iraq is pretty good proof that Americans can’t control everything that happens in other countries.
This doesn’t mean Obama is perfect, every president makes mistakes, but in all likelihood Obama will go down in the history books as a highly successful president who accomplished a great deal during a very trying time. In some ways you can’t ask for a better legacy than that.
Like The Good Men Project On Facebook
Photo by Kristan Bjornard/Flickr