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WRITING HISTORY

Jimmy Carter’s ex-speechwriter pinpoints the most defining factor of Obama’s legacy

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Reuters/Andy Rain/Pool
Legacies don’t make themselves.
This article is more than 2 years old.

This question originally appeared on Quora: Based on what we know now, what will Barack Obama’s historical legacy be? Answer by James Fallows, Atlantic magazine writer, ex-China resident, ex-speechwriter, current pilot.

Let’s agree to the obvious: that assessments of a president’s influence in real time are certain to be flawed, and that swings back and forth in estimation are certain to occur. Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower left office with somewhat bedraggled reputations—Truman as an unworthy/accidental successor to FDR, Eisenhower as a stolid unimaginative figure. By the 1980s Truman was enjoying a huge revival, and Eisenhower is (in my view) the great wise man of the second half of the 20th century, building American strength domestically while carefully husbanding our resources overseas. Even my one-time employer Jimmy Carter, of whom the kindest thing that’s usually said is “Well, he’s a good ex-president,” is due for a reassessment pretty soon. Details on that later.

I made the case about the unknowability of a president’s record, as it unfolds, in this long article about Obama three-plus years ago. Part of the article showed the dramatic back-and-forth in assessments of presidents. And part of it argued what I think is an underappreciated point: that the job of a US president requires so many more distinct talents than any one human being has ever possessed, that the question about any president is not “whether” he or she is going to fail in some way. It’s just figuring out which ways they’re going to fail most seriously.

After all that throat-clearing: I think that Obama will be judged, based on what we know now, as a much more successful than failed president. Part of that is due to an unfair but unavoidable reality: our judgment of presidential success always turns heavily on whether they are re-elected (as obviously Obama has been). It’s a proxy for one kind of success; and it actually does make them more successful in some ways. There are that many more years to implement policies or keep them from being overturned; to learn the job; to cement influence within the government.

From my perspective, Obama’s signal successes will be: judgment in a number of foreign policy areas, which include the opening to Cuba, the possibility of an opening with Iran, and the containing (though not elimination) of the long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I predicted at the time, and do now too, that with the passage of years Obamacare will become as much part of the expected landscape as Medicare is now. (I am old enough to remember how bitterly controversial Medicare was in the mid 1960s. Ronald Reagan got his political start railing against this step toward socialized medicine.) And although racial inequity remains America’s original sin and main social challenge, I think his voice and presence have been very important. I wrote a relevant piece about that here, and more generally on whether he is “chessmaster or pawn.”

There will be more to say, but that’s it for now.

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