Turning the page on a presidency

A president's legacy is written in clay, not granite. One generation gives a thumbs up, the next a thumbs down. No presidency is every really over.


In the sweltering days of late July 2004, I was part of an army of journalists encamped at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The themes that year were foregone conclusions: the acceptance of the party’s nomination by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry; a salute to longtime Sen. Edward M. Kennedy; speeches by Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton. In between, dozens of other politicians would orate to polite applause and small notice in their local newspapers but be largely ignored by the national media.

On Tuesday night of convention week, with none of the major networks covering the show, a state senator from Illinois began to speak. Seventeen minutes later, everyone at the convention was paying attention.

Just four years later, the man who that night explained that his Kenya-born father and Kansas-born mother had given him an African name meaning “blessing” was sworn in as president. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, you have to admit that the rise of Barack Obama was an astonishing development.

Then came the presidency. All presidencies start with soaring promises and visions of change. A hard slap by politics and world affairs follows. Then comes the long haul, the proposals, arguments, negotiations, deals, ultimatums, victories, and defeats that constitute the hard and pragmatic world of governing.

And one day, it’s over. Four, eight years pass. History turns a page. What was that presidency all about?

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Linda Feldmann examines the Obama presidency so far and seeks out historians and scholars who are already assessing his place in history. He has 18 months to go and has clearly shown he is not about to be a lame duck. His may, in fact, be a very consequential late-stage presidency. The changes his years in office have wrought – recovery from the Great Recession, passage of the Affordable Care Act, disengagement in Afghanistan and Iraq – already seem consequential. Iran, Cuba, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are ongoing projects that could be as well. 

The legacy of a presidency is written in clay, not granite. Lincoln, Truman, and Johnson moved civil rights forward, but a stubborn black-white gap in the United States remains. Wilson, Roosevelt, and Reagan reshaped the world order, but echoes of two world wars and the cold war still sound in Ukraine and East Asia. And despite Carter’s Camp David breakthrough, Middle East peace remains elusive. The Obama presidency may or may not have changed the world. Generations to come will decide and generations after them will redecide.

On that hot Boston night 11 years ago, Mr. Obama spoke of the importance of hope – “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!” Hope isn’t the policy of one president, of course. It is deeper and more enduring than an election cycle. “In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation,” the Illinois state senator called it, “a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.” 

There are. The unseen is filled with hope.

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