Every occupant of the White House experiences more than one presidency. There’s their actual time in office, an experience characterized by constant political conflict, a drumbeat of unanticipated crises large and small, and a trudging slog towards policy goals. Then there’s the version of their presidency that comes after they leave, as memories fade and history chisels away the various minor dramas until eventually all that remains for most Americans is an ultra-condensed summary. This is the version passed down through generations, to those who never experienced that president’s tenure themselves and whose sense of history stems from one or two paragraphs in their high school textbook.
More than any other period in his presidency, the past week’s rapid succession of once-in-a-lifetime moments closed the gap between President Obama’s day to day travails and his larger place in history.
“Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens,” as Obama put it in his response to the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage ruling Friday. “And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
For a few days in June, change was dizzying in pace and so real it could be touched. Universal health care, as one conservative put it, is forever, thanks to the Supreme Court knocking down the Affordable Care Act’s last significant remaining challenge. Marriage equality is forever. This week’s bipartisan exorcism of the Confederacy’s 150-year old demons is forever.
The avalanche of news sparked a discussion of two emerging views on Obama’s legacy – one focused on his policy accomplishments, the other as a symbol of underlying changes in the country that will long outlive his presidency.
In considering the first angle, let’s go back to that high school textbook in the future. This reporter was born in 1985. Growing up, I learned Lyndon Johnson was the president who passed landmark domestic legislation then crashed on the shores of Vietnam. Richard Nixon painfully ended that war, went to China, and then resigned over Watergate. Gerald Ford pardoned him, then was gone. Everything was terrible under Jimmy Carter, but he made peace in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan cut taxes, talked tough on communism, had a confusing scandal, and became the patron saint of the GOP. Other aspects of those presidencies, unless one aggressively sought out the history, were a handful of hazy, out-of-context, often apocryphal quotes and trivia.
This is something presidents understand better than most. “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story,” Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in one interview. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Now consider what the paragraph version of Obama’s presidency looks like as of now, with the key terms for next week’s social studies midterm highlighted in bold.
“The first black president, President Obama took office amid the Great Recession, stabilized the economy with a stimulus and auto bailout, passed universal health care and Wall Street reform over fierce opposition, and implemented a suite of regulations aimed at combatting climate change. The first president to embrace marriage equality, he presided over the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing it nationwide.”
The most glaring missing sentence in this summary is foreign policy. Will he be the president who ended two divisive wars and prevented a third in Iran? Or merely set the stage for an even worse conflict down the road? Future events can cloud domestic achievements as well – one prominent Republican strategist made the case to me this week that Americans would tie Obama to the decline of the middle class if the last decade’s stagnant incomes harden into something permanent.
What about the IRS or Benghazi scandals? The rocky debut of the health care website? Here’s an experiment: Walk up to a random voter in his or her 20s and ask them to explain Iran-Contra, the scandal that marked the low point of Reagan’s presidency. Unless there’s a blown re-election, a resignation, sex involved, or a serious body count, these pieces of history are usually the first to disappear down the popular memory hole. The process often plays out in real time – remember when the BP oil spill was “Obama’s Katrina?” Remember Ebola?
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews argued this week, King v. Burwell’s health care ruling preserving the Affordable Care act cements (for progressives, at least) the top single in a greatest hits of domestic achievements that’s almost without peer among modern presidents. It is extraordinarily unlikely the next Republican president will kick tens of millions of Americans off health care even if they have the votes to do so. Democrats will likely view Obama’s record as a blueprint for the exercise of presidential power much the same way Republicans do Reagan’s record today.
But the Matthews approach and even this piece’s textbook paragraph may be pushing it. For future children who will marvel at the idea there were Confederate flags in state capitols and that same-sex marriage was still illegal in 2015, it will be hard just to read past first black president.
This week’s gay marriage ruling and Obama’s speech in Charleston provided a glimpse of a hazy future view of his presidency less about any specific domestic policy achievement but about a broader suite of changes in the country that took place independent of him, but were encouraged or exploited by his presidency. The biggest of them all is the rise of a more tolerant and diverse political generation as the nation heads toward a majority non-white population by mid-century.
Obama’s election as the first black president – powered by landslide margins with black and Latino voters and historic turnout by younger voters – was hailed as a historic moment, but it was eclipsed almost immediately by the massive challenges that landed on his desk and the intense backlash his policy responses provoked on the right. The scope of this achievement came jarringly back into picture on Friday, however, when, as the Associated Press described it, ”America’s first black president sang [Amazing Grace], less than a mile from the spot where thousands of slaves were sold and where South Carolina signed its pact to leave the union a century and a half earlier.” It will move more and more to the forefront once there’s a new president dealing with the 24/7 reality show that is the White House and Obama settles into the more non-partisan, ceremonial role his surviving predecessors occupy today.
The erosion of Baby Boomer dominance and the rise of the Millennial generation is an epochal change. In politics, it’s often discussed as a matter of partisan scorekeeping, as it was after Obama’s two elections. While a significant story, which party stands to benefit in the short term is not the most important issue. Democrats and Republicans will always trade elections; the question is what each party will look like when they win.
Watching an Indian-American Republican governor and black Republican Senator in South Carolina join a black Democratic president in tearing down the Confederate flag – and white Southern governors from both parties follow their lead – one got as good a vision as any of a future where both parties compete fiercely for minority voters by necessity. Watching the gradual – then total – collapse of gay marriage bans on Friday pointed toward an era right around the corner where support for gay rights is every politician’s default position. Progressives spent a century trying to achieve universal health care, but it was Obama’s specific coalition that delivered the votes to pass it in 2008 and defend it in 2012.
Obama had a role in all these moments, but he would be the first to admit they were powered by deeper forces beyond his control. He wasn’t responsible for the rise of the gay rights movement, but he recognized its momentum and adopted its positions in time to justifiably claim a share of its success. After largely avoiding immigration issues for his first three years in office, he championed reform just as Latino and Asian communities were organizing to push their electoral power to new heights. He refocused his rhetoric on civil rights and racial justice, culminating in an unapologetic call for action in Charleston, right as a new generation of young activists rose to prominence issuing their own demands.
President John F. Kennedy’s domestic record was light, but his youth, glamour, religion, and halting steps towards civil rights made him a symbol of a country on the brink of historic change on many fronts. He’s still regularly picked as one of the country’s greatest modern presidents in polls. Obama’s record is robust, but in the end he may become best known for embodying what Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson dubbed “the week the 21st century really began in America.”