George W. Bush liked to say that history would be the judge of his presidency. The idea being that history is written at some indeterminate point in the far-off future. How could we ever know what the historians would say? But, of course, they had already started weighing in on the Bush administration well before he left office (and often not all that favorably, either). Now, nearly a year into President Obama’s presidency, historians have some things to say about him, too.
There were, by my count, five sessions on President Obama at last week’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I caught two of them, listening to a half-dozen scholars propound on Obama and his policies. What struck me is that nearly every criticism of the president — and there were plenty — was followed by a caveat. He hasn’t had enough time in office. He’s had to deal with a terrible economy. The health care battle has overwhelmed the rest of his domestic agenda. And so forth.
One session was titled “What Has Obama Learned from History?” though it could have been called “What Obama Should Learn from History.” Historians had no shortage of advice for the president. Jason Scott Smith, an assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, argued that President Obama could learn the following lesson from FDR: Be bold. The most controversial policies can turn out to be the most popular, he said. Alice O’Connor, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, praised the president for his appreciation of history, but said his administration was “strikingly deferential to the entrenched interests it’s trying to reform.”
On the foreign policy side, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Obama had more or less continued the Bush administration’s war on terror, while Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, a professor of foreign relations at San Diego State University, thought the president had yet to come up with a coherent foreign policy.
A session put on by Historians Against the War was called “Obama’s Troubling First Year: What Went Wrong, and What Can Historians Do About It?” But even with that unfavorable title, there was still a desire to cut Obama some slack. Margaret Power, an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said it was up to historians and other citizens, not Obama, to lead a reform movement. And Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said there was a 30-percent chance that Obama’s policies would shift to the left after the health care bill passed.
Hope springs eternal, or at least for a little while longer.