The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment
“The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment is a welcome and useful first look by first-rate historians at the still very incompletely excavated record of the historic Obama White House years.”
This new collection of essays looking back on the Barack Obama White House is an interesting reflection on very recent presidential history from the top of the United States History profession. All but three of the volume’s 17 contributors are established historians at elite United States universities (the only exceptions are a Princeton sociologist, a University of Virginia law professor, and a Princeton-minted post-doctoral fellow). Five of the contributors are employed by Princeton University, the volume’s publisher.
The essayists range from slightly left-of-center to liberal centrist, consistent with the standard ideological profile of the liberal arts and social sciences professoriate. The volume’s editor, Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, reports that nearly all the contributors were in “a state of shock” when Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton, who Zelizer (reflecting the meritocratic ideology of the professional class) revealingly calls “someone with one of the most impressive resume’s imaginable.”
Despite this shared political and upper-echelon academic and professional class ground, however, the contributors are not without differences on how to assess Obama’s presidential record and legacy. Seven of the essayists write about the Obama presidency with liberal approval:
- Princeton sociologist Paul Starr thinks that Obama can be shown to have “made significant progress in mitigating and reducing inequality” when tax policy, health care policy, and government transfer payments for the poor are factored in—an achievement for which Starr thinks Obama has not received proper “political credit.”
- University of California at Davis historian Eric Rauchway says that Obama deserves admiration for “avert[ing] an economic crisis of comparable severity to the Great Depression.”
- Princeton historian Meg Jacobs gives Obama lukewarm but nonetheless undeserved approval for “bold[ly]” using direct executive actions to “fight against global warming.”
- Imperialist University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri foolishly hails Obama for advancing “a liberal internationalist agenda that resisted the use of military force.”
- University of Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle lauds Obama for overcoming a “hostile political environment” to “superintend . . . an economic recovery much more robust than what Europe achieved.” Gerstle also hails Obama for bringing “a half-century campaign for national health insurance to successful conclusion” and (above all) for advancing “a vision of civic nationalism [that] inspired millions of young nonwhites to believe that they could find opportunity and liberty, and democracy, in America.” Gerstle reasonably and positively contrasts Obama’s multicultural and cross-racial “civic nationalism” with the Republicans’ and Trump’s “racial nationalism,” rooted in the ugly “belief that American is a land meant for whites, or Europeans, and their descendants.”
- Georgetown historian and Dissent editor Michael Kazin offers ironic praise to president Obama for sparking a resurgence of “the Left”—with the curious exception of the antiwar movement—by failing to deliver on candidate Obama’s progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric and imagery. (The key developments Kazin mentions are the rise of the Occupy Movement, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and the 2015-16 Bernie Sanders campaign.) At the same time, Kazin dismisses those who would “ignore, or quickly disparage, reforms that Obama and a Democratic Congress managed to enact during the first two years of his administration” —the Affordable Care ACT and the Dodd-Frank “regulation of high finance.”
- Rutgers historian Timothy Stewart-Winter acclaims Obama as “The Gay Rights President” for “major civil rights accomplishments on military service and marriage equality.”
Three of the essays are neutral on the Obama record:
- Zelizer’s opening two contributions, which split the blame between Obama’s poor political strategy and a hostile political environment defined by Republican intransigence in explaining Obama’s failure to turn policy victories into political gains for the Democratic Party. The title of Zelizer’s second essay tells much of the story: “Tea-Partied: President Obama’s Encounter with the Conservative-Industrial Complex.”
- University of Virginia history and law professor Risa Goluboff and University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger note commonsensically that the U.S. Supreme Court under Obama was not “Obama’s court.” They are relieved that the high court did not undertake a deep conservative transformation during Obama’s presidency. They rightly note that the Republican U.S. Senate’s “refusal to consider [Merrick] Garland [Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee] was unprecedented and a significant breach of constitutional norms.”
The seven remaining contributors are more critical of Obama’s presidential record:
- University of Pennsylvania history of education professor Jonathan Zimmerman properly criticizes Obama’s “Race to the Top” schools program for advancing the same neoliberal and teacher-bashing standardized test-based education agenda promoted by George W. Bush and embodied in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
- University of California at Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted rightly assails Obama’s “surprising” program of “targeted kills of suspected terrorists” – just “one of several hardline Bush administration counterterrorism polices that Obama chose to continue.” Olmsted notes that Obama insidiously acted “to normalize his predecessor’s [criminal and terrorist ‘counterterrorism’] practices and make them legal…Under Obama’s leadership,” Olmsted reminds us, “American liberals embraced exactly the sort of national security policies that they had condemned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.”
- Princeton historian Jacob Dlamini criticizes Obama for violating African sovereignty and African wishes by joining England and France in recklessly pursuing regime change in Libya. Dlamini also notes that Obama deepened and expanded the United States’ lethal military presence in Africa while doing nothing to fulfill hopes that the president (famously the son of a Kenyan national) would develop a special and positive relationship with Africa.
- New York University historian Thomas Sugrue notes that Obama’s “too cautious” urban policy left metropolitan America’s core inequalities and related harsh race-class segregation untouched thanks largely to the president’s excessive attachment to “market-based solutions.” Sugrue finds this unsurprising since Obama “was a product of the bipartisan neoliberalism of the 1990s, too enamored of market-based solutions and public-private partnerships to fight for a more vigorous public sector.”
- University of Michigan historian Matthew Lassiter traces the “resilience of the [Nixon-Reagan] war on drugs” under Obama and finds that Obama’s drug policies “reflec[ed] the bipartisan [and failed] consensus that the criminal justice system should ultimately regulate the illicit drug market and the parallel refusal to acknowledge that prohibition itself creates the context for violence and crime, whether by traffickers or law enforcement, both domestically and internationally.”
- University of Texas historian Peniel Joseph concludes that “Obama’s election, with its lofty and inspiring rhetoric about hope and change, represents an opportunity found and frustratingly lost for advocates of criminal justice reform—for people who hoped that the first Black president would undertake substantive steps to roll back racist mass incarceration and felony-marking. Joseph blames Obama’s “dream big but go slow . . . advice,” which “contradict[ed] his audacious and successful presidential campaign.” Joseph thinks Obama’s weak performance on the “the new Jim Crow” (racist mass incarceration and criminal branding) was consistent with Obama’s instantly famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, where the future president alarmingly found “moral equivalency in black anger over slavery and white supremacy with white resentment against affirmative actions and perceptions of black entitlement.”
- Southern Methodist University U.S. History Fellow Sarah Coleman finds that Barack “Deporter-in-Chief” Obama “ended his two terms with few successes and a mixed legacy in immigration and refugee policy.”
The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment will not find very many readers outside the groves of elite academia. A riveting page-turner it is not.
Neither the editor nor any of his contributors show the slightest awareness that many writers on the Left (this reviewer included) predicted precisely both the (not) “surprisingly” conservative” trajectory of the Obama presidency quite early on and the results of that presidency (including divergent insurgencies both left and right).
Goluboff and Schragger are wrong to see Obama in 2008 as a “Harvard-trained lawyer” who “thought social change [was] more likely to come from the grassroots.’’ Obama shed that belief before he went to Harvard. That abandonment was part of why he left community organizing and applied to the top law school in the first place.
Kazin is on flimsy ground to see a resurgent Left without an antiwar movement under Obama. No Left worth its salt can emerge without coming into conscious confrontation with the U.S. global military empire, a great source of inequality, authoritarianism, and oppression at home and abroad.
Gerstle is wrong to see Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a successful culmination of “a half-century campaign for national health insurance.” The real U.S. national health insurance dream has always been for a single-payer system, Medicare for All, without corporate profiteering. Obama failed even to include a partial public option.
Olmsted would be less surprised by Obama’s murderous “counterterrorism” if she had closely read candidate Obama’s foreign policy writings and speeches. She might want to think of Obama’s kill program as just plain terrorist, not counterterrorist, consistent with Noam Chomsky’s 2015 description of Obama’s drone program as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”
These criticisms aside, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment is a welcome and useful first look by first-rate historians at the still very incompletely excavated record of the historic Obama White House years. It will surely provide a touchstone for future and longer looks back by historians and others in coming years.