How Will History Judge Barack Obama?

Barack Obama was elected in consequential times, which makes him a consequential president. Whether this is good or bad depends on what happens to his key policies.

To commemorate President’s Day, POLITICO Magazine has given space to several historians to give their verdicts on the Obama presidency, and speculate on where it might fall in the scope of American history. The whole exercise is a riff on a quote, from Obama, in his interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker:

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different.

But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

I’m not a historian, but I do read history, follow politics, and have thoughts on Obama’s potential legacy as the 44th president of the United States. Now, obviously I’m writing this as a liberal, who—for all of my criticism—has a favorable view of the president. Still, I think it’s inarguable that Barack Obama is—and will be considered—a consequential president.

To start, his election (and reelection) as the first African American to reach the nation’s highest office, will earn him a place in the history books, regardless of how his administration shakes out. To call it “historic” is a bit cliché, but we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which it redefines our view of which groups have a claim to the presidency.

Beyond that, I think Obama’s legacy depends on two things: The final shape of the economy when he leaves office, and the fate of the Affordable Care Act. For as much as the stimulus was a success—in addition to ending the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it made hundreds of billions in long-term investments to the nation’s physical and human infrastructure—it wasn’t enough to bring the economy back to speed. Instead, for much of Obama’s presidency, we have slogged through a painful recovery, with mass unemployment, stagnant wages, and vicious cuts to public sector employment.

If, by 2017, those trends are on the reverse—if the economy is growing at a healthy clip and those gains are more evenly distributed—then Obama gets credit both for stopping the Great Recession and putting the nation on track for a robust recovery. This, I think, moves him up a notch and puts him in the top half of post-war presidents. On the other hand, if we remain on the same path, then it is—or should be—a huge detriment to his standing.

The dynamic is a little different with Obamacare. Either way, because of its size and the herculean effort to pass it, it stands as an important expansion of the welfare state for which Obama will be remembered. The question for his legacy as a “good” or “bad” president depends on your ideological perspective—even Lincoln still has his detractors—and the actual success of the program.

If the Affordable Care Act works—if it expands insurance to all Americans, if it slows costs and moves our health care system to something more sustainable—then Obama will be hailed for his foresight and skill. But if, as Republicans predict, it collapses completely, it will stand as a huge mistake and major blemish on his presidency. Indeed, if we get a stagnant economy and a failed health care problem, you’re left with a domestic legacy that’s mediocre at best.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Obama’s role—material and otherwise—in advancing and protecting the rights of LGBT Americans. Given the degree to which they still lack legal protections, and continue to face violence, discrimination, and social stigma, this isn’t a small thing.

Foreign policy isn’t my wheelhouse—for that you’ll want to read my colleagues—but my guess is that Obama will get deserved credit for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as killing Osama bin Laden, but will receive an asterisk—if not criticism—for his expansion of the national security state, from mass surveillance to targeted killings and drone warfare.

There's no neat way to wrap this up, so I'll say this: The fact of the matter is that—with an economic crisis and two wars on his plate—Barack Obama was president in consequential times, and for that reason alone, he matters.