No. Barack Obama will not be remembered as a great American president. He will be remembered for the historic aspect of his presidency, which is that he was the first person of colour, the first African-American, to get to the highest office, and that in itself will always keep him in the history books. But he ran into this incredible buzzsaw of an America in which the traditional working understanding of American democracy – which was that Republicans and Democrats would work together in the legislature to keep government functioning – had completely fallen apart. So virtually any measure he sent to Congress, the Republicans would try to block. Which has effectively made America ungovernable.
I think Obama had the potential for greatness in him. Had Obama come into power when Bill Clinton did, in 1992, before Congress and American politics went off the deep end into full crazy, he could have been great. Clinton, though he had great intellect, was notoriously unfocused and disorganised. Obama, to get to where he has got in life, is tremendously personally disciplined, and he brought comparable intellectual gifts.
When you think of the great presidents, you think partly of the ones on Mount Rushmore. George Washington was a great president because, at the very beginning of American history, he could have decided to stay in the job, and become a king, and people would have allowed him to do that. Instead, he handed over power. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and much more besides. There was another great president, James Madison, but his greatness lay in his writings before he became president, in the Federalist Papers – he was probably the most profound political philosopher of the last 150 years. Lincoln obviously, FDR obviously, Lyndon Johnson with an asterisk referring to the fact that he went into Vietnam although I think history will often look back at LBJ and say, we could use a man like that in the White House.
Obama does have a touch of the poet about him, and his skill is that he doesn’t over-egg his rhetoric. His two most important speeches, however, were actually made before he became President. The first one was to the Democratic convention in 2004 when he was just a state legislator from Illinois – and it was the most electrifying speech that any American politician has given in the last 25 years. Four years later he was the Democratic nominee for president. And during the primaries, he had the press ganging up on him because his pastor, in Chicago, is a notorious black nationalist. Obama gave probably the most mature speech about race in America anyone had given since Martin Luther King addressed the multitudes at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Both of those speeches will be studied.
I think he may have been overly cautious. I wish he would have fought harder against Congress, and used the bully pulpit more, to shame them into action. It may be that the House of Representatives is so badly gerrymandered now that it wouldn’t have made a difference, but it might have. That’s one of those questions that follows presidents through history – if he’d been a bit more willing to be confrontational, what might have happened?
I would mark Obama at a six, in the upper half of presidents. But presidents tend to be remembered with greater fondness a year or two after they leave office. Except George W. Bush.
Michael Goldfarb is the author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From The Ghetto Led To Revolution And Renaissance.