Obama's ranking doesn't matter: Why New York magazine's history project asks the wrong question

If you want to understand how the future will remember the Obama era, look to the movements on the ground

Published January 13, 2015 8:28PM (EST)

Barack Obama                            (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Barack Obama (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For reasons that elude me, the latest issue of New York magazine devotes considerable space to what its editors grant is a too-early attempt to prophesize how President Obama will be perceived by Americans 20 years from now. Considering the president will still be in office for nearly two more years, “wildly premature” seems like an understatement, but no matter. Along with contributions from over 50 historians, the magazine also features dueling essays on the president’s likely legacy. Jonathan Chait, a reliable and experienced Obama defender, sings his praises; Christopher Caldwell, an editor for the neoconservative Weekly Standard, describes him as pretty much the worst.

Caldwell aside, each contribution is worth your time, even if the whole project is a conceptual mess. (For one thing, who are these hypothetical future “people?” New York magazine readers, presumably? It’s not as if time inevitably leads to consensus; there’s a reason why Faulkner’s famous aphorism is so resonant.) But if you’re searching for something beyond a middle-brow diversion, if you want to know what it is that’s happening in our politics today that’s most likely to be integrated into the stories politically-minded Americans tell themselves tomorrow, I don’t think the White House is the right place to look. Instead, you’d be better off focusing on less lofty heights and paying attention to what’s happening on the ground.

Think about the 1960s, for example. Despite likely being the chapter of American history that contemporary society most fetishizes, scrutinizes and romanticizes (with only the founding era and the Civil War coming close), historians have been arguing for a while now that some of the central elements of the typical ‘60s narrative are incorrect. By way of illustration, consider the way we think about Lyndon Johnson. As Princeton historian Julian Zelizer argues in his new book on Johnson’s halcyon years, the reality of LBJ’s most productive months as president doesn’t really jibe with the version that’s often taught in schools and reproduced in the mainstream media. That story contains kernels of truth, no doubt; but they’re entangled in a whole mess of fantasy and myth.

It turns out the 36th president, the peerless manipulator who’d bend any defiant politician to his will by giving him “the treatment,” didn't owe his success wholly to his powers of persuasion (though they certainly played a part). Instead, the main reason Johnson was able to push through major reforms of the like not seen since the New Deal was far more prosaic: He had a Congress that was not only overwhelmingly Democratic but also uncommonly liberal. By 1965, Zelizer noted recently in the Washington Post, Johnson’s party not only had 295-140 lead in the House, but also enjoyed a remarkable 68-32 advantage in the Senate. And what happened once those majorities were considerably shrunk after the 1966 midterms? According to Zelizer, “Johnson was not effective any longer,” spending most of his final two years fighting tooth-and-nail against a resurgent conservative bloc that wanted to roll back the Great Society and focus on deficits and inflation.

Another recent pop culture artifact similarly deflates a widespread but mistaken understanding of the ‘60s — namely, the way we tend to think about the civil rights movement. With the benefit of hindsight, Americans often fall into the trap of thinking the movement’s (limited) success was all but preordained. And due to a confluence of factors, the public tends to have a profoundly sanitized vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., who is often envisioned as being so meek and full of love that he resembled no one so much as Jesus Christ (but not the one who brought the sword). But as the filmmaker Ava DuVernay shows in “Selma,” her gripping depiction of what was perhaps King’s finest moment, not only was the outcome of the struggle to end apartheid in the South often very much in doubt, but King himself spent nearly as much time railing against Jim Crow’s injustice — and the complacency and cowardice of the Northern whites who let it happen — as he did promoting mercy and love. And he was often nearly incapacitated with anxiety and doubt.

In both the Johnson and the King example, what we see is that history is streamlined and simplified. Rather than acknowledge the messiness of history, the way it is determined by countless forces and people beyond any one person’s control, the stories we tell ourselves feature superhuman individuals who never give up and always believe in themselves and ultimately get the job done. It’s a way of viewing society that’s conditioned by the tropes and rules of Hollywood — and it’s equally mistaken, regardless of whether it’s applied to the past or to the world of today. Just as you can’t understand the 1960’s if you devote all of your attention to the minutiae of LBJ’s character and the machinations of his White House, so too, I suspect, will it be impossible for Americans in the future to comprehend the Obama era by zeroing-in on the president.

President Barack Obama is a world-historic figure whose legacy will be remembered (and debated) for decades into the future, no doubt. But if the U.S. mainstream comes to see our time through a less foggy lens, they’ll do so by recognizing how, like Johnson or King, President Obama was affected greatly by the people around him and the movements who lobbied him from below and the outside. Occupy Wall Street, #blacklivesmatter, the Fight for 15 and, hell, even the Tea Party — these and other social and/or organized movements are writing the history of our era. In a foundational way, Barack Obama, like the rest of us, is just along for the ride.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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