Obama the Man's Been a Lot More Popular than His Policies. Why Is that?

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Morton Keller is Spector Professor of History emeritus at Brandeis. He has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Oxford. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. Among his books are "Affairs of State" and "America's Three Regimes." His latest is "Obama's Time:  A History." 

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Obama's Time: A History tries to provide a historical context for the style and substance of the Obama presidency. It is also to some degree a case study testing the thesis of a previous work of mine, America's Regimes: A New Political History (Oxford, 2007).    I proposed there that our public history has had three distinct regimes: the colonial-early Republic era, which saw first a deferential and then a Republican political culture; the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose politics and government were dominated by political parties, bosses, and machines; and our own time, whose distinguishing features are a more populist politics and an increasingly autonomous bureaucracy. 

When I sought to look at Obama's time in the context of this model, two perspectives emerged. The first is embodied in Oliver Wendell Holmes's observation that "continuity with the past is not a duty, but only a necessity." What this suggests is that every President, regardless of the strength of his desire to be transformative, is subject to major constraints: of his psychological makeup and talents, of large interest groups, public institutions, social custom, the legal and Constitutional rules of the political-governmental game, and the contingency of events.

This large fact of presidential life explains the gap  between Obama's aspirations and his record. For many that record is a considerable triumph; for others it is a notable failure. But all take note of the constraints that have kept his presidency from meeting the high expectations that he and his supporters carried into it.  

It is not yet--nor will it ever be--time for a final judgment as to the place of Obama and his administration in the larger history of American politics and government. But I do not think it likely that his name will be next to the Transformative Trio of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. Nor is he likely to wind up among the (usually one-term) near-nonentities that are the American presidential norm. 

A more germane question is whether his place will be among what William James called the "once-born," presidents whose successes and failures were due primarily to their capacity for leadership (TR, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton come to mind); or what I would call the "haunted," whose presidential fates were more subject to personal qualities (Wilson's messianic inclinations, Nixon's paranoid tendencies, perhaps Obama's Narcissistic strain).                  

Two aspects of Obama's presidency will, I think, be important in defining his place in history. The first--who he is, and what he represents--is probably less up for grabs. As the first African-American president, he is bound to be transformative, just as were Andrew Jackson as the first commoner president and John F. Kennedy as the first non-Protestant one. Obama is likely to end a once-dominant constraint on access to the office, as his predecessors did. After Jackson, Lincoln was possible; after Kennedy, Obama was viable; after Obama, a female President seems inevitable. 

There is another dimension to Obama's persona. Kennedy embodied, in a larger-than-life way, the World War Two-postwar generation--war hero, glamorous cool cat. His Irish Catholicism was no impediment because he was so much else besides. Obama is something similar. His Kenyan father and Kansas white mother; his Hawaiian-Indonesian upbringing; Columbia and Harvard Law; from state senator to President in six years; a coolly intellectual style: this is hardly a prototypical African-American success story. As Kennedy was the antithesis of Al Smith, so is Obama the antithesis of Jesse Jackson.

Obama's reassuring persona and high political skill, as much as his Hope and Change mantra, helped make him a two-term president. (So did contingent events such as the financial crash of 2008, and the lame and halting Romney candidacy of 2012.) When he ran for office and his persona was at issue, in 2008 and 2012, Obama won handily. When not he, but his policies, were at issue, in 2010 and 2014, he lost badly. Why?

The answer lies, I think, in a second major theme of this book, embodied in Mr. Dooley's dictum: "I wisht I was a German, an' believed in machinery." Popular ambivalence toward bureaucracy and the active state has deep roots in the American past. But it has grown so much in recent years because of the manifest incapacity of modern government to cope with major problems. 

This was not the case in the time of the New Deal, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Interstate and the space program, the civil rights revolution. It appears more and more to be the case in our own time. Things take forever to get built; the economy is taking an unseemly time to right itself; America's place in the world seems steadily to worsen, as does popular confidence in our institutions, public and private.

 Obama's clearest successes appear to have an inverse relation to their scale and scope. A reasonable rank order of magnitude in domestic policy, from top to bottom, would be: Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the Stimulus, TARP, the auto company bailout. A rank order of success arguably would be: the auto bailout, TARP, the Stimulus, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare. (Although in the last two cases, a conclusive judgment is still to come.) 

Something similar is evident in foreign affairs. Obama's small-bore ventures--getting bin Laden, removing Khaddafi--have been the most successful. Larger enterprises--resetting our relationship with Russia, ending the civil war in Syria, responding to Islamic terrorism, stopping Iran's nuclear program--are much less so. 

What is the degree of Obama's responsibility for this record? My view is that the reasons why large policies so often get into trouble lie more in the complexity of things than in Obama's particular talents or defects. The regulatory, welfare, and warfare state models of the twentieth century have run into stormy weather. How this  plays out is a question that will be around long after Obama's time is past.      


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