Julian Zelizer on The Presidency of Barack Obama

ZelizerBarack Obama’s election as the first African American president seemed to usher in a new era, and he took office in 2009 with great expectations. But by his second term, Republicans controlled Congress, and, after the 2016 presidential election, Obama’s legacy and the health of the Democratic Party itself appeared in doubt. In The Presidency of Barack Obama, Julian Zelizer gathers leading American historians to put President Obama and his administration into political and historical context. Engaging and deeply informed, The Presidency of Barack Obama is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand Obama and the uncertain aftermath of his presidency.

What was your vision for this book? What kind of story are you trying to tell?

My goal with this book is to provide an original account of the Barack Obama that places his presidency in broader historical context. Rather than grading or ranking the president, my hope is to bring together the nation’s finest historians to analyze the different key issues of his presidency and connect them to a longer trajectory of political history. Some of the issues that we examined had to do with health care, inequality, partisan polarization, energy, international relations, and race.

How did you approach compiling the essays that make up this book? What criteria did you use when choosing contributors?

The key criteria was to find historians who are comfortable writing for the general public and who are interested in the presidency—without necessarily thinking of the president as the center of their analysis. I wanted smart historians who can figure out how to connect the presidency to other elements of society—ranging from the news media to race relations to national security institutions.

What do you see as the future of Obama’s legacy?

Legacies change over time. There will be more appreciation of aspects of his presidency that are today considered less significant, but which in time will be understood to have a big impact. Our authors, for instance, reveal some of the policy accomplishments in areas like the environment and the economy that were underappreciated during the time he was in the White House.  In other ways, we will see how some parts of the presidency that at the time were considered “transformative” or “path-breaking”—such as his policies on counterterrorism—were in fact extensions and continuations of political developments from the era.

How did the political landscape of the country change during Obama’s tenure?

While we obtained many new government programs, from climate change, to ACA, to the Iran Nuclear Deal, we also saw the hardening of a new generation of conservatism who were more rightward in their policies and more aggressive, if not ruthless, in their political practices. Some of his biggest victories, such as the Affordable Care Act, pushed the Republican Party even further to the right and inspired them to be even more radical in their approach to legislative obstruction.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope that they will have a better sense of where this presidency came from, some of the accomplishments that we saw during these eight years, and some of the ways that Obama was limited by the political and institutional context within which he governed. I want readers to get outside the world of journalistic accounts and come away understanding how Obama’s presidency was a product of the post-1960s era in political history.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. He is the author and editor of eighteen books on American political history, has written hundreds of op-eds, and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.