On history’s judgments of presidential administrations.
If we could ask Andrew Jackson, toward the 1837 conclusion of his two terms as president, how his administration would be remembered by posterity, I’d be willing to bet that he’d answer with one or another aspect of Jacksonian Democracy: his opening up of the White House (literally) and the democratic process in general to a much wider swath of his fellow Americans; his populist war on Nicholas Biddle and the Bank of the United States; and so on. Love me or hate me, my hypothetical Old Hickory would reply, you have to admit I was a man of the people. Yet while all those histories are indeed part of our narratives of Jackson, I would argue that they run a distant second to his policy of Indian Removal, and the resulting brutality and tragedy of the Trail of Tears. Our most prominent memories of Jackson (in my argument at least), that is, are of him destroying a people, not advocating for them.
Those are all debatable ideas, of course, but the point is this: how history remembers a president is a complex and evolving question, and one that is particularly tough to predict when we’re still within the era itself. As we reach the end of either President Obama’s first term or of his presidency (we’ll know which by the time this post is published, of course), then, it’s challenging at best to guess how posterity will remember Obama. Certainly you would think his racial and cultural identity will be part of the narratives no matter what; so too does the Great Recession seem destined to interweave with any and all histories of Obama (although how that Recession plays out likewise remains undecided and will of course influence those histories). But beyond that? Will it be something progressive and inpsiring, such as the endorsement of gay marriage, the end of DADT, the various steps toward full civil rights for gay Americans? Or something far more dark and destructive, such as our drone wars and the assassination policy for US citizens suspected of aiding terrorists abroad? Or will it be something that seems now relatively inconsequential, as perhaps Indian Removal did to Jackson and his supporters?
Damned if I know; frankly, as I write this in late October, I’d give anything just to know whether Obama’s presidency itself will be history by this date. But I suppose the hopeful side of me would say this: the Recession and its responses, the War on Terror policies, these and other issues are hugely complex ones that Obama inherited, and with which he struggled, sometimes to better effect and sometimes to worse (and always with approximately 0.0000000001% support from any members of the opposing political party). Each, that is, should to my mind define the George W. Bush presidency more than the Barack Obama one. So I think instead that the slow but definite movement on gay rights, those multiple and important steps toward a nation that more fully accepts and gives equality to this community of Americans, might well become the defining elements of history’s narrative of Obama. After all, Obama’s own identity is, as I have argued this week, a crucial part of his legacy but also one that America has had a frequently difficult time understanding and responding to. So it’d only be fitting if he were remembered best for what he did for a community of his peers facing a very similar challenge—and in helping the nation as a whole bend its arc toward justice for that community.
New, post-election post this weekend,
PS. So please add your thoughts, in response to this week’s posts but also on any aspect of Obama, the election, and related questions, for that weekend post!
11/9 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very distinct but equally impressive, influential, and inspirational American astronomers, Benjamin Banneker and Carl Sagan.
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