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How Obama Will Be Evaluated by History


According to Duncan, Obama will be remembered by historians as a bad president:

Obama Was Bad

Second term Obama was better. Once upon a time I was on various left wing conspiracy email lists (I am not on any of them now. None. In part because I unsubscribed and in part because this sucky blog doesn’t matter anymore.) There isn’t anything damning about such things. They weren’t any more devious than press talking points. The sad thing about the vast left wing conspiracy is that the left wing is shit at it. But the point is I have no idea what the insider CW is now.

Of course Obama was better than Trump. Of course Clinton would have been. These are dumb talking points. Obama didn’t use the power when he had it. I met Obama. A few times. I think Benevolent Dictator Obama is a good guy. Certainly President Obama was better than President McCain and President Romney. But less better than should have been.

When Teh History is written (30 years from now, that’s how Teh History works), Obama will be written off as a shit president who blew an historic opportunity. I am sad about that.

People are entitled to judge presidents by whatever absolute standards they want. If you want to say that you consider Obama a bad president, I can’t say that’s wrong per se. (Although it does help if your yardstick focuses on stuff Obama actually could have done; Matt Stoller’s baseline of “what I would have done if I were Prime Minister of the United States with huge Commons majorities who agree that I’m right about anything” strikes me as useless on any level.) There were good things Obama could have done that he didn’t, and bad things he didn’t have to do that he did. If you want to say that makes him a bad president, you can, although that’s not the yardstick I would use personally use.

As a claim of how history will remember Obama, however, this is almost certainly false, for the simple reason that his presidency was more accomplished than most American presidencies will also being unusually non-corrupt. I mean, just look at the consensus top 10. Sitting at #4 is Teddy Roosevelt, much more hat than cattle on domestic policy and largely a senseless belligerent on foreign policy. #6 is Truman who, as recently discussed, had an almost entirely failed domestic agenda, a highly dubious foreign policy agenda, bad nominations, and was so unpopular he didn’t run for re-election although he was eligible.*(**) #7 is Wilson, who was an active president, but one whose bad aspects were much worse than Obama and whose progressive accomplishments were nowhere near as difficult or impactful as the ACA. #9 is Jackson, an important president who left the country much worse than he found it. And rounding out the top 10 is the short and lightly accomplished presidency of John F. Kennedy. Obama is not going to be remembered as much worse than these presidents because there’s no possible defense for the assertion that he’s much worse than these presidents. He will be well-remembered by history because if you try to count better presidents you’re going to start to run out of names before you live your first hand. This may say more about the typical American president than Obama, but the typical American president is the baseline history uses.

The thing is, though, that even for people who use the baseline of “was the president left-wing enough?” it is overwhelmingly likely that Obama will remembered well. Left critiques of Obama rarely took the form “Obama is a compromised corporate neoliberal, just like his New Deal counterparts.” Rather, they generally took the form of “Obama wasn’t an uncompromising anti-corporate liberal like FDR, who WELCOMED THEIR HATRED.” Stoller’s admiration for Harry Truman, who he would have despised contemporaneously, takes this beyond parody, but it reflects a common tendency. Not only will Obama be remembered as one of the best presidents in American history by mainstream historians, several decades from now he is much more likely to be used by the left as a cudgel to assert that current Democratic presidents are insufficiently left-wing than as a failed neoliberal. If the president who was in office when Taft-Hartley passed with no countervailing progressive accomplishment can be remembered as a president the left can love, and Jimmy Carter a decent president, Obama won’t even be a challenge.

*I had forgotten that although Truman was only elected once the 22nd Amendment was written to exclude him from a second full term because he had served more than 2 years of FDR’s last term. The material point is that Truman was massively unpopular, probably would not have sought the Democratic nomination, probably wouldn’t received it if he did seek it, and certainly would have been absolutely creamed by Ike if he did.

**I was right the first time — Truman was grandfathered in.

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