David M. Shribman: Defining the Obama years

Historians already are drafting the president’s legacy, which he still has time to change

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Everything today is faster than it used to be, but this seems astonishing: Historians already are shaping their assessments of Barack Obama’s presidency.

That’s in part because the president has courted historians — Michael Beschloss, H. W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Kennedy, among many — so assiduously.

But Mr. Obama wasn’t alone in welcoming intellectuals into his circle. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was surrounded by them, including the agricultural economist Rexford Tugwell, who eventually wrote four books about FDR. So was John F. Kennedy, whose circle included the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., author of a Kennedy biography that is still consulted by students of the presidency.

But Mr. Obama apparently tempted fate when he made an astute comment to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

And so, on Presidents Day, Politico asked a panel of leading historians for their assessment of the Obama years. From Oxford’s Margaret MacMillan and Princeton’s Sean Wilenz to Yale’s Beverly Gage and George Mason’s Jeremy D. Mayer, they filed their Obama paragraphs and, being academics rather than journalists, those paragraphs were on the long side.

I’ve often written that history changes with time, and so I think the president requires three paragraphs, one that might have been written at the beginning of his White House years; a separate one written now, at the beginning of his sixth year; and one that might be written at the end of his presidency. So as not to be affected by the scholars’ critiques, I prepared three paragraphs of Obama assessment without consulting their first drafts of history.

Here’s what might have been written as the president took office:

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the United States, still scarred by racial tensions dating to 1619, nonetheless elected its first black president. Barack Obama of Illinois wasn’t so much a politician as a phenomenon. He was propelled into the White House after only two years in the Senate, where his profile was thin and his record even more so. But he displayed an uncanny ability to align his campaign with the hopes of Americans, including their genuine desire to put the hurts and humiliations of racism behind them. Indeed, hope was at the center of the Obama campaign, coming as it did while the United States was suffering from a serious economic recession. Mr. Obama ran as much against George W. Bush, the incumbent president, as he did against his war-hero opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and the Democrat’s innate fluency made for a compelling contrast with the less polished Mr. McCain, whose choice of a running mate with little experience and no rhetorical filters befuddled even his closest aides. Mr. Obama’s ascent to the White House was a thrilling national moment of redemption and reconciliation and provided boundless optimism in the country and the capital.

Here’s Mr. Obama’s paragraph appropriate for February 2014:

After a bravura presidential campaign that left the country breathless, the nation’s first black president was wrestled down to earth by real-world problems he inherited from his predecessor and, as time went on, by challenges he created himself or were happily delivered to him by the Republican House of Representatives, increasingly ruled by a Tea Party insurgency that managed to gain the whip hand in the GOP caucus. The post-partisan era Barack Obama promised quickly revealed itself to be more reverie than reality. He proved unable to woo his rivals, who took his landmark health-care overhaul and transformed it into a partisan battering ram — an effort that was eased by the multiple, inexplicable problems it encountered as it went into effect. For his part, Mr. Obama proved to be an inflexible negotiator, his determination more successful in alienating his rivals than in pleasing his partisan allies. The president succeeded in overseeing the killing of terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden but displayed an uncertain hand diplomatically and presided over vast expansions of surveillance that troubled those on the right as well as on the left.

Here’s the paragraph Mr. Obama might still receive:

No presidential nominee since John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan ran a campaign as inspiring as the one Barack Obama crafted in 2008, when he defeated the establishment candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the Democratic nomination and then sailed into office on gusts of good will that thrilled the nation and inspired the world. In every regard, this president was breaking precedent. The first black chief executive, his election suggested a post-racial America and in his first year he was able to realize the dream of every Democratic president since Harry Truman by winning approval to overhaul the health-care system. But that very victory, won without a single Republican vote, signaled problems ahead, and before long Washington was afflicted by the very partisan strife Mr. Obama vowed to eliminate. Still, there were signs of hope amid the muddle and the misery. The economy took longer than anyone expected to recover from the Great Recession, but by the middle of 2014 the “green shoots” that had prompted early optimism had grown into saplings showing signs of maturing into stately oaks. House Speaker John Boehner — for most of the Obama years frustrated by the Tea Party rebellion — won a clean debt-ceiling extension in the winter of 2014 and suddenly rays of sunshine shone on Washington. Mr. Obama and the Republicans responded to that warmth and, though tensions remained and a vital election loomed, surprising progress was made on several issues, including immigration, and the two parties finally agreed on a comprehensive restructuring of the entitlement system that until 2015 threatened to strangle the American economy.

Surely other elements could be added to these paragraphs, and indeed these paragraphs, especially the last one, could be altered in tone and substance entirely. But for the writer of these paragraphs and perhaps for the reader of them, this exercise underlines how great was the potential of the Obama years and, indeed, how great the potential remains. Most of us don’t get even one paragraph to write in history, to say nothing of the chance to change the country or the world. Mr. Obama can still write his paragraph. He should draft it now before others do.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890).


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