The correct answer to the question of how future historians will view Barack Obama's presidency 50 years from now is "I have no idea." But this, admittedly, is no fun.
And thinking about how historians will view Obama can be a useful way of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration. So New York magazine asked 53 historians to "weigh in on Barack Obama's legacy" by answering questions like "What will be seen as Obama's single most significant accomplishment?" and "Will Obama's reputation have improved or declined in 20 years?"
The results were published this week. The case that Obama will (or at least should) have a positive historical legacy was made effectively by Jon Chait and several of the historians polled for the issue. But it would also be entirely possible to make a case that Obama will not be terribly well regarded by future historians. From the left, a case could focus around the failure to adequately punish financial fraudsters and torturers, the entrenchment of several aspects of the Bush/Cheney national security state, and the failure to take sufficient steps to address climate change and increasing financial inequality.
From the right, the argument should be even easier—most of what Obama has done will either result in the entrenchment of policies inconsistent with conservative values or fail to endure.
Which makes Christopher Caldwell's attempt to argue that historians will "eviscerate" Obama such a remarkable achievement. It reads as if he had outtakes from some random Weekly Standard articles lying around, and given the assignment, hastily complied some sentences from them at random while pretending that his argument had something to do with Obama. Laden with falsehoods, remarkable feats of illogic, implausible predictions, non-sequiturs, and some ugly race-baiting, almost every sentence of the Caldwell's argument makes a better case for Obama's positive legacy than the most fawning hagiography could. Hence, we bring you the annotated Christopher Caldwell:
Democrats nominated Barack Obama in 2008 to extract America from George W. Bush's Iraq misadventure and to spread more fairly the proceeds of a quarter-century-old boom for which they credited Bill Clinton.
It is true that Democrats probably give Bill Clinton too much credit for the economic boom of the late '90s. The force of this argument, however, is undermined considerably when one tries to conflate the impressive economic growth of the '90s and the thoroughly mediocre economy of the Bush years into one single "boom."
The Election Eve collapse of Lehman Brothers changed things. It showed that there had been no boom at all, only a multitrillion-dollar real-estate debauch that Clinton's and Bush's affordable-housing mandates had set in motion.
The idea that "affordable-housing mandates" were the primary cause of the financial collapse is utter (and thoroughly debunked) horseshit. Nothing about the Community Reinvestment Act required financial institutions not only make huge numbers of risky and/or fraudulent loans, securitize these loans, and then represent extremely high-risk bonds as blue-chip investments.
It also showed how fast historians' likely rankings of presidents can shift: Clinton went from above average to below average, Bush from low to rock bottom.
The three major surveys of historians conducted after 2008—C-SPAN in 2009, Siena College in 2010, and United States Presidency Centre in 2011—all rank Clinton above average, the former two substantially above. George W. Bush's reputation has indeed gone from bad to worse, so a rare accurate statement from Caldwell, albeit one backing up the trite point that presidential reputations change over time.
Obama may wind up the most consequential of the three baby-boom presidents. He expanded certain Bush policies — Detroit bailouts, internet surveillance, drone strikes —
Obama can (and should) certainly be criticized for marinating some Bush-era surveillance policies, but to say he "expanded" them is very hard to defend. Most importantly, unlike Bush Obama has never claimed an inherent authority under Article II to conduct warrantless searches without congressional authorization.
We can say that Obama expanded the Detroit bailouts, I suppose, but given their success it's hard to see how this will negatively affect Obama's legacy. Drones, I will concede to Caldwell.
and cleaned up after others.
We will not know for years whether Obama's big deficits risked a future depression to avoid a present one,
Given that Obama's "big deficits"—which were almost certainly too small given the scale of the economic catastrophe Obama inherited— have vanished, I think we can be very confident that they did not cause another depression.
or whether the respite he offered from "humanitarian invasions" made the country safer.
Personally, I'm willing to say that offering a "respite" from invading countries that pose no threat to the United States had not made the country less safe.
Right now, both look like significant achievements. Yet there is a reason the president's approval ratings have fallen, in much of the country, to Nixonian lows. Even his best-functioning policies have come at a steep price in damaged institutions, leaving the country less united, less democratic, and less free.
Obama is a divider, not a uniter! David Broder lives. I must concede, however, that the freedom of Americans to die if they cannot afford health insurance has been substantially undermined by the Obama administration.
Health-care reform and gay marriage are often spoken of as the core of Obama's legacy.
It seems rather odd to say that same-sex marriage—on which Obama's role is limited to taking a belated position in favor and appointing Supreme Court justices who will, like virtually any Democratic nominee in 2015, vote in favor of making it a constitutional right—will be "central" to Obama's legacy, but in fairness presidents to tend to get excessive credit for what happens under their watch.
That is a mistake. Policies are not always legacies, even if they endure, and there is reason to believe these will not. The more people learn about Obamacare, the less they like it
This is pretty much an inversion of the truth. The Affordable Care Act is unpopular in the abstract but its individual provisions are popular, and public ignorance of the content of the legislation remains very high. Also highly relevant to the question of whether the ACA will "endure" is the fact that repealing it is even less popular than the ACA itself. Short-term public opinion will not determine whether the ACA survives.
— its popularity is still falling, to a record low of 37 percent in November. Thirty states have voted to ban gay marriage,
So Caldwell bases his belief that the ACA will not endure on public opinion surveys, and then does not hesitate at all before declaring that same-sex marriage will not endure while ignoring the remarkable public shift in favor of same-sex marriage. The apparent assumption that judicial opinions favoring same-sex marriage will not endure is also almost certainly wrong, and his belief that marriage discrimination will be restored after it is ruled unconstitutional by a majority-Republican Supreme Court later this year is implausible in the extreme.
and almost everywhere it survives by judicial diktat.
I note that Caldwell uses the phrase "judicial diktat" in the same goddamned paragraph in which he mentions the ACA but fails to account the ongoing war being waged by conservative litigators in the service of denying health insurance to as many people as possible.
These are, however, typical Obama achievements. They are triumphs of tactics, not consensus-building.
The idea Barack Obama invented political conflict is so precious. Don't reactionaries even read their Carl Schmitt anymore?
Obamacare involved quid pro quos (the "Cornhusker Kickback,"
The fact seems to have been missed by conservative pundits and Supreme Court justices who apparently get their news largely from third-tier talk radio wingnuts, but the "Cornhusker Kickback" is not in fact part of the ACA.
the "Louisiana Purchase," etc.)
The Medicaid concessions given to Louisiana did at least survive in the final bill. Alas, the idea that Barack Obama invented the idea of "giving minor concessions to legislators to secure their votes" remains risible. It seems unlikely that future historians will base their evaluations of Obama on his willingness to use tactics used by pretty much every democratic legislature to pass every statute ever.
that passed into Capitol Hill lore, accounting and parliamentary tricks to render the bill unfilibusterable,
Heavens to Betsy – a bill was allowed to pass into law with only a 60% supermajority in the Senate! Surely historians will never forgive this unprecedented abrogation of democratic values!
and a pure party-line vote in the Senate.
Well, yes. But since the Republican congressional leadership announced ex ante that they would not cooperate to pass any legislative achievements ex ante, this is essentially a tautology – it was either a party-line vote, or no legislative achievements.
You can call it normal politics, but Medicare did not pass that way.
If the Republican Party of 1965 ever comes back, then the comparison with Medicare would actually be relevant. The fact that Obama did not get Republican support for the ACA will be about as relevant to future historians as the fact that he was unable to secure the support of any Whigs or Know-Nothings.
Gay marriage has meant Cultural Revolution–style
Yes, I'm afraid Caldwell is about to compare someone losing their job and someone being criticized for expressing bigoted views to a dictator slaughtering more than a million people. (When the AEI fired David Frum for not taking the party line on the ACA, I wonder if this was more like the Nazi death camps or Stalin's forced famines.) As for the pervasive discrimination in marriage and employment that gays and lesbians have suffered – hey, you can't make an omelet without breaking a whole lot of queer eggs.
bullying of dissenters (notoriously, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty
I'm sure that historians evaluating on Obama's legacy will focus on someone briefly being suspended by a forgotten reality show...
and the Mozilla founder Brendan Eich).
...just as I'm sure that historians evaluating on Obama's legacy will focus on a rich guy resigning from a company after a modest pressure campaign because he expressed views inconsistent with the company's values and/or interests.
You can call this normal politics, too, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not pass that way.
This is just dumbfounding. First, it's worth nothing that LBJ had to make all kinds of concessions to break the filibuster and get the Civil Rights Act passed, although Caldwell has just told us that this constitutes virtually unprecedented behavior will ensure a bill's impermanence. As for the apparent assumptions that the Civil Rights Act did not involve major political conflict, or that there was no social sanction for expressing white supremacist views in the wake of the Civil Rights Act—to state these arguments is to refute them.
Obama's legacy is one of means, not ends.
If there's anything that characterizes those recognized as the greatest presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, it's their unwillingness to challenge existing institutional practices. In addition, this argument makes less than no sense. Obama isn't acting as an executive to achieve desired ends? He just issues executive orders for the hell of it? Or perhaps it's not a wild coincidence that his executive action on immigration and the environment and LBGT rights mirrors his legislative agenda.
He has laid the groundwork for a political order less answerable to voters. His delay of the Obamacare employer mandate by fiat, his provision of working papers to immigrants by executive order — these are not applications of old tricks but dangerous constitutional innovations.
- These actions were not remotely unprecedented, and
- it's unclear to me how these actions make the "political order less answerable to voters." Surely routine Republican filibusters and generally unwillingness to make government function do more to undermine electoral accountability than executive orders issues by the public official with the closest of any to a national electoral mandate.
After last fall's electoral rout, the president claimed to have "heard" (presumably to speak on behalf of) the two-thirds of people who didn't vote.
And, indeed, the fact that Republican success at the ballot box is inversely correlated with voter turnout seems worthy of mention.
And he has forged a partnership with the country's rich — not the high-earning professionals calumniated in populist oratory (including his own) but the really existing Silicon Valley and Wall Street plutocracy.
Before Barack Obama wealthy individuals had no influence on American politics and I'm sure they never will again. It's good that Obama is term limited, because before long I fear that the Republican Party might actually nominate a financial industry plutocrat as its presidential candidate.
For a generation, there has been too much private wealth in politics; Obama's innovation has been to bring private wealth into government. He has (with others' help, certainly) begun to emancipate the presidency from Congress's control of the budget. In 2013, JPMorgan Chase, Obama's most important early contributor, paid the Justice Department about $20 billion in fines (involving no high-level prosecutions), all of it redeployable by the administration.
Yes, the Obama administration's unprecedented reaching of legal settlements with companies truly represents a new age in American government. And who knows what power will come from fines that constitute a miniscule fraction of the federal budget?
Federal stimulus funds incentivized states to approve Bill Gates's Common Core curriculum.
Why, now that Obama has set a new precedent by placing conditions on federal spending, we might end up with a national drinking age! If only a man like Ronald Reagan were in the White House, this never would have happened.
Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative, a private endeavor, has been adopted with modifications by the White House.
Of all the things that historians will use to evaluate Obama's legacy, surely his call for private philanthropies to help children develop their full potential will not be one of them. As to what on earth is supposed to be wrong with this…I'm afraid I don't speak wingnut crank.
Under the nation's first black president, race relations regressed.
At times maladroit (insulting a police officer for arresting his friend Henry Louis Gates, unaware the cop was an expert on racial profiling),
Oh, well, if the cop was an "expert in racial profiling" this surely settles the question.
at times unlucky (calling anger over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson "understandable" as rioters torched Ferguson, Missouri, on split screen), at times ethnocentric (Eric Holder's arguments on behalf of "my people"),
If you're not immersed enough in the fever swamps to be aware of what Caldwell is (to give the charitable interpretation) pretending to be offended by, Holder once observed that paranoid conspiracy theories about the New Black Panthers—in 2011!— were offensive to the memories of the people of all races who "put their lives on the line, who risked all, for my people" during the voting rights struggles of the 60s. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be offended by—African-Americans were systemically disenfranchised, and Holder is African-American. I think to get it you have to be part of a political movement that would, say, rehabilitate the legal theories of the antebellum slave power to gut the Voting Rights Act.
the administration alienated sympathetic whites. Mitt Romney won three of five white votes in 2012, and exit polls from 2014 show this to be a floor rather than a ceiling.
Barack Obama getting two of 5 white votes proves that he's a racially divisive figure; Mitt Romney getting fewer than one out of 10 African-American votes and fewer than 3 out of 10 Hispanic- and Asian-American votes proves that he's racially inclusive. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
Obama may be remembered the way Republican California governor Pete Wilson was after he backed the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in 1994—as one who benefited personally from ethnic polarization but cost his party and his country dearly by it.
Right, if we assume that only white voters really count, and old an disgusting idea. Caldwell may also want to consider the possibility that demographic changes do not affect Wilson's coalition and Obama's coalition in precisely the same way.
Obama's reputation will also have something in common with that of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed history and technology have a direction and that his job was to align his country with it, no matter how illogical or undesirable it might appear to his countrymen.
There are words here, but I can't say they generate a great deal of meaning.
Like Gorbachev, Obama will be esteemed in certain quarters a generation from now, but probably more by foreigners than fellow citizens, and more by his country's enemies than its friends.
If you're one of the majority of the American electorate who supported Obama in 2008 and/or 2012, you're un-American, and possibly a traitor. Also, apparently we're supposed to see that the Soviet Union was broadly popular and was supposed to live forever, and anyone who thought otherwise was some sort of nutty technological determinist.
Unless the typical American historian fifty years from now gets their doctorate from Beck University, I can't say I see Caldwell's view of Obama's legacy being very influential.