Historians Begin to Gild Obama’s Reputation

The problem with fixing the historical reputation of presidents — in both meanings of “fix”: securing in place and repairing — is that it is done by historians. That problem is manifest in Politico’s recent invitation to “ten leading historians” to write a paragraph on “Obama’s rank in the pantheon of American presidents.”


If journalists write the first draft of history, one of the striking things about this collection is how little any of the ten historians revise in any way the conventional wisdom that permeates most campuses and is expressed by such bubble-surrounded sources as NPR, the New York Times, and the pundits of MSNBC.

It is tempting to attribute this ideological conformity to Politico’s own liberal bias, since no superhuman effort would have been required to find an unorthodox historian or two to break the monotonous repetition on display here such as Stephan Thernstrom or Fred Siegel (whose new book, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, which just received a deservedly positive review in the Wall Street Journal, is directly on the point of this discussion). Sadly, however, Politico’s selection is in fact all too representative of academic history these days.

The particular jewels repeatedly polished here for Obama’s crown are entirely predictable: prominent among them is that he would have been even more successful but for the “fierce blowback from the Republican right” (Douglas Brinkley, Rice); that his presidency evinces a “pattern of good intentions waylaid by a polarized and uncooperative Congress (due particularly to the paralysis of the Republican Party induced by its right-wing ‘Tea Party’ faction)” (Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard); “[h]e will be remembered as a president who, with the best of intentions, tried and failed to end stark, acrimonious polarization in Washington” (Sean Wilentz, Princeton); that despite the fact that Obama  is “a coolly analytic thinker … who resisted easy solutions and was comfortable wrestling with complex problems,” he “could not overcome the deep, bitter and even racist opposition and antipathy that his presidency faced” (Jack Rakove, Stanford).


What these ten historians say with virtually one voice about Obama, however, is much less interesting and much less revealing than what they do not say, i.e., the pack of  dogs that do not bark in their analyses. The words “debt,” “deficit,” and “unemployment,” for example, do not appear in any analysis, and the only references to the most anemic recovery from a recession on record are the praise of Obama from Sean Wilentz (Princeton) for “laying the groundwork for recovery” and from James Kloppenberg (Harvard) that his $800 billion stimulus package “prevented the recession from becoming a depression.”

Remarkably, none of the ten historians displays any hesitation in predicting the future reputation of a president who still has three years left of his term. Jeremy Mayer (George Mason) even sees into the future itself, predicting that “Obama was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Hillary Clinton.” Soothsaying aside, if Afghanistan or Iraq implodes, if we suffer another terrorist attack, the plaudits here for ending those wars (Jack Rakove, Stanford, and James Goldgeier, American) and winding down the “war on terror” (Margaret MacMillan, Oxford, quotes in original) may prove both premature and embarrassing.

Another dog whose bark is inaudible is that not one of these “leading historians” thought it worth mentioning Obama’s extraordinary and unprecedented use of “executive action” not only to amend, revise, and rewrite what he and his supporters were once pleased to call “the law of the land” but even to legislate on his own — far beyond what any previous president has ever done with executive orders — without the inconvenience of having to deal with Congress. If this presidential defiance of Congress stands, Obama will have dramatically increased the power of the presidency, fundamentally changing the relationship between the executive and legislative branches and making the assessment of Beverly Gage (Yale) that “Obama brought few structural changes to American government” not only wrong but risible.


Yet another unbarking dog is the absence of even one mention in these ten paragraphs of what will probably become the most remembered words of the president who rose to power in good part based on his words: “If you like your health insurance…. If you like your doctor….” Unanimously ignoring what is probably the most politically significant lie in American presidential history — certainly more memorable and important than Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” and Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” — is all the more striking because nine of these ten historians  emphasized the centrality of Obamacare to Obama’s legacy (James Goldgeier, American, discussed only foreign policy), as you’ll see on the next page.

• Lizabeth Cohen (Harvard) titled her paragraph summing up Obama’s place in history, “In A Word, Obamacare.”

• Jeremy Mayer (George Mason) said that Obama’s “primary achievement in domestic policy was to begin the long process of nationalizing America’s health insurance industry.”

• Sean Wilentz (Princeton) said Obamacare was his “chief legislative  accomplishment.”

• Robert Bonner (Dartmouth) asserts that health care reform will prove to be “Obama’s lasting achievement.”

• James Kloppenberg (Harvard) actually described the “landmark” Obamacare legislation as “universal health insurance,” thus ignoring or oblivious to the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projection (Table 2, February 4, 2014) that under Obamacare there will still be 31 million uninsured nonelderly people in 2024, an increase of one million over the 30 million projected in its February 2013 projection.


• Margaret MacMillan (Oxford) summed up Obama in the title to her paragraph as “A Man Who Promised Too Much,” but even she neglected to mention his knowingly false promises that were central to his success in “bringing medical care to poorer Americans,” which had the praiseworthy effect of making the United States less like the United States and moving it “closer to the inclusive social policies of Northern Europe and Canada.”

• Douglas Brinkley (Rice), far from acknowledging Obama’s purposeful deceptions, went so far as to refer to Obama’s “unflappable integrity” on the way to  describing Obamacare as “[h]is greatest long-term victory.”

In short, the Politico 10’s assessments of President Obama’s future reputation contain all the spark, surprise, nuance, originality, and openness to conservative counterpoints that one would expect from a bevy of conventional liberal historians evaluating a liberal president. Insofar as their views do in fact represent the prevailing consensus among academic historians, however, they may well amount to a self-fulfilling (and self-interested) prophecy: Obama’s historical reputation will be whatever these historians, and others like them, say it is.


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