What will define Obama’s legacy?


“Barack Obama loves presidential history,” says White House historian Douglas Brinkley, who has attended meals with the president and talked history with him before. He describes Obama as an avid reader of presidential biographies, and someone who’s studied the mistakes and advantages other president’s of had.

Brinkley says that Obama looks to Lincoln as a favorite because he had an even more intransigent and obstructionist Congress than Obama does today.

A survey of presidential historians in 2009 ranked Lincoln first, Washington second, Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt third and fourth respectively, and Truman fifth. Brinkley sees a lot of commonalities in those top presidents, especially self-confidence. The other key quality they all shared? Great communication skills. “You have to communicate well,” Brinkley says.

Theodore Roosevelt was known to “dine with novelists and poets” and had a “gaggle” of journalists and cartoonists around him at all times, FDR was known for his famous “fireside chats” on the radio, and Brinkley points to Lincolns rhetorical skill and “eloquent” speeches like the Gettysburg Address.

Brinkley sees similar stellar communication skills in President Obama as well, predicting that Obama will be famous someday for invoking Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall as three key points along the civil rights journey. He also praised his most recent State of the Union.

“Someday somebody could do the speeches of Barack Obama, whether it’s his Nobel speech or his Cairo one, speeches at Newtown, Aurora, Tucson,” Brinkley says. “He’s been an extraordinarily gifted orator.”

Brinkley points to policy achievements like Obamacare and saving the auto industry as key parts of the Obama legacy too. “I think President Obama has not gotten enough credit for the bailout of General Motors, but that was a pivotal moment when he saved the auto industry and is now working to return manufacturing to American shores,” he says. “I think that also might be part of a big legacy that will keep him ranked towards the top of the presidents.”

As for his second term agenda – Brinkley thinks Obama’s low key withdrawal from the Afghan war will be a key part of his legacy, comparing him to Eisenhower, who is often praised today for ending the Korean War “without a lot of hoopla.”

Of course, it’ll be impossible not to remember Obama for having broken the glass ceiling, becoming our nation’s first president, but at the end of the day, that it’s the policy that will lead future historians to rank him among the greatest.


What will define Obama's legacy?