First Round of Obama Administration Oral Histories Focus on Political Fault Lines and Policy TradeoffsHistorians in the News
tags: Barack Obama, presidential history
On a day of high drama at an international climate change conference early in his administration, President Barack Obama confronted a senior Chinese official who offered what the American delegation considered a weak commitment. Mr. Obama dismissed the offer. Not good enough.
The Chinese official erupted. “What do you mean that’s not good enough? Why isn’t that good enough?” he demanded. He referred to a past conversation with John Kerry, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. “I talked to Senator Kerry and Senator Kerry said that was good enough.”
Mr. Obama looked at him evenly. “Well,” he replied, “Senator Kerry is not president of the United States.”
That moment of sharp relief, a clash with an intransigent foreign apparatchik by a young American president feeling his own way, comes to life in a new oral history project on the Obama administration released on Wednesday. Six years after Mr. Obama left office, the project by Incite, a social science research institute at Columbia University, has assembled perhaps the most extensive collection of interviews from the era to date.
Researchers interviewed 470 Obama administration veterans, critics, activists and others who were in the thick of major events back then, including Mr. Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, amassing a total of 1,100 hours of recordings. Transcripts of the interviews are being released in batches over the next three years, starting with a first set of 17 made public on Wednesday focused on climate change, a central issue then that continues to shape the national debate today.
“There will be hundreds of new insights that come from this study, many of which will change our understanding of the Obama presidency and the period from 2008 to 2016 more generally,” said Peter Bearman, founding director of Incite and the principal investigator for the Obama oral history project.
What makes Mr. Obama’s presidency distinctive is the way it resonated around the world in the “Obama moment,” as Evan McCormick, who led the foreign policy part of the project, put it. “One thing that becomes clear in our interviews is that the moment of great hope and expectation ushered in by the election of the first Black president was a global one,” he said.
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