President Obama and the New America

A century from now, our first black president will be seen as a key transitional figure when America's superpower status was about to be sharply curtailed.

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Today is the midpoint of Barack Obama's first term as president of the United States of America. When scholars look back at this moment a century from now, what will they make of it?

They, of course, will have the advantage of knowing facts about which we can only speculate, starting with whether Obama was re-elected to a second term. And with the passage of time, they will be able to put into calmer perspective the ferocious partisan politicking over such issues as health care reform in which we're embroiled, discerning overall patterns and trends where those of us in the storm can only perceive the waves.

My guess is that, to future historians, our times won't seem merely like a struggle between liberals and conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, or advocates of big government and those of limited government, or blacks and whites. Instead they will be seen as something much more fundamental: the birth pangs of a new version of America -- one that not only looked different from the country it displaced but also occupied a different, more mature place in the world.

To those savants, the crux of the Obama years won't be so much about the man who occupied the Oval Office and his differences with his opponents on Capitol Hill. Rather, it will involve the irresistible demographic shifts that made the election of a black president possible, and the relentless global economic transformation that constrained his options once he assumed the office.

A century from now, it will be obvious that Obama's tenure marked a turning point in the power relations among the races. The color line had been irretrievably smashed by his ascent. America had to negotiate a new compact on race, color and class. The New America that Obama's presidency heralded was browner, blacker and younger than the America from which it evolved.

And though whites continued to enjoy a disproportionate share of the nation's wealth and political clout, the emerging leaders in politics and business were more colorful, too. To our future historians, the notion that there was something controversial about a black man getting elected will seem as ludicrous and quaint as the idea of black and white drinking fountains appears to young people today.

 

Internationally, the Obama years will also be seen as the end of the United States' decade-long unchallenged position as the world's only superpower. Historians of the future will know exactly when the American economy was outsized by China's, whose President Hu Jintao was entertained by Obama at a lavish state dinner on Jan. 19, 2011. They will also know whether American leaders came to their senses in time to realize that the nation, deeply in debt to China, could no longer afford to play the role of global cop.

And how will Obama be judged by future generations? I predict that he will be seen as a key transitional figure, whose presidency foreshadowed the dramatic changes to come. In his best, most foresighted moments, he showed an astute awareness of the transformation that was taking place. He was trying -- against tremendous, short-sighted opposition -- to put in place some of the building blocks the U.S. needed to come through the transformation successfully. If he succeeded, a century from now his presidency will be seen as the start of the New America, not its culmination.

On the other hand, the headline-grabbing but empty spectacles mounted by his opponents, like yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives to repeal health care reform, will be understood as the last tremors of a fading, though still powerful, world order that still had the power to frustrate and slow the birth of the New America.