Introduction: Barack Obama and the Transformational Impulse

  • Wilbur C. RichEmail author


When President Barack Hussein Obama left office on January 20, 2017, he left a fascinating legacy. The Obama presidency will remain an intriguing part of our nation’s political history, and we can now say that there were unexpected achievements and failures. His tenure was both historical and complex, and will inevitably be compared with his predecessors and successors. The chapters in this volume are a serious assessment of President Obama’s tenure written by a diverse team that includes political scientists, sociologists, historians, and economists. They provide critical insights into the man and his policies and, more importantly, are written in a manner that makes them available to laypersons, journalists, students, and scholars.

American presidential history is full of commended political firsts—first military general to serve in the office, the first father/son to serve as presidents, the first Catholic president, and so on. The celebrated honor of being the first person to achieve the historical breakthrough carries with it an incredible amount of triumphalism and a high burden of expectations. When Barack Hussein Obama became the first African American president of the United States, his election represented a sharp turn in America’s racial history as well as a fascinating self-actualization of political ambitions. He inherited a venerated office with a job description that had a 221-year history. It is also an office that continues to change.

After President Obama finished taking the Oath of Office, remained questions about whether he was up to the job. Granted this is true for all new presidents but Obama was so unlike any of his predecessors. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, worked as community organizer, served in the Illinois state senate, taught law at University of Chicago, and served in the US Senate for three years. Against many odds he became the 44th president of the United States.

The eighteenth-century Framers of the United States Constitution enumerated an intriguing set of qualifications for the presidency. For them, the newly elected president would be a statesman who could command the respect of the citizenry. Ideally the president should be a literate property-owning man with experience in public affairs. They assumed that more statesmen like George Washington, the prototype, would emerge. The Framers of the Constitution certainly could not have predicted that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama II would be the 44th president of the United States and that his overall political impetus would be to fundamentally change the American establishment. Nor could they have expected the office of the presidency to be a vehicle for socio-economic change as it has emerged. The men who served in the office after President Washington expanded the roles of the office and Congress added the statutory modifications to make the president responsible for the economy and awaited respondent for catastrophes, that is, chief comforter. The Framers would not recognize the modern presidency. With each expansion of the presidency, new contradictions and paradoxes are introduced for the incumbents. Political scientists Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese observed,

We admire presidential power, yet fear it. We yearn for inspiration, idealism and optimism, yet know the need for realism. We yearn for the heroic, yet are also inherently suspicious of it. We demand dynamic leadership, yet grant only limited power to the president. We want presidents to be dispassionate leaders and listeners, yet they must also be decisive. We are impressed with presidents who have calm and even fearless self-confidence, yet we dislike arrogance and respect those who express reasonable self-doubt. We want leaders to be bold and innovative, yet we allow presidents to take us only where we want to go. In a sense, we want presidents to be representative of us, yet not too representative.1

Did President Obama meet these conflicting demands, cross-pressures, and contradictions in his term? The chapters in this book examine President Barack Obama’s transformational impulse to make America a different and “better” nation. The underline premise was that the nation was not living up to its creedal obligations, economic potential, and moral responsibilities. Obama thought he could be a catalyst for fundamental change in America. In his 2009 Inaugural Address he proclaimed

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics… The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.2

“Yes we can” was one of the themes of his campaign. Indeed, changing America had been a recurrent theme for many modern American presidential campaigns. The question was what type of change and what type of leadership was appropriate for the task. In 2008 Barack Obama ran a campaign that promised to make fundamental change in America. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama made a commitment to economic democracy. The book emphasizes opportunity, fairness, and accountability.3 In his travel around the nation he thought that he had encountered a yearning for “Hope and Change.” From his perspective, America was a nation that needed to make major changes to make it an even greater nation than it is. Otherwise why would he, a serious change agent, apply for the job? In that historical election Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes. Obviously, he received support from a variety of groups including 95% of African American voters.4 His election suggested that the American people wanted a transformational presidency and that Obama concluded that he was such a leader. Obama told his audience

I’m the one who brings change. It is my vision. It is my agenda. I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time … unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.5

The Framers of the Constitution would be stunned at this statement. Not only would that statement offend their eighteenth-century social sensibilities but it was not what they wanted to the presidency to be. Rereading this statement tells us how Barack Obama interpreted his transformational role. The quote contains an incredible amount of self-referencing and projections about the motives of the American people. As we shall see in this book, self-referencing and projections did present problems for President Obama as it does for presidential leadership in general.

Types of Presidential Leadership

Some president watchers and historians claim they can immediately identify what type of leaders a new president will be. Political scientist James McGregor Burns is credited with making a critical distinction about the nature of leadership. His simple typology-transformational and transactional leadership can be applied to most American presidents. Presidents who are transactional leaders seek political solutions for the given moment but do not try to fundamentally change existing political and economic arrangements. Such leaders just want to get through the day; make whatever political compromises needed to keep the government functioning and to keep those around him (the public, staff, and family) satisfied. American voters elected such presidents to continue existing policies of the government; Dwight Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush were also examples of such leadership. This is not to suggest that all Republican presidents were transactional. Lincoln and Reagan were definitely transformational. Republican voters in the post-Reagan era apparently wanted candidates to continue to reflect Reaganism. The potential transactional leaders have campaigned as such. Such presidents understand that they were not elected to do anything radical or to change how the nation is organized.

Presidents who believed they are transformational leaders, by contrast, seek to radically and permanently change the nation’s politics and economy. They are most successful during crises. For such a president changing the nation is a personal sojourn for them and in the process all Americans will benefit. These types of presidents argue for new ways to deal with economic and social problems. During their campaigns they tell voters that the nation is in a crisis and their welfare is at stake, therefore electing them can alleviate their situations. Robert Kuttner, author of Obama’s Challenge, suggested that the then Senator Barack Obama had the skills to be a transformational president in the mode of Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt.6 Such candidates view their election as averring confirmation and a mandate for fundamental change.

Granted the typology categories are not mutual exclusive, but it allows us to appreciate presidential behavior in the office. History shows that presidents can be a mix of both transactional and transformational styles. President Lyndon Johnson comes to mind as synthesis of both types.

Yet political scientist Stephen Skowronek believes actual transformational presidents are those that completely changed how government works. He called them “Reconstruction Presidents,” since they seek to repudiate the old ways of doing and thinking about politics.7 Such presidents appear at certain junctions in American history as a response to a collapse of governing consensus or at times of economic dislocation. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are often cited as examples of transformational presidents. Lincoln won the Civil War, emancipated slaves in the Confederate States, and expanded the transcontinental railroad. In the process he expanded the prerogatives of the presidency. Roosevelt took the nation away from the Great Depression, instituted a mixed economic system, established a social security system, and promoted a new workfare program called the New Deal. Indeed, Barack Obama regarded President Lincoln as one of his role models. He may have been channeling Lincoln, but his statement above suggested deeper sources of motivation.8 If one reads the Obama statement slowly one gets the sense of secondary motivations that includes a personal and consecrated journey.

Barack Obama as Transformational Candidate

Several contributors in this book commented on Barack Obama’s campaign to be a transformational figure. In his first national political speech at the 2004 National Democratic Convention, he asserted that there were no blue states or red states in America but rather a United States of America. To some the speech was spellbinding and uplifting because of its hyper-optimistic tone and promise. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recalled, “Obama’s DNC speech is the key. It does not belong to the literature of ‘struggle’; it belongs to the literature of prospective presidents-men (as it turned out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams.”9 Four years later the junior senator from Illinois was running for president of the United States. Obama was Ivy League educated, with a bi-racial ancestry, an international childhood, great oratory skills, and his family was picture perfect. Still people were asking silly questions. Was he black enough? Could a community organizer handle the job of being president? Could he tear himself away from his Chicago political mooring? Would whites vote for him? In his 2008 campaign Obama presented himself as an uplifting and change-oriented candidate. Indeed, he suggested that the Obama administration would be a post-partisan and race-neutral one. America, under his tutelage, would emerge as a very different nation in substance and spirit. He asserted that “Hope and Change” would replace the Washington partisan bickering and ideological jousting. American voters who voted for him understood what they were voted for: fundamental change.

Obama saw as his purpose as transforming American politics. He was not just going to be the first African American president but his approach to the presidency that would be entirely different. His strategy was to appeal to the fair and good aspirational qualities of the American people. The President flattered and challenged them. “You, the American people elected me [Barack Obama] to do something radical, now let’s do it.” Obama said as much in his 2016 interview with Coates. “At some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them.”10 Although Obama did not offer an overall policy theme such as the New Deal or the Great Society, he sought to make America more inclusive socially and economically. He sought to make Americans more aware of the economic dislocation problems associated with a globalized economy.

When Obama became president in 2008 the media characterized his election as a major breakthrough (read race relations) in American politics. He was such an elegant speaker and had a likable personality. Journalists used adjectives like thoughtful, deliberate, rational, and professorial to describe his style. More importantly, he embraced this image and apparently regarded it as an indissoluble faith in the goodness of the American people. He repeated that faith on several occasions. His speeches were of full optimism and assurances that the world could be a better place. His election was greeted by the world as new American beginning. Barack Obama was both a leader and a teacher. In many ways he taught us a lot about ourselves. His stint in the White House was “no ordinary times.” For that reason, the Obama presidency will remain an intriguing part of our nation’s political history. The world took notice of this prospect. In 2009 President Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for inspiring peace in the world. He had not been in office a year.

Obama as an Effective President

One of the first things a new president realizes is that being elected president is not the same as being president. Becoming an effective president requires even more skills because the choices are more complicated. An entire research literature devotes itself to analyzing effectiveness of presidents. Political scientist Fred Greenstein, one of the leading experts on presidential leadership, outlined six qualities for an effective president.11 An effective president must be, first of all, proficient as a public communicator. Greenstein found that many presidents have been failures as communicators. Obama was a great communicator. He was what Greenstein called a “shining exception” in the history of poor presidential communicators.12 Because President Obama was such a great communicator he was clearly the face of his administration. He stood foursquare on his agenda that was to make improvements in the quality of life and the nation more inclusive. Obama mastered the teleprompter, phrase making, and extemporaneous assertions. The nation had not seen anything like his rhetorical performance since the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Some contributors for this book conceded that President Obama was a good communicator but question his effectiveness as a change agent.

The second quality for effectiveness is presidential organizational capacity. Greenstein describes this as the ability to create “a team and get the most out of it.”13 A president must be able to rally his colleagues and “create an effective institutional arrangement.” Before deciding, Obama gained a reputation of “exposing himself to vigorous give and take.”14 Selecting the right staff members is critical to making an effective interactive process work. According to the media, Obama staff meeting resembled university seminars with the president and staff debating issues before making decisions. Political scientist James P. Pfiffner agreed that White House staffs reflect the incumbent values. He described Obama’s White House staff as an organization engaging in “Careful, and sometimes lengthy, deliberations [that] marked Obama’s style of decision making. He insisted on multiple advocacy by requiring his staffers to argue their cases in front of him, as when he demanded that dissenting perspectives on economic and military policy be aired in person.”15 Describing Obama leadership style with those adjectives may be only an impression made from a distance. We will have wait for Obama staff members to write their books to inform us about what is like to work for the former president.

Retrospectively, one could question Obama’s selections for key staff positions, but these choices were made to help him achieve his agenda. Presidents Lincoln and Obama were seen as similar in that they selected a team of rivals or former opponents as members of their staff (e.g. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden).16 Indeed at the time of their appointments, the staff choices seemed reasonable. There were turnovers but no major blowups or scandals. Managing presidential staff is by nature idiosyncratic. Greenstein admired Eisenhower procedural presidency with clearly defined staff roles. Obama was not inclined to organize the White House in a military manner.

Greenstein’s third quality for presidential effectiveness was political skill. Presidents need great political skill to get elected and to govern. Governing requires dealing with Congress, recurrent national crises, and the world leaders. This book will discuss what happened when Obama policies began navigating the labyrinth of Congress. All presidents learn early that espousing a policy is easy but getting it thorough Congress and having it legitimated by the Supreme Court is another matter. What the post-partisan policymaking Obama espoused did not always happen. Despite overall agreement that the Great Recession put the nation on the precipice, none of Republicans in the House and only three in the Senate voted for 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Congressional leaders unashamedly defended their ideological positions. Increasingly throughout his presidency Obama resorted to using budget reconciliations and executive orders to get things done.

Political scientist Richard Neustadt has argued that the presidency works when the president can persuade Washington establishment to join him in policymaking.17 Failure to persuade can lead to legislative repudiation and even gridlock. Obama’s Neustadt’s moment came as he tried to get his initial agenda through the Congress. The Republican Party leaders balked. They dismissed his rhetoric as plain election talk and made a political calculation if the president legislation was stalled it could lead to increase Republican seats in Congress. Retrospectively the tactic was a prescient one. Republicans opposed his proposals, especially the Affordable Care Act. Although he attempted to consult Republicans, he did not get a single Republican vote in support of the bill. Republican leaders predicted that Obama would be a one-termer like Jimmy Carter. Mitch McConnell stated that his job was to make sure that Obama was a one-term president. This strategy worked in the 2010 congressional elections. However Republican leaders made tactical errors in the run-up to the 2012 elections and nominated the wrong candidate, Mitt Romney, to oppose the President.18 Obama won reelection.

As I stated earlier President Obama did meet his Neustadt moment, that is, making an unpersuasive policy proposal, with the Congress and the Washington establishment. For example, he was not able to use the office to generate public support for gun control legislature. Despite having public support, the National Rifle Association (NRA) proved to be an effective opposition group to even a small policy change. The president did not use threats, subterfuge, or extra-constitutional means to defeat NRA. In other words, Obama was no Machiavelli or President Lyndon Johnson.

The fourth quality for presidential effectiveness was a vision for public policy. For Greenstein, vision was defined as consistency of viewpoint.19,20 Obama espoused a progressive agenda and practiced it where possible. Because Obama was a “rhetorically gifted president,” his vision for equality, fairness, and unlimited opportunity for Americans seemed clear and elegant. Obama continually tried to convince Americans that a nation would be better off if its economic policies adhered to inclusiveness and uplifted the less fortunate.

Greenstein’s fifth quality for presidential effectiveness was a cognitive style that easily processes a large amount of information. Presidents receive a lot of information. Some presidents are able to digest more of it than other. Because some problems are so complex, understanding them doesn’t always provide ways of solving them. Granted an effective president must have an open and discerning mind. Here President Obama stood out. He had a professorial propensity to read and analyze information provided to him before making decisions. His intellectual curiosity was never questioned. He may not have read every memo that came to his desk, but he seemed well informed about public issues.

The sixth quality of presidential effectiveness is emotional intelligence. Presidents must be able to manage their emotions and turning them into constructive purposes. One never got the impression that Obama was dominated by his emotions and that they undermined his performance as president. Other than reporters referencing to his race in their reporting, there did not seem to be a “distracting emotional perturbations.”21 Although the Constitution does not require the president to be the nation’s comforter, it is now a role expectation. Obama had a penchant for being the great comforter at times of extreme national trauma (e.g. gun violence and murder in Newtown and Charleston).

In view of Greenstein’s definitions of presidential effectiveness, did Obama have the qualities of an effective president? It depends whether one shares Greenstein’s definition of presidential effectiveness. Some contributors in this book raised questions about whether Obama was an effective president. Indeed, historical evaluations of Obama’s achievements and the appropriateness will be varied. As most presidents discover, and as Obama’s memoir may reveal, the job of president kept changing and as did expectations. Nevertheless, what happens during his watch will be a part of Obama’s legacy.

Obama Legacy: Hope and Change?

There is a no general theory of presidential legacy. As mentioned at the outset, the presidency has evolved beyond the Framers’ notion of the chief executive. Some presidents have expanded the reach of the office. What a president does now is more important than what the presidency was originally designed to be. Our nation’s politics are now centered on the presidency. Television has changed the image and activity of the presidency. Obama followed his predecessors in attracting the stargazing attention once reserved for celebrities. Yet the public often associates presidential legacy with notable events. In his 2013 inauguration address, President Obama got several bursts of applauses when he stated

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.22

President Obama’s legacy had become associated his rescue of the economy after the Great Recession. He also negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, participated in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, reduced combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported extending civil rights to the LGBTQ community, and passed fair sentencing laws among many other accomplishments.

Coming to the presidency in the midst of the 2008 Great Recession, Obama took Rooseveltian posture by “digging the economy out of the ditch,” that is, a phrase the president used when describing how Republican policies had put the economy in danger. Rescuing Wall Street, General Motors, and struggling homeowners simultaneously was no minor feat. Apparently, the president’s early successes encouraged him to double down on his initial inspiring message. It is perhaps too cynical to say that Obama believed his own rally speeches. Yet the majority of voters approved of the way Obama conducted the first four years of his presidency and reelected him to office.

Obama will probably be remembered as not being adept at the transactional aspects of the presidency. He was not a Washington community smoother, a convivial personality that enjoyed socially interacting with the power brokers. He was more of an executive president than a legislative one. Since his legislative agenda lagged, Congress forced him to make a series of singular Executive Orders. In a 2007 essay on presidential potential for racial progress, I made a distinction between policies that were Situational Improvement Policies and those that could be classified as Racial Adjustment Gestures.23 The former policies could be identified as improving the socio-economic situation of African Americans. The latter were symbolic changes that made people feel better about a given event or a political slight but did little to change the overall economic conditions of African Americans. I was surprised that President Obama used the latter policies as much as he did. In my 2011 essay in Dirk C. VanRaemdonck et al.’s The Obama Presidency: Change and Continuity, I pointed out that the president’s commendable reactions to Professor Henry Gates’s arrest and the Shirley Sherrod’s wrongful firing from the US Department of Agriculture were individual-specific and mainly symbolic.24 The media made much of these events, but they had little impact on the daily lives of African Americans.

The Short Leash of Expectations

The 2008 candidate Barack Obama was a different man than the President Barack Obama. Candidate Obama could attack the Congress for not doing its job. President Obama had to work with Congress and their allies in the lobby community. A president alienates them at his peril. Soliciting them can be fruitful and rewarding. It did not take long for Obama to publicly admit his Neustadt moment (i.e. gradual realization that to get things done in government, one needs to persuade the Washington establishment to support one’s policies). Obama acknowledged that his presidential powers were limited. In addition, the tug of his ambition and public expectations were omnipresent. Three years into his presidency, James T. Kloppenberg and Joseph Peschek separately expressed disappointments about the direction of Obama economic policies.25 They argued that the president had emerged as an economic centrist, business supporters, and not a progressive. For them the forces of neoliberalism had won.

Political scientist George C. Edwards concluded in Overreach: Leadership in Obama Presidency that the president had simply overreached the limits of presidential power. Accordingly, to this presidential scholar, success in this job did not come from creating new opportunities but rather identifying openings and capitalizing on existing opportunities. As a result of his having proposed an expensive and polarizing agenda, Obama undermined his own presidency and helped to bring about the 2010 mid-term congressional results, losses the president referred to a “shellacking.”

In retrospect Obama’s first term had a series of successful policies. After less than a month in office he was able to sign a $787 billion economic stimulus package into law. The new law contained $50 billion in funds to prevent foreclosure for Americans who were in danger of losing their homes. Additionally, he also supported loans for near-bankrupt American automakers. The measure also contained monies for the development of so-called “green jobs” and public schools reform. Aside from the economic turnaround of the Great Recession, the President moved to promote a policy to alleviate climate change and reform health care.

Entering its second term, the Obama administration found itself responding to a series of political events rather than creating new programs and establishing a new narrative. Obama’s analytical style impressed the chattering media pundits and African Americans who saw him as a role model for them and a leader for new racial beginning.

Michael Genovese and Todd Belt’s The Post-Heroic Presidency claimed that since 1970 the United States can only exercise minimalist hegemony in world affairs; that is, it can no longer act as the dominant military and economic power. This is due to the rise of other countries and the decline of American power. Accordingly, presidents have limited domestic and international powers. Simply put, because of lack of the resources, American presidents are minimalist leaders.26 For President Obama, the controversial Iran nuclear deal was considered a successful diplomatic triumph. He received kudos for the successful Osama bin Laden raid and for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. There were also some problematic missteps and policies. His rhetoric about drawing a red line over the use of possible poison gas by the Syrian government turned out to be a miscalculation. However, when the President asked Congress for support, they did not give him the authority to make unlimited bombing strike. Moreover, President Obama should be applauded for not laying waste to Syria’s infrastructure to punish the Syrian leaders. Yet Genovese and Belt labeled Obama a “defensive minimalist.”27

During the campaign and while in office, President Obama expressed concern about the quality of American public schools. Teachers’ unions and state education officials, who were Obama supporters, had condemned the Bush school reform policy, that is, No Child Left Behind Act.

The president first tried to address school reform with his Race-to-Top funds from the 2009 Recovery Act. This program was designed to assist states in reforming their local districts. The administration also supported a new law entitled Every Student Succeeds Act that let the states to continue to decide education policy. There were fewer mandates for accountability. This decision repudiated George W. Bush’s school reform policies.

Changing Bush policies on a variety of issues was a way of showing contrast with the previous administration and to begin the consolidation of the nascent Obama legacy. Obama’s tenure in office can loosely be organized as preferential and referential legacies. The matrix in Fig. 1 shows calculated and inadvertent.
Fig. 1

Obama legacies

Preferential legacies are those policy objectives presidents strive to achieve. Presidents want to make policy achievements that historians will underscore as a colophon of the presidency. Some such achievements are calculated/planned and other just happen; that is, they are inadvertent. The outrageous shooting of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, and shooting of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, provided the president with an opportunity to express the nation’s profound sympathy. He did so well that future presidents might follow his lead as chief comforter. Referential legacies are reputational, that is, what the general public remembers about a particular presidency. Often presidents will promote policies that solve an ongoing situation. Some policies are deliberate, and others are often out of control of the president. The failure of the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East countries after President Obama’s 2009 uplifting speech at Cairo University can be traced to a variety of explanations. The immigration problem preceded President Obama but his reactions to it changed how future presidents will react to the problem. Few people could have predicted an influx of unaccompanied children crossing the nation’s southern borders. Neither did anyone expect the drone technology would change the way terrorism is fought. Genovese and Belt called Obama the “drone president.” They stated, “The use of drones as a tool of policy underscores Obama’s approach to foreign policy.”28 They claimed Obama was “extraordinary risk averse when dealing with day-to-day mechanism of the war on terror.”29

Obviously, these legacy categories are not mutually exclusive. Too often quick judgments about legacy are made before a president leaves office.

Quick Judgments About Presidents

Several books and articles have been written about the presidency of Barack Obama. Journalists and academics are trying to discern what just happened. Before evaluating him, we should consider Bruce Miroff’s Pragmatic Illusions, one of the best works on the Kennedy legacy. Miroff defined Kennedy as a conservative force that protected business interest at home and abroad. Kennedy’s conservative deeds were in contrast to his highly inflated progressive image. In effect the American people brought into the myth of Camelot and the carefully framed Kennedy image.

Is it possible that some Americans invested themselves psychologically in President Obama in hope that he would be the true source of progressive change in America? Or was it just simple cases of irrational projections on the part of his supporters and reading his speeches as a Rorschach test run amok? The president recognized this possibility. In an interview, he stated, “I serve as a blank screen on which people project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”30 Despite having a longer tenure than President Kennedy and arriving in power during the Great Recession, did Obama do more to “preserve existing patterns of power and wealth than alter it”?31 Were we overtaken by his novelty, style, and charisma? Were we misled by prospects of benevolent presidentialism?32 Were his limitations those of the presidency in general as Charles O. Jones’s The Presidency in a Separated System has taught us?33 Can any president succeed legislatively in times of hyper-change and hyper-partisanship?

If Miroff and Jones are correct, then who was Barack Obama? And what did he do to us? What did we, the public, do to him? Will he become the liberal Democrat’s version of Ronald Reagan, an icon for future presidential candidates? Over the next 10 years, will the rose-colored glasses with which we viewed Barack Obama fade? The Obama story may be troubling on a different level. Carlos Lazada raised interesting questions about self-referencing the Obama story.

Obama called himself “a prisoner of my own biography,” yet throughout his presidency, biography would also empower him. Whether in foreign policy, race relations, electoral politics, or even in the meaning of the hope and change he promised, Obama has turned to his life and symbolism as a default reference and all-purpose governing tool.

The personalized presidency can be inspiring. It can also feel arrogant. And it can bypass some of the very norms and institutions Obama rhapsodizes about so frequently—a dangerous proposition as the country braces for an unpredictable, unmoored successor.34

President Obama’s farewell speech returned to the flattening theme discussed in this chapter. The president supposedly had 55% approval rating and, like Eisenhower, enjoyed keeping that positive image.

After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago—you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.35

In The Post Racial Society Is Here, I made a similar observation but did African Americans expect too much?36 Should the president have explained what the future goals of race relations were and strategies to achieving full equality? In his farewell address there was absence of information about being president; rather, it was about how proud he was of the American people and the fact that they elected him. Through eloquent prose, Barack Obama urged Americans to become more politically active.

Some writers in this volume will conclude that President Obama did great things and believe more could be done if the Republican-dominated Congress had made greater bipartisan efforts. Others will conclude his legacy will be modest. Certainly, his signature legislative legacy may be the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). His second legacy is the restarting the economy and restoring faith in the people who run the financial-oriented economy. The authorizing of the elimination of Bin Laden is also significant. Restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba helps the Cuban people and ends a dubious 50-year-old isolation policy.

Given this brief overview of his term, we return to an earlier question. Was Obama an effective president? This is a difficult question to answer because the presidency keeps changing.

The Changing Nature of the Presidency

The emergence of the age of “hyper-change” did alter the character of the office.37 Indeed, being president is an incredibly difficult job to master. The Framers of the Constitution had only a vague idea about what they were creating and how the office would evolve over time. Some of the occupants in the office may have not completely understood what the job encompassed. In other words, one could become president and not know what the job is and leave it not knowing what the job was. History is full of men who held the office with a seemingly naive understanding of the job (e.g. James Buchanan). Just dealing with what comes to one’s desk is not the entire job (Jimmy Carter).

What complicates things further is that the job changes with each generation. Presidents are forced to engage in what political scientist Victor Thompson calls dramaturgy.38 They have to pretend that they know what they are doing to make everyone else comfortable. The American presidency is a social construction that permits an incredible amount of self-referencing and expectations. President George Washington’s constituency did not know what to expect. He was relatively free to improvise. This led to problems for future presidents. Constituencies expected the president to make up the description as long as they stayed within the boundaries of the US Constitution. President Andrew Jackson’s constituency expected more from the office and President Franklin Roosevelt’s even more. Stretching the presidency is not the same as understanding the job. Discerning which part of the job is real and which is just a performance is perhaps the conundrum that faces each president in the morning. Anything can happen and then again nothing can happen.

One of the new stresses on the president is the trend toward centering the moral authority of the nation on the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to publicly proclaim himself as a moral leader. There is no constitutional basis for this assertion. The presidency was not designed to perform moral leadership. Besides this generation of Americans is more secular than the generations of political elites that wrote the Constitution. The moral agenda of Framers, if there were ever one, was never written down. If there is a glaring moral vacuum in twenty-first century America, there is no reference in the Constitution or American social tradition for an individual to assume the role; therefore, presidents who attempt to assume that role do so because of what they perceived as role expectations.

This moral role was very difficult for President Obama to assume. He said things that had moral content, but he did have the necessary social authority to get people to accept this view of the world, but he was not Martin Luther King and he had not been to the mountaintop. One of the persistent problems for Obama was the fact that he was an African American. Obama’s election had less to do with creating a post-racial America and more to do with validating the fact that Americans elect presidents based on merit rather than race. Obama’s election represented a type of collective triumphalism, yet it carried with it an unspoken dread. The American people in general, and African Americans in particular, had projected unprecedented expectations on the Obama presidency (a president with his unfailing optimism) and something had to go wrong. Something did go wrong. Coates’s essay on the Obama presidency hints at this notion. “I still want Obama to be right. I still would like to fold myself into the dream. This will not be possible.”39 Ian Reifowitz disagreed and proclaimed that Obama truly transformed the national identity.40 And John Kenneth White is even more optimistic about Obama’s impact. He proclaimed that the Obama presidency aided four revolutions: racial, family, gay rights, and religion. In effect, we now live in an era of “moral libertarianism.”41 Fewer Americans publicly question how other people lead their lives.

Obviously, the chapters in this book do not cover all of the successes and failures of the Obama administration but the authors do analyze key aspects of his policies. At best this is a preliminary evaluation. As more data is accumulated and documents are declassified, we may have a clearer understanding of what happened during the Obama administration. Obviously, all presidential legacies are comparative in nature. But the contributors in the volume tried to look critically at Obama years.

Overview of This Book

In the chapter “ The Obama Legacy in American Electoral Participation,” Lyn Ragsdale examines the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president and voting behavior and the nature of the turnout during the Obama years, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. The election of the first black president represented an historical sharp turn in American politics and race relations but what it does say about his electoral legacy? She asserted that turnout in American elections is often considered to be low but during the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, it hit levels last seen in the 1960s. This chapter examined the nature of turnout during the Obama years. It considers how a high degree of uncertainty in the national campaign context pushed turnout higher. It also examines which groups in America were most responsible for the increased participation. Despite exhortations from President Obama, turnout in 2016 among people of color went down and turnout among whites went up. What is somewhat ironic is that some of the people who supported Obama also supported Donald Trump.

In the chapter “ Managing a Regime in Crisis: The Twilight of Neoliberalism and the Politics of Economic Recovery During the First Year of the Obama Administration” Kristoffer Smemo provides a historical overview of flawed economic policies that led up to the Great Recession. The Great Recession is presented as an economic regime on the verge of collapse. For Smemo “Privatized Keynesiansm,” that is private sector advocacy of monetary and fiscal policies to increase employment and spending, led to the meltdown of the economy. His analysis brings together the nexus of business and political party politics. He questions the leadership of Obama during the Great Recession. Instead of trying to reform the overall economic system, Obama policies abetted Wall Street investors, banks and automobile makers. In effect, he emboldened past economic policies. This chapter linked President Obama to his predecessors’ economic policies.

In the chapter “ The Obama Health Care Legacy: The Origins, Implementation, and Effort to Repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010” Jill Quadagno and Daniel Lanford review the history and impact of the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) or Obamacare. The construction of this historical breakthrough in public policy came in the first two years of the President Obama term. Although the Republican Party opposed the act and no Republican Congressperson voted for it, the law changed the national narrative about whether health is an appropriate entitlement. The chapter explains the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. It provided medical care for millions of uninsured Americans by expanding Medicaid and providing subsidies. The chapter also reviews the implementation of ACA and the regulatory reform. Finally, the chapter examines why the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare has failed. And why the current Trump administration’s repeal of the individual mandate is part of a continuing effort to undermine Obamacare.

In the chapter “ Appraising the Foreign Policy Legacy of the Obama Presidency,” Meena Bose assesses Obama’s national security strategy and his overall management of foreign policy. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama indicated that he would be a very different type of president than his predecessor, George W. Bush. As a campaigner, Obama had opposed the Iraq War and the USA Patriot Act. He broke with Bush’s unilateral approach to foreign policy and pursued a multilateral one. Obama emphasized diplomacy and appointed two former Democratic senators (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) as Secretary of State. Bose examines Obama’s military policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Her appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy examines the difference between Obama’s promise and his performance. Obama’s foreign policy achievements included signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba was one of the most dramatic changes in US policy toward Latin America. But Obama also had foreign policy disappointments; for example, he pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center but was unsuccessful, due to largely (though not exclusively) partisan congressional opposition.

In the chapter “ The World We Have Lost: US Labor in the Obama Years” Ruth Milkman discusses Obama’s labor policy. Organized labor was among the strongest support of President Obama’s campaign election. In his book The Audacity of Hope Obama had supported key aspects of the Employee Free Choice Act. Many thought he would be a pro-labor president but he was unable to deliver lost gains of organized labor. Union organizing rates continued their long decline in the Obama years. Obama was an administrative president rather than a legislative president. He did use executive orders to promote pro-labor interest and for low-wage workers; most of what he did was challenged in courts and the Trump administration have undone most of the regulation. Yet Wall Street loyalists dominated the team that he put together to lead the nation out of the Great Recession. Labor leaders were disappointed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did not produce more jobs. There was no New Deal–style jobs program.

In the chapter “ Swimming the Multiple Currents: The Political and Racial Time of Barack Obama’s Presidency” Kimberley Johnson examines the idea of political and racial time to scrutinize Obama’s civil rights record. Obama was a black president inhabiting both political time and racial time. According to Stephen Skowronek, political time is represented in the interplay of between the institutional ordering (constitutional, organizational and political) of the presidency. Obama, like all presidents, was shaped by these political orderings, and can fitted with identified types of presidencies. The racial time of Obama was the hope for a post-racial society. Was Obama what Skowronek would call a Reconstruction President—repudiating the old regime, building a new governing coalition, and introducing a new way of problem solving? Johnson reviews a variety of policy issues and explains why Obama failed to become a reconstructive president. Johnson explains why Obama appears to be a disjunctive president. Such presidents are unsuccessful in neither shoring up a faltering socio-economic system nor repudiating it.

In the chapter “ The Legacy of President Obama in the US Supreme Court” Isaac Unah and Ryan Williams evaluates the Obama administration and its relations with the US Supreme Court. With the advice and consent of the US Senate, President Obama appointed two justices for the Supreme Court and several lower federal court judges. This chapter examines Obama’s legacy in the Supreme Court and the critical cases (e.g. campaign finance, health care, voting rights, same-sex marriage) that faced the Roberts Court. They argue that Obama’s presidency was transformative for the institution and politics of the Court. President Obama experienced both successes and failures in attempting to shape the Court in his own image, but he largely succeeded in using the Supreme Court to secure some of his biggest victories as president. At the end of the tenure, Obama was only partially successful in slowing down the aggressive rightward shift of the Court. Obama appointed two relatively liberal/progressive-minded women justices (Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) to the Court. They are a counterweight to the current Court’s conservative majority. The liberal minority has only slowed the Court from moving dramatically to the right. The chapter makes that conclusion after examining the voting behavior of the Obama appointed justices.

In the chapter “ The Obama Administration’s Global Warming Legacy: Going with the Flow and the Politics of Failure” George A. Gonzalez analyzes Obama’s program for attacking the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants. Gonzales uncovers a flaw in this 2014 policy. The flaw is that implementation of the policy relies on state governments who are less interested in reducing emission than in economic growth. This federalism requirement was a part of the history of the Environment Protection Agency. Accordingly, Obama’s greenhouse emission policy is more symbolic than a real reform. The dominant figure in the making of environmental policy has been the business community. Allowing the states to implement said environment policy undermined the policy. Firstly, the 30% target reduction from power plants was meager as utilities are switching to natural gas and will likely achieve this target without government intervention. Secondly, the Obama administration’s reliance on the states to achieve even this modest goal communicates that the administration was not interested in reducing greenhouse gasses, but in managing, assuaging the public’s concerns over climate change. Thus, the administration’s policies on global warming were symbolic, not substantive.

In the chapter “ Unfulfilled Hopes: President Obama’s Legacy” Stanley Renshon explores Obama as both a candidate and as a president. Obama campaigned as a thoughtful pragmatist with populist overtones. The president said he wanted to move beyond the divisive politics of Washington. Yet, Obama also wanted to be a “great” and “transformational” president and modeled himself after those predecessors he thought had been. In doing so he committed what Renshon characterizes as basic political faults—hiding his true ambition behind his moderate persona and campaign rhetoric. As a result, he allowed himself to contribute to the decades-long decline in trust in government. The public wanted Obama to concentrate on the economy. Yet, he was focused on being a great, transformative president. The Democratic majority in Congress gave him a significant victory in the Affordable Care Act but his legislature successes slowed considerably when the Republicans took over the House and then the Senate. Accordingly, Obama then sought national transformation through the use of executive orders. These efforts are a cautionary tale of how personal ambitions, however necessary or benevolent they appear to a president, can be interpreted differently by the American people, especially if that was not what they voted for or wanted.

Finally, Stanley Renshon examined President Obama the man, his psychology and his presidential ambitions. Obama’s presidential record was a mixed one. Renshon believes that the ultimate source of his modest record was Obama’s burning desire to be a “great,” “transformative” president. Obama attempted to achieve a presidency worthy of a spot on Mt. Rushmore. Yet many Americans wanted him only to govern as he had promised—moderately and focusing on the economic issues that worried them.

In the end, Mr. Obama’s enormous personal skills and his political opportunity to be a president of the first rank were undone by his determination to give Americans a “transformational” presidency they didn’t want.

In the concluding chapter “ Conclusion: Who Was President Barack Obama?,” I will reevaluate the issues and observations made in the prior chapters and revisit the overall issues of the Obama presidential legacy. I will return to the point made in the introduction regarding the two types of legacy: preferential and referential. I will emphasize how different historians may make different assessment of whether Obama met the demands of hope and change. I will discuss why some writers were prepared to dismiss his claims of a transformational president two years into his presidency. And he dealt with the contradictions and paradoxes implicit in the presidency itself. I also cite Professor Scacco and Coe’s notion of an “ubiquitous presidency” as a way to explain Obama’s challenges. The modern presidency communicates with an increasing number of groups and is involved with a variety of issues. Finally, I will discuss how institutionalizing presidential libraries and the pressure for former presidents to write quick memoirs about their tenure changed how scholars look at their legacy.


  1. 1.

    Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) p. 1.

  2. 2.

    “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” January 21, 2009.

  3. 3.

    See Barack Obama The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Three River Press, 2006) Chapter 5.

  4. 4.

    For an interpretation of the election, see Michael Tesler and David O. Sears Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and Dreams of a Post Racial Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

  5. 5.

    “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” January 21, 2009.

  6. 6.

    See Robert Kuttner Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008).

  7. 7.

    Stephen Skowronek The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993).

  8. 8.

    Wilbur C. Rich “The Lincoln and Obama Legacies: The perils of channeling” unpublished paper delivered at UI Springfield).

  9. 9.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates “My President Was Black” The Atlantic (January/February, 2017) p. 52.

  10. 10.

    Coates, op.cit p. 60.

  11. 11.

    Fred Greenstein, “The Qualities of Effective Presidents: An Overview from FDR to Bill Clinton,” Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 30, No. 1 (March, 2000). pp. 178–185.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., 180.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., 181.

  14. 14.

    Ibid., 181.

  15. 15.

    James P. Pfiffner “Decision Making in the Obama White House” Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 41, No. 2 (June, 2011), p. 260.

  16. 16.

    See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

  17. 17.

    See Richard Neustadt Presidential Power (Free Press, New York, 1991).

  18. 18.

    Former Massachusetts Governor Romney had signed a similar health care reform bill in his state that made his criticisms of Obamacare hollow. During his time in Massachusetts Romney had a reputation of being a moderate and therefore he had to appeal to very conservative party base. He spent a lot of time and energy reassuring the base he was a serious conservative. He also made an insensitive remark about 47% of Americans. He claimed that they pay no income taxes and that he was not worrying about these people.

  19. 19.

    Neustadt, p. 183.

  20. 20.


  21. 21.

    Ibid., p. 184.

  22. 22.

    “Inaugural Address by President Obama” January 21, 2013.

  23. 23.

    See Wilbur C. Rich, “Presidential Leadership and the Politics of Race: Stereotypes, Symbols and Scholarship,” in Wilbur C. Rich ed. African American Perspective on Political Science, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007), pp. 232–250.

  24. 24.

    See Wilbur C. Rich, “Making Race Go Away: President Obama and the Promise of a Post-Racial Society,” in Andrew J. Dowdle, Dirk C. Van Raemdonck and Robert Maranto, ed. The Obama Presidency: Change and Continuity, (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 17–29.

  25. 25.

    James T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), and Joseph Perschek “The Obama Presidency and the Recession: Political Economy, Ideology, and Policy” New Political Science, Vol. 33, No. 4 (December, 2011) pp. 429–444.

  26. 26.

    See Michael A. Genovese and Todd L. Belt The Post-Heroic Presidency: Leveraged Leadership in an Age of Limits (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016).

  27. 27.

    Ibid., p. 196.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., p. 197.

  29. 29.


  30. 30.

    Quoted in “Explaining the Riddle” Economist (August 23, 2008) p. 20.

  31. 31.

    Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1976). p. 294.

  32. 32.

    See Benjamin Ginsberg Presidential Government (New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 2016).

  33. 33.

    Charles O. Jones The Presidency in a Separated System (Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005).

  34. 34.

    Carlos Lazada “The Self-Referential Presidency of Barack Obama” Washington Post (December 15, 2016) Lozada, Carlos. “Essay: The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama.” Washington Post, 15 Dec. 2016. Science In Context, Accessed 15 June 2018.

  35. 35.

    “Remarks by the President in Farewell Address.” January 10, 2017.

  36. 36.

    See Wilbur C. Rich, The Post-Racial Society is Here (New York: Routledge, 2013).

  37. 37.

    See Michael A. Genovese and Todd Belt, op cit, p. 219.

  38. 38.

    See Victor Thompson, Modern Organization, (New York: Knopf, 1961).

  39. 39.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates “My President Was Black” The Atlantic (January/February, 2017).

  40. 40.

    Ian Reifowitz. Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of National Identity, (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2012).

  41. 41.

    John Kenneth White Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion ended the Reagan Era (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009) p. 152.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceWellesley CollegeWellesleyUSA

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