Barack Obama is going to be in the history books.
This will happen regardless of his critics or his fans, both of which are legion. It will happen regardless of who wins the White House in November 2016. It will happen whether you love him adoringly, deride him with cynicism or hate him with all your heart, or whether you somehow have managed to be one of the few who took no sides, choosing a nuanced take on the modern—marked by partisans, stymied by political gridlock—presidency.
Maybe you don’t think he’s that great. Or maybe you have a picture of him hanging up in your living room next to a trio of faded portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Jesus. Regardless, he’s going into the history books because Barack Obama is the first African-American president, a feat once deemed so impossible, many thought that it wouldn't be seen in their lifetimes.
And come January 2017, that “is” will turn into a “was” as a new president is sworn in and into history Obama goes. But before we get to that moment, The Root plans to take a good, long look at the highs and lows, feats and defeats, that make up the Obama presidency. And so we debut His Lasting Legacy, our new monthly series on that presidency. Each month until the election, The Root will examine some part of the Obama presidency—from race and foreign policy to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, the Affordable Care Act and more. We will examine his relationships, family, politics and promises to the American people.
To kick things off, The Root spoke with two observers of Obama’s historic presidency: Andra Gillespie of Emory University, who teaches and researches African-American politics, particularly that of the post-civil-rights generation, and is finishing a book on Obama’s legacy—Symbol, Substance and Hope: Race and the Obama Administration—due out in late 2016 or early 2017; and Saladin Ambar, associate professor of political science at Lehigh University, who focuses on American politics, the presidency and governorship, and American political development.
Both academics had a lot to say about Obama’s legacy.
The Death of Post-Racialism
Gillespie put things into context, citing how racial progress has always come with setbacks, and how the incredible progress of the first African-American president’s election came with unprecedented political gridlock and a rise in racial tensions and animus. She posited that this is the lens through which the Obama presidency will have to be viewed as historians examine his efficacy as president.
One can’t separate the president from the turbulent times.
“[A lot of African Americans think] racism has definitely hindered his process in his ability to do anything in general,” said Gillespie, who believes that blacks will view what Obama went through during his presidency “through the lens of race.”
Gillespie said that Obama experienced a “backlash” after his historic election, “in part due to race.” She said that history should have warned us that this would happen, but instead America was seduced by the notion of a “post-racial” movement.
The movement was a bust.
I think he’s going to be viewed as a transitional figure, someone who was not quite part of the civil rights era, yet not young enough to belong to this Black Lives Matter generation.
“Racial progress in the U.S. is not linear; it’s a jagged political process,” Gillespie said. “[University of Connecticut professor] Jelani Cobb brought this up at the dawn of the Obama administration, the notion that stunning racial progress is met with resistance. … We shouldn’t have been surprised that President Obama got called out on the floor of the House during a joint session of Congress. We shouldn’t have been surprised about the jokes that got discovered. We should have expected that, and that’s still likely a part of the narrative and is definitely going to make Obama more sympathetic in the minds of some people. [Historians] will take this into account as they’re assessing.”
A Man of Transition
Ambar, while acknowledging the racial discord that has marked Obama’s presidency, talked more about the at-times awkward in-between space the president holds within African-American society.
“I feel that most black people in the United States understand that he is deeply confined by his office,” Ambar said. “You can even physically see it sometimes in how he shifts in his chair.
“I think he’s going to be viewed as a transitional figure, someone who was not quite part of the civil rights era, yet not young enough to belong to this Black Lives Matter generation,” he continued. “He is often mentioned as a figure from the Joshua generation, the first group of African Americans to obtain political and economic success during a time where they had to be first. Part of that transitional legacy will be lots of praise and pride for Obama, but there will also be tremendous disappointment.
“This present generation is also facing exceedingly difficult circumstances,” Ambar said, citing unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos, failed education systems, the police-shooting deaths of unarmed black men and women, and a “corrosive” criminal-justice system that has led to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
“All of those disappointments, I fear, will be heaped on Obama,” he said.
But will those disappointments dim the bright light that many African Americans shine on the first family? Unlikely.
“I think there’s going to be a long-term feeling of goodwill towards Obama and, really, the Obamas, Michelle and the children,” Ambar said, adding that there has been a sense of pride about a scandal-free black family in the White House.
Gillespie pointed out that how the Obama presidency is viewed will depend on who your audience is, and if the audience is black, the view is likely to be highly favorable of the president.
“President Obama is still going to be held in high regard [after he leaves office],” Gillespie said, adding that the president will be “part of the culture.”
I think most historians and presidential scholars will say he did as well with what he had as any president.
Pointing to the president’s approval numbers, Gillespie said that when they’re taken apart by race, Obama rarely polls below 80 percent among black voters.
The Historical View
As for how history (and historians) will judge, both academics are optimistic.
Pointing to his handling of the financial crisis (“I think people today have almost forgotten how bleak the economy was in 2008. I don’t think historians will”), the landmark Affordable Care Act and the historic deal with Iran, Ambar says that historians will rank Obama high, just below the first tier of American presidents. He says that Obama is likely to share space in the second tier with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
“I think that’s a very realistic place for him,” he said.
Gillespie’s assessment was similar.
“Scholars tend to rank presidents higher if they are progressive on civil rights issues, so that’s probably going to work in President Obama’s favor in terms of his ranking,” Gillespie said. “There’s a lot of debate whether he’s in the sort of top, top-tier, ‘deserves-to-be-on-Mount Rushmore category.’ … He’s definitely not going to be at the bottom with the Warren Hardings, the Andrew Johnsons. He’s not in that category, despite the overblown rhetoric.
“[The debate will be] is he closer to the median or closer to the top-core top? He’ll get credit for managing the economy during the worst period since the Great Depression. He’ll get credit for achieving legislation [the Affordable Care Act] that Bill Clinton and Harry Truman couldn’t do before him. It’ll get factored in nonetheless.”
Ultimately, though, Obama will be judged within the context of his time.
“I think most historians and presidential scholars will say he did as well with what he had as any president,” Ambar said. “If we wanted to go down the line, we could criticize, can see lots of shortcomings. But given the limits of his presidency—the Congress he dealt with, the economic crisis, international scene—he performed as well as could be expected under those circumstances.”
Next in the His Lasting Legacy series:
“Fighting Racism in the Age of Obama”