EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Will Barack Obama be remembered as a “transformational president”? has he been a president who—as Obama himself put it in 2008, in reference to Ronald Reagan—“changed the trajectory of America” and “put us on a fundamentally different path”?
In his last year in office, Obama and his aides have rolled out a campaign to make that case. “He put the history books ahead of the news cycles,” asserts former head speechwriter Jon Favreau. He decided to “resist smaller incremental politics to do big transformational things,” reports former senior adviser David Axelrod.
The question is, and will be, contested. In January 2015, New York magazine offered up 53 historians and pundits whose views on Obama were all over the place. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hailed his presidency as a “historic success.” Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concluded that the Obama “realignment” signals that “the age of Reagan is officially over.” On the left, Tavis Smiley argued that Obama failed the “[Martin Luther] King test”: “He’s gotten a lot done,” Smiley conceded, “but on racism, poverty, and militarism, we lost ground.”
As the first African-American president, Obama is inescapably historic. And there is no question that his presidency—despite facing scorched-earth obstructionism by congressional Republicans—has been consequential.
But transformational presidents—like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—do more than simply govern well. They challenge and change the direction of the country. They indict the old order and summon Americans to a new vision. They forge what becomes an enduring majority coalition, forcing realignments so that successors can carry on the fight.
No president can be expected to complete the revolution. Obama describes the office as a “relay race,” with each president tasked to carry the country forward and then pass the baton. By definition, success or failure depends significantly on whether his (or, perhaps one day, her) successors consolidate the realignment, and on whether the opposition adjusts to the new reality. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Roosevelt and Harry Truman while embracing Social Security and the New Deal’s economic reforms. Clinton convinced Democrats that they must tack to conservative winds after the so-called Reagan Revolution. Obama’s hopes to be remembered as transformational surely were deflated by the stunning victory of Donald Trump, running explicitly on the promise to repeal or reverse many of Obama’s signature achievements.