Obama's Legacy: History Will Be Very Kind

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Ten and a half years ago, at the Democratic convention in Boston, Barack Hussein Obama was introduced to America as a youthful, magnetic man who had burst suddenly and somewhat mysteriously onto the scene. This characterization — superficially appealing yet weightless, more symbolic than substantive — followed him throughout his presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton cast him as an inspirational speechmaker like Martin Luther King Jr., as opposed to a viable contender for president, and John McCain’s campaign scathingly labeled him a “celebrity,” attractive but vacuous.

The lived reality of Obama’s presidency has unfolded as almost the precise opposite of this trope. He has amassed a record of policy accomplishment far deeper than even many of his supporters give him credit for. He has also survived a dismal, and frequently terrifying, 72 months when at every moment, to go by the day-to-day media, a crisis has threatened to rock his presidency to its core. The episodes have been all-consuming: the BP oil spill, swine flu, the Christmas underwear bomber, the IRS scandal, the healthcare.org launch, the border crisis, Benghazi. Depending on how you count, upwards of 19 events have been described as “Obama’s Katrina.”

Obama’s response to these crises—or, you could say, his method of leadership — has been surprisingly consistent. He has a legendarily, almost fanatically placid temperament. He has now spent eight years, counting from the start of his first presidential campaign, keeping his head while others were losing theirs, and avoiding rhetorical overreach at the risk of underreach. A few months ago, the crisis was the Ebola outbreak, and Obama faced a familiar criticism: He had botched the putatively crucial “performative” aspects of his job. “Six years in,” BusinessWeekreported, “it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor — regardless of the public’s emotional needs.”

By year’s end, the death count of those who contracted Ebola in the United States was zero, and the panic appears as unlikely to define Obama’s presidency as most of the other crises that have come and gone. But there have been other times when Obama’s uninterest in engaging in the more public aspects of his job — communicating his reasoning and vision, soothing our anxieties with lofty rhetoric, infusing his administration with the sense of purpose that electrified his supporters during the 2008 campaign — has clearly harmed him. “If there’s one thing that I regret this year,” he admitted in 2010, “it is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are.”

The president’s infuriating serenity, his inclination to play Spock even when the country wants a Captain Kirk, makes him an unusual kind of leader. But it is obvious why Obama behaves this way: He is very confident in his idea of how history works and how, once the dust settles, he will be judged. For Obama, the long run has been a source of comfort from the outset. He has quoted King’s dictum about the arc of the moral universe eventually bending toward justice, and he has said that “at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” To his critics, Obama is unable to attend to the theatrical duties of his office because he lacks a bedrock emotional connection with America. It seems more likely that he is simply unwilling to: that he is conducting his presidency on the assumption that his place in historical memory will be defined by a tabulation of his successes minus his failures. And that tomorrow’s historians will be more rational and forgiving than today’s political commentators....





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