Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Conservatives have a low opinion of President Obama. So low, in fact, that most are convinced his presidency will ultimately be viewed as a failure—and at least one recent poll gives them good reason to feel confident about that. They see a moribund economy and Obamacare’s many snafus and presume historians will call the Obama administration incompetent. They see chaos in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine and think future generations will judge his foreign policy a disaster. They see the Bowe Bergdahl and IRS/Lois Lerner affairs—not to mention the Benghazi and V.A. administration episodes—and expect the Obama years to be remembered as scandal-plagued. Conservatives think history will be unkind to President Obama, but they’re wrong. History will more likely revere the first black president, ignoring his failures and amplifying his successes.

Journalism, it’s often said, serves as the rough draft of history, and American journalists, to an overwhelming degree, adore Obama. Their first drafts of the history of the Obama years will likely be laudatory. But more important, in the long term, than the opinion of today’s journalists is the attitude of historians—most of whom make their living in academia. It’s no secret that the American college campus is a bastion of leftism. A 2005 survey of faculty members at 183 four-year colleges found that 81 percent of politics professors and 77 percent of historians considered themselves liberals. The watchdog group Campus Reform examined Federal Election Commission data and found that 96 percent of political donations by faculty and staff at Ivy League colleges went to Obama in 2012.

Some say history is written by the victors. That may have been true in antiquity, but in the modern world, history is written by left-wing journalists and professors. And the presidential historians of tomorrow will likely give Obama credit for attempting to reform the American health-care system, even if that reform proves costly, inadequate, or disastrous. They will praise him as the president who ended George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if those countries ultimately revert to authoritarianism (as they seem to be doing). They will hail him for trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and pass comprehensive immigration reform, even if those campaign promises go unfulfilled. When it comes to his failures, history will say that it wasn’t Obama’s fault. History will say that Obama tried. Don’t believe me? Check your history. History has done it before.

Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court and subvert the checks and balances that our political system has always relied on to keep presidents from behaving like kings. Some say his economic policies prolonged the misery of the Great Depression. While FDR has been justly lauded for his military leadership during the Second World War, his administration had prior warning about the possibility of a Japanese attack in the Pacific and perhaps could have prevented the deaths of 2,400 Americans on December 7, 1941. FDR also issued an executive order forcing more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Yet, FDR is routinely ranked by historians as one of our greatest presidents. Why? Because history is written by historians, and historians love the New Deal and the welfare state.

John F. Kennedy’s presidency was abbreviated by assassination; he didn’t live to complete three full years in office, during which his accomplishments were slim. Yet in 2012, he showed up in a Newsweek survey of historians selecting the 10 best modern presidents. (Also on that list? Barack Obama, of course.) Why should Kennedy rank among the twentieth-century’s best? Because JFK is the personification of compassionate, paternalistic liberalism, and American journalists are, for the most part, compassionate, paternalistic liberals.

Consider, too, how history has treated Lyndon B. Johnson. The architect of military escalation in Vietnam, Johnson left the presidency in disgrace. He was so despised by the Left that his own party hounded him into surrendering the nomination in 1968. But many on the Left have lately forgiven LBJ for the sins of Vietnam, because he gave us the Great Society and the War on Poverty. So LBJ gets a pass. Instead, Richard Nixon gets blamed for Vietnam, when he isn’t taking heat for everything from the Clinton impeachment to the obesity epidemic. History hates the Republican Nixon, who got us out of Vietnam. History loves the Democrat LBJ, who gave us the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Funny how that works.

Think I’m exaggerating or cherry-picking? Compare the recent media commemorations of the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society with those of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. Actually, you won’t find many articles commemorating the start of the Vietnam War—possibly because those articles would have to acknowledge how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations entangled us in that bloody and controversial conflict. Best to wait until the Nixon-era anniversaries start rolling around for a full-color spread on Vietnam and its tragic legacy. History likes to keep things tidy.

Conservatives expecting the light of history to illuminate Barack Obama’s missteps and expose his presidency as a failure should prepare to be disappointed. If history is any guide, history will love this guy.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next