Q&A: The Presidency of Barack Obama

Mar 29, 2018
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

How did President Barack Obama shape the political landscape? A new book edited by Julian E. Zelizer provides the first historical assessment of President Obama.

The book, “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” combines analysis from leading American historians, putting the Obama administration into political and historical context.

Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and a CNN political analyst. He is the author and editor of 18 books on American political history, has written hundreds of op-eds and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.

Below, he answers a few questions about the book.

Q. Why did you write this book?

Zelizer: This is part of an effort I started with President George W. Bush. The goal was to bring together some of the brightest minds in the historical profession to place the last presidency in larger historical context and to start a conversation about the impact President Obama had. Rather than “presidential historians,” I chose historians who look at policies, issues and movements that shaped the presidency. Princeton University scholars Paul Starr and Meg Jacobs each contributed chapters based on their expertise — inequality and the environment — that help to make sense of what happened. I hope this book offers an alternative to the presidential rankings so common in the media.

Q. What are the biggest takeaways?

Zelizer: The biggest takeaway was that President Obama was quite successful as a policymaker but not as effective when it came to party building. The result was that he developed a massive array of policies that transformed the nation, but those policies were all rendered extremely vulnerable when his party ended the term in a severely weakened state. The book also stresses the enormous political and institutional obstacles he faced, particularly after 2010.

Q. What are the policy implications?

Zelizer: The authors trace on many issues the Obama administration tackled — from health care to foreign policy — showing how much is at stake right now as the current administration works to dismantle those programs.