Obama’s legacy? US President prepares for final State of the Union

Historians and political experts analyze the leader’s time in the White House

Marc Bassets
President Obama before beginning his 2015 State of the Union address.
President Obama before beginning his 2015 State of the Union address.Pablo Martinez Monsivais (AP)

Every US president has to do two jobs at the same time: govern the country on a day-to-day basis while at the same time preparing his place in history, his legacy. The closer toward the end of a president’s mandate, the more talk there is – from supporters, opponents, journalists – of that legacy. What will people remember about him, what will he leave behind, how will he have changed the country?

Barack Obama, president of the United States since January 2009, will give his last State of the Union address on January 12. Within a year, he will be packing his bags.

At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right” US President Barack Obama

Like his predecessors, Obama will also be worried about his legacy. In a 2014 interview with The New Yorker, he said: “…we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.”

He then cited the example of Abraham Lincoln, noting that it would take a century after the abolition of slavery before African-Americans would achieve full equality before the law. “I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

EL PAÍS has asked several historians and political analysts what they think Obama’s paragraph will be.

JUSTIN VAUGHN, professor of political science at Boise State University and expert on the presidency

“I think, decades from now, when our various partisan attachments have faded and younger scholars who are unencumbered by their memory of this particular moment are at the helm of determining legacy, we will see that Obama is remembered as a trailblazer, but also one who underwhelmed and didn't meet expectations. Today, supporters of the president are quick to acknowledge partisan polarization and a recalcitrant Congress as the reasons why, but decades from now I think that explanation will be less persuasive. Future scholars will marvel at how Obama was so controversial while not really doing many controversial things, something that reflects poorly on both the overheated rhetoric from the right and the president's own, rather milquetoast approach to policy leadership and action.”

DAVID BLIGHT, professor of American history at Yale and author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

“Since Americans are now, and for the foreseeable future, extremely divided politically, President Obama's presidency will for a long time have at least dual legacies. The right will continue to remember and use him as their favorite model of liberal big government and an object of their racial resentment. Others, especially liberals of differing types, will remember him as an ultimate American First (as a black president), and as a sometimes reticent, but always deeply thoughtful, even brilliant political leader in a time of utterly intractable problems. But on revival from the Great Recession, immigration, health care, gay rights, maybe gun control, and certainly on climate change, he will have an enduring and transformative legacy. It should also be said that perhaps no president of great consequence since Lincoln (perhaps Franklin Roosevelt) has ever faced as vicious and unrelenting an opposition as Obama. Most of the time he has handled the right's attacks with a grace they did not deserve. And finally, I would add two suggestions. It is possible we will look at the Obama presidency as the time when the modern Republican party tore itself to pieces in spasms of hatred for Obama and activist government, and ceased to be a viable entity. But also we may look at Obama's era as a time when Democrats were left in a kind of stasis, led by older traditional mainstream politicians who have not developed a real, viable successor coalition.”

GEORGE C. EDWARDS III, professor of presidential studies at Texas A&M University

“Barack Obama has been a president of consequence. From halting our slide over the fiscal cliff and increasing regulation of the institutions that brought us to that point to greatly expanding Americans’ access to healthcare, he has made the country stronger and more humane. He has also managed an extraordinarily complex international situation without sending more Americans to war, increasing trade, and lessening the threat of a nuclear Iran. History is likely to treat him kindly.”

JENNIFER MERCIECA, historian of American political discourse at the Texas A&M University

“Obama has sought, from the very beginning, to be remembered as a ‘great’ president. Great presidents lead the nation during times of crisis and steady the ship of state through its troubling storms. Domestically, President Obama's legacy will be about his leadership in steering the nation through the economic crisis of 2008, about giving all Americans access to healthcare, about leading the nation through the civil unrest brought on by gun violence, racial tensions, and controversial Supreme Court decisions like Obergefell v. Hodges. Under his watch the nation's economy improved and the nation extended marriage rights to all couples, but the nation also struggled with fears of immigration, terrorism, race, and gun violence. Internationally, President Obama’s legacy will be mixed: while he acted to repair the nation’s relationships abroad, we also saw radical extremism continue throughout the world. I believe that President Obama will be remembered as a great domestic policy president.”

MICHAEL BARONE, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, journalist and coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics

“I think President Obama has gotten his paragraph mostly wrong. In a time when economic and cultural developments are producing a less centralized society, in which innovative and productivity increases come bubbling up from below, he seeks a larger and more centralized command-and-control government. In times when forces of terrorism are gaining ground in important parts of the world, he seeks to diminish American power to combat them, in the hopes that making emollient statements will make them friendlier to America and less committed to terrorism. In these respects he is working against the tide of history and against the prospects of decent democratic and rule of law societies.”

BRANDON ROTTINGHAUS, professor of political science at the University of Houston and presidency specialist

“President Obama's eight years put him in the firm middle of the curve of great presidents – strong on some issues, weaker on others. Presidents are judged on navigating big, historic moments. President Obama gets credit for tapering major foreign wars and stabilizing a faltering economy. But, despite bold promises, his inability to mitigate the economic pinch of the middle class and rising incoming inequality mar his domestic agenda, and so the president's legacy will rest solely on the success of health care reform.”

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