How will historians rate Barack Obama’s presidency?
Following up my recent conversation with historian William Leuchtenburg about the challenges Hillary Clinton faces in her campaign, I wanted him to begin to put Obama in historical perspective, a challenging task for any one, but maybe not unfair to someone whose latest book, “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton,” will be out in early December.
“I have been thinking a lot about that,” he told me. “As the presidency of Barack Obama winds down, I am getting phone calls.”
Over the Christmas holidays in New York, a high official at Morgan Stanley “in the midst of a pleasant social occasion suddenly turned to me and asked me what are the three things that Barack Obama will be remembered for. I hardly had three seconds to think about it. But the three things I said were:
“First, he brought the country out of the deep economic chaos that he inherited from the second George Bush.
“Second, in a very perilous world situation, he made no major blunders. He made no commitments overseas with the kind of disastrous results that the second George Bush had in Iraq.
“And third, he extended the great benefits of health insurance to millions of Americans who weren’t covered.
“That’s not at all a bad record. It’s not the kind of record that, say, Franklin Roosevelt had. But then he never had the opportunity to achieve that, in part because the Republican opposition in Congress was so relentless. The temperament of the country is not for huge involvement by the federal government in civic affairs.”
I asked him where Obama would fit in the ranking of earlier presidents.
“He is going to fit into the middling range. Nobody is going to regard him as a great or near great president.
“What I’m struck by whenever I talk to fellow historians and to friends who are well-informed, most of them enthusiastic Democrats, all of whom voted for Obama both times, is a sense of disappointment.
“I remember the extraordinary excitement there was after his speech at Grant Park after the election, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter had asked me to speak that week, maybe four days after the election, at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I remember walking down Michigan Avenue. You could just sense everyone was feeling the Obama phrase, ‘change we can believe in.’
“The criticism I am hearing is much too harsh. Particularly, I think in the editorial pages of The Washington Post that much of the criticism has been extraordinarily severe and unjustified.”
Earlier, in sizing up Hillary Clinton’s challenges, Leuchtenburg said he did not think temperament was one of her strong points. But, he said, “Certainly one of Barack Obama’s greatest strengths is his temperament. His even nature has been admirable. But his critics have said, once they got a well-tempered president, he did not have any passion.”
To this point Leuchtenburg had not commented on Obama’s race and its impact on this presidency. When I raised this point, he commented, “It will mostly be the story of his being elected rather than the story of what happens subsequently. Some of my African-American friends believe that the attacks on Obama have a racist element in them. But on the whole I think the attacks on Obama bear a close resemblance to the attacks on Bill Clinton and other Democratic presidents. There is certainly a venal aspect of some of the hatred of Obama. It may be that Obama will be remembered less that he was the first man of color in the White House, than that his race mattered so little in the end.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs at noon Sundays and at 5 p.m. Thursdays on UNC-TV.