David M. Kennedy: Obama’s Second Chance to Be Historic





David M. Kennedy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

Barack Obama made history in 2008. It may now be his fate merely to mark time.

Obama’s election as the first black president closed a chapter -- though surely not the book -- in America’s long, vexed racial history, just as John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Roman Catholic president in 1960 amounted to a major cadence in the nation’s turbulent religious history. Kennedy proved to be both the first and last Catholic president, in the sense that Catholicism has never since defined political identities the way it did for most of the Republic’s first two centuries (think Al Smith’s crushing defeat in 1928).

And as predicted in this space four years ago, Obama has already proved to be both the first black president and the last black president. He has shattered a historic barrier that can’t be put back together again.

To be clear: There will undoubtedly be black presidential candidates in the future, but their racial identity won’t principally determine their political destinies, just as Obama’s race played no material role in the campaign just concluded. Nor, importantly, did Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. The absence of both racial and religious politicking in this election cycle -- not to mention voter approval of same-sex marriage in three states -- testifies powerfully to the American people’s expanding sense of tolerance and inclusion....

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