U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Presidents that Historians Make

obama lightsaberThis week, New York Magazine has released the results of its survey of 53 historians[1] asking the basic question, how will history look back at the Obama presidency? (You can scroll through each historians’ complete answers to the survey beginning here.) Among the most familiar names to readers of this blog are Mary Dudziak, David Greenberg, David Hollinger, James Kloppenberg, Jackson Lears, Jill Lepore, James Livingston, Samuel Moyn, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Nell Painter, Daniel Rodgers, Nikhil Singh, and Thomas Sugrue, although that only begins to scratch the richness of this panel.

Richness, but not exactly diversity. It will no doubt strike historians of the future as a kind of editorial idiocy that New York did not bother to get a single [email protected] historian (as far as I can tell) to speak on Obama’s likely legacy, especially given the significance of Obama’s recent actions on immigration and Cuba and his earlier appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. I also don’t recognize any participant as a prominent scholar of LGBT history. Although most of the prominent action on this front has taken place in the judiciary, it seems unlikely that Obama’s behind-the-scenes actions or inaction on this score will not be considered a significant part of his legacy given the extraordinarily rapid advance of same-sex marriage during his tenure, and the more diffuse yet in the end likely more powerful effect of the increasing visibility and articulateness of the trans* movement.

The survey also provides the usual extreme gender disparity of mainstream journalism, although I was surprised by the extremeness of the extremity when I actually counted—42 men to 11 women, I believe. There are twelve men just with the names David, James, Jeffrey, or Stephen! 

I highlight the gender disparity not out of knee-jerk political correctness but because I think Obama’s record on gender is a complicated and often obscure one that will require some subtle historical work to reconstruct and understand—work that, unless something abruptly changes in the academy will most likely be done by women. Obama’s appointment of two women to the Supreme Court is one symbolic (and substantive) act, but the steps taken to enforce Title IX and pursue allegations of collegiate inaction on sexual assault will, if they prove consequential, be a quiet but crucial element of Obama’s legacy.

Okay, well if women, LGBT scholars, and [email protected] are highly underrepresented, who is well-represented?[2]

People who have written about Obama, for one thing. And you might think that would be a good idea, but if this survey truly is about predicting how assessments of Obama will change as new facets of his Presidency come into focus or his achievements and failures are reassessed, re-weighted, and re-contextualized, then it seems like talking to people who have already made up their mind sufficiently to write a book about Obama is not the best idea. They are, after all, not likely to be among those who will be leading any future reassessment. They now have theses to defend, characterizations to reiterate, a published record to protect.

Though it may seem similarly counter-intuitive, I think that there are also too many scholars of the twentieth century and too many Americanists. There seems to me to be very little reason why a historian of Reconstruction, or of the early republic, would not be as well qualified to speculate on the future of Obama’s standing among historians as a scholar of the New Deal or the Cold War. For what each is actually bringing to bear on this question is less the specific knowledge of their specialization but the general intuition of how historians think and how historiography moves. On the other hand, it seems like it would be a distinct advantage to have the specific knowledge of a Latin Americanist or an Africanist to speak for how their field may assess the Obama presidency. For surely we cannot expect Obama to have a place only in the historiography of the U.S.?

I would argue that what the survey is really after is not the question that it ostensibly poses: will future historians be generous or harsh to Obama, and where will they be generous and where will they be harsh? Because to answer that question one must really consider what role Obama will play in all kinds of historiographies—in studies of LGBT life in the U.S. in the early 21st century, in histories of immigration policy, in monographs on the political history of Chicago or the Arab Spring or on the idea of meritocracy—of which Obama stands as a shining example. Historians will see, or rather, will represent Obama through a thousand different windows, and his reputation or his stature will be built up piecemeal through the diligence of scholars working on questions that aren’t really “about” Obama at all, or that are only ever about “Obama and…” this or that.

But we have a very different question if, as I expect we are meant to, we think mainly about the future books that will just be “about” Obama—the accounts of his early years or his campaigns, the rhetorical analyses of his speeches, the assessments of his leadership, the books by his aides or Cabinet members—these are books that presume the full force of the genitive: Obama is not just the subject of the book but possesses, dominates the subject of the book. And that question is not so much, how will Obama be evaluated, but rather, what emotions will be evoked by the name “Obama” in twenty or fifty years? Regret? Disillusionment? Fondness? Admiration? Hope?

I am certainly not saying that the latter type of book is worth any less than the former. But because the survey seems to have coyly been borrowing the prestige of the discipline of history and does feature many truly great historians, I would have liked to have seen a panel that reflected the pluralism of how the field actually functions.

[1] There are a few political scientists, sociologists, and legal scholars mixed in here, but the group is preponderantly historians.

[2] Gordon Wood, who would have been a notable exception to the dominance of twentieth century scholars, appears to have been asked to participate and declined. It is entirely possible that many scholars that would have added other forms of diversity similarly declined, but the degree of gender imbalance and the absolute absence of [email protected] and LGBT scholars cannot really be accounted for by a couple of declined invitations.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Andy–
    I noticed that Miriam Pawel, who wrote a biography of Caesar Chavez was on the list, but none of her answers to the questions addressed issues having to do with Latinos in the U.S..

    One figure noticeably absent, given how much he has had to say about Obama in 2008 and beyond, is Sean Wilentz. Wondered about that. Especially since he seemed to have no compunction about predicting the future in his (in?)famous testimony during the Clinton impeachment, in which he warned that “History will hunt you down.” Also noticeably absent were the usual “presidential historians” Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

    I understand the desire on the part of historians to participate in this kind of exercise, but I think I’m with Wood on this. Our province is the past, and since we understand the world in terms of contingencies, and cannot predict future contingencies that will shape our understanding of present events in the future, we ought to make _that_ point rather than participate in telescoping our contemporary feelings and responses to Obama into the future. A deep understanding of history, it seems to me, produces the outcome that the future is unpredictable.

  2. Hi Andy, great post. It got me to thinking about a conversation I had with several other historians just two days ago about how weird Americans’ relationship with the whole idea of the presidency kind of is. One person, for example (I will out him it was Eran :)) pointed out that it’s really strange how popular it is in the US to ask someone, “who is your favorite president?” An Australian historian (from Australia, but does US history) colleague of ours was there and we asked her if people do this kind of thing in Australia (“who is your favorite prime minister?”) and she said no, never. And it occurred to me that sure enough, I never thought about how odd a question this is, and how revealing it is of American hang-ups and narratives that structure how we think about our history.

    So anyway, what I think is also funny is that historians don’t really seem to be much of an exception to this, even if they want to be! Every time a magazine comes out with a new “ranking” of the presidents there are essays by historians that hem and haw about how this is really not what we should be doing but, there is never a serious shortage of historians who write back to participate! Moreover, we have these discussions amongst ourselves; we know we do! Even if in a half-joking manner, we have them. In my department a few years back it was well known that there was a running joke/argument between two of the professors about who was greater; Lincoln or FDR. You could tell they weren’t taking it that seriously but hey, they still enjoyed the challenge of choosing if forced to choose. And then making a case for their choice.

    Moreover, there seems to be a tradition of bestowing, in a sense, historians or just “history” with the cultural capital to make these kind of calls; ultimately history judges us. (And Sean Wilentz wields that as a rhetorical weapon, lol!) The scene in Selma, which I just saw the other day (spoiler alert!) where Johnson is sitting across from Wallace and is like well *shit*, all I know is I don’t want history to clump me in with the likes of you!, comes to mind as just a really recent example. But in any case, it’s historians to a significant degree who make that call.

    (Although, in many cases they are just flat out ignored — thinking about Reagan, primarily, although in ways he’s too recent to have really endured the full assault of historical scrutiny. The myth that has built up around him, though, which has such pathetic footing in reality, is not encouraging.)

  3. Dan,
    Excellent catch on Pawel–I just missed that she had published the Chavez bio. And I also was surprised by the absence of Wilentz, although of course it’s difficult to say whether he (or anyone else who seems a likely participant) declined, wasn’t asked, or was simply busy. It would be interesting to find out more about how the panel was assembled/recruited…

    Robin Marie,
    Thanks! and I agree–I think it is interesting how quickly historians are drawn into the game of “favorite president,” although I guess I don’t really fault those who play. My feeling is that it is better to have expert historians (academic and non-) participate in these kind of exercises than to turn it over to television talking heads and former presidential aides.
    But still, I also wonder if there’s any country that has an analogous pastime–if we have any British readers, do you compare notes on your favorite monarchs (or prime ministers)?

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