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68: Is Obama Great? Wait and See

January 15th, 2015

Episode 100 of 279 episodes

For the Obama administration, it’s the beginning of the end: the fourth quarter of his presidency. That means political junkies have moved on to 2016, while historians, scholars and, undoubtedly, the president himself have turned their attention to Obama’s legacy. Will he be known for Obamacare? For his Wall St. reforms? Or for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And how will people view those actions -- as accomplishments or failures? “These things are not fixed,” says Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University. Presidential legacies shift and change over time, so Zelizer counsels that chief executives shouldn’t work too hard to shape how they’re viewed in the future. “The best they can do is just build a very good and vibrant record,” says Zelizer. Take Lyndon Johnson, the subject of Zelizer’s new book “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society”. For decades after Johnson left office, says Zelizer, “the one thing anyone could remember about his presidency is Vietnam. It totally shaped how both liberals and conservatives spoke about him: a total disaster. But gradually there’s been more interest in his domestic accomplishments.” These days LBJ’s legacy is defined as much for his work with the Civil Rights movement as it is for his commitment to keeping US forces in Vietnam. Most scholars think future discussions about the Obama presidency will consider health care reform, financial sector regulations, and the economic stimulus coming out of the Great Recession. And most certainly, says Zelizer, “we’ll be thinking about race in American politics because that’s how the story will begin, with the first African American president.” But a big part of how a president’s legacy develops is how politics unfold in the years afterward. “We won’t remember a lot of what he says, we won’t really remember a lot of what he does in these final two years but we will remember what happens when he leaves office.”

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