Episode 69: Obama’s legacy on race
When is it too early to assess a president’s legacy?
On this week’s DecodeDC podcast, we talk with David Haskellan editor at New York magazine, who polled 53 historians and asked them how they thought we’d remember President Obama 20 years from now.
When asked what the president’s legacy might be, the overwhelming response, according to those Haskell spoke with: Obama’s status as the first African-American president will be the defining aspect of his legacy.
Yet they didn’t always agree on how race would affect the way we will remember Obama. Some pointed to the effect his race had on the opposition. These historians said what contemporary pundits won’t: that the rise of the Tea Party had something to do with Obama’s race.
“Seeing a black family in the White House reminds us that this isn’t a white nation,” wrote historian Annette Gordon Reed.
That simple fact, said the historians Haskell interviewed, riled up the opposition in a way that we wouldn’t have seen if he hadn’t been black.
In fact, when Haskell asked historians what they thought the most enduring image of Obama’s presidency would be, one recalled the moment during the 2009 State of the Union address when Republican Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!”
As for Obama’s biggest disappointment, Haskell said he mentioned it himself in Tuesday’s speech. He came into the office with a desire to unify, but even he admits he’s fallen short.
Obama said he still believes we can overcome partisanship and gridlock — but the historians overwhelmingly told Haskell he probably can’t — and they don’t fault him for it.
They don’t believe Washington can be a more civil, less polarized place. In the words of historian Paul Kahn, the Obama presidency will be remembered as “…the moment at which gridlock became institutionalized.”