Historians’ assessment of Obama’s legacy

Historians in the News
tags: Obama, Obamas legacy



Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of "The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment." He's also the co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer

Barack Obama has been out of the White House for only a little more than a year. But it's not too soon for historians to begin to assess the impact of his momentous presidency. Soon after the election, I convened a conference at Princeton University to start the discussion, and now some of the work by scholars who attended the meeting has been published as the first historical assessment of the 44th President's two terms. In the piece that follows and with the contributions from some of the historians, we attempt to analyze what Obama did and did not accomplish.

To begin, any assessment of President Obama has to reckon with the extraordinary election that resulted in the election of Donald Trump as his successor, a President who has seemed determined to erase Obama's legacy. Obama's failure to see it coming -- in this he was not alone -- is one of the biggest question marks over his White House years.

What Obama could never accept about American politics was just how ugly it had become. In many ways, this always had been the President's greatest political weakness. His confidence in our democracy prevented him from doing more to stand firm against the destructive forces that were shaping our country during his two terms in office. Obama's election in 2008 was supposed to signify that our country was finally moving in the right direction -- a country born with slavery had elected an African-American to be president.

As President, Obama never let go of this hope. That was what made him so endearing to millions of Americans and shaped much of what he did in the Oval Office. Obama had clearly articulated his understanding of the nation when he came into the spotlight during the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

In the middle of one of the most contentious moments of the era, when Americans were deeply divided over a President who had taken the nation into a costly war in Iraq based on false claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction, then-Illinois Sen. Obama refused to give in to anger and disillusionment. "Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. ... But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." ...


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