10 Historians on What Will Be Said About President Obama's LegacyHistorians in the News
tags: Obama legacy
As President Barack Obama winds down his eight years in the White House and President-elect Donald Trump prepares to be inaugurated on Friday, TIME History asked a variety of experts to weigh in on a question: How do you think historians of the future will talk about on his time in Office? Where will he fit in the ranks of presidents past?
While all agreed that his presidency was historic—and that there’s a lot we can’t know until time passes—opinions differed on what his most lasting legacy will be. Below is a selection of the answers they submitted by email and phone:
H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin:
The single undeniable aspect of Obama’s legacy is that he demonstrated that a black man can become president of the United States. This accomplishment will inform the first line in his obituary and will earn him assured mention in every American history textbook written from now to eternity.
For all else, it’s too soon to tell.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association:
Ranking presidents requires a certain amount of hubris, if not arrogance. I take seriously historian E.P. Thompson’s admonition about “the enormous condescension of posterity,” knowing that our political principles and moral certainties will seem less obvious to scholars of future generations. So I approach this assignment with the same trepidation that I had when I commented the morning after Election Day 2008 on the “historic significance” of that election. It remains tempting to paint Barack Obama’s election as a step toward healing the nation’s great wound of racism, even if not the expiation of what George W. Bush referred to as our “original sin” of slavery at the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
It didn’t happen. Obama’s election ironically had the opposite effect. The President’s opponents questioned his legitimacy from the beginning. The leader of the opposing party declared that the highest priority—more important than the public good—was to make sure Obama would not be reelected. This imperative failed, but the racism that runs so deep in American culture was unleashed as it had not been for two generations. The bandages have been ripped off the sores, which are now open and festering in public culture.
Was Obama then a failure? No. American public culture has failed. We were not ready for a black president. He cedes power on Friday to the very people who questioned his legitimacy and denied him the right to govern. They have already begun to demolish his accomplishments. But historians eventually will also calculate the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, look back on the results of the opening to Cuba, appreciate his admittedly belated environmental activism, and notice that his Administration was virtually scandal free.
Top eight. Eventually.
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