Journalism may be the first draft of history. But on Friday, a group of scholars gathered here for what might be an editing session on the second.
The occasion was a small conference with the uncolorful title “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.” While it had been planned more than a year ago, the election had forced more than a few participants to look at the papers they submitted in late October – some of which referred to Donald Trump confidently in the past tense – and shout, “Get me rewrite!”
“After election night, I instantly got emails from the participants, asking if we were going to have the same discussion,” Julian E. Zelizer, the Princeton historian who organized the gathering, said before the proceedings.
The purpose of the two-day event, which broke down the Obama presidency into topics including inequality, counterterrorism, immigration, the Supreme Court and race, was to offer what Zelizer called a historical “first cut,” by scholars who had “lived and felt” the events of Obama’s terms in office. (The 15 papers, after revisions and editing, will be published in a book by Princeton University Press in about a year – lightning-fast by the standards of scholarly publishing.)
The mood among the overwhelmingly liberal group – in contrast to how some participants recalled a similar gathering in 2008 to assess the presidency of George W. Bush, in the giddy days after Obama’s election – was decidedly grim.
The conference turned out to be “good practice for saying ‘the Trump presidency’ without the words getting stuck in your throat,” Meg Jacobs, a research scholar at Princeton, said wryly.
Jacobs, whose paper discussed Obama’s energy policies, noted the degree to which many policy achievements described in the papers relied on executive action, which can be easily reversed by a subsequent president, and waved her hand: gone.
During the formal discussion, the nearly two dozen scholars gathered around a square table in a sunny conference room mostly stuck to the dispassionate long view, putting Obama in the context of broad political and social forces.
But occasional bulletins from the outside world underscored the feeling of being bunkered in a scholarly equivalent of the Situation Room, tracking the loss of more and more territory.
“Newsflash: Paul Ryan just announced that he wants to privatize Medicare,” Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University, interjected during a discussion of the political implications of the Affordable Care Act’s policy design. “So that will be interesting.”
The nearly seven hours of discussion on Friday included debate on many big-picture questions: Did the Obama presidency represent as much of a sharp break with that of George W. Bush as people might assume? Are the American people as divided as the extreme polarization of the political system suggests? What was more important to Republican political dominance: gerrymandering or conservative media?
Several participants said that reading all the papers made them realize that Obama had gotten more done, policywise, in the face of relentless opposition than they had thought. But at the same time, many noted, his policies had often been designed in ways that failed – fatally, it seemed in retrospect – to generate political credit.
One of the most ringing cases came from the sociologist Paul Starr, whose paper argued that Obama, contrary to widespread belief, made significant progress in reducing income inequality, once benefits like food stamps and health care were factored in.
He also offered a progressive defense of the 2009 stimulus package, citing what he called “a stunning piece of data”: In the absence of the stimulus and related measures, he said, the poverty rate would have gone up by 4.5 percentage points. Instead it only went up 0.5 percentage point.
If his paper was guardedly optimistic, his postelection verdict was not. “I’m afraid all of what he did relating to reducing inequality is going to be wiped out,” he said.
The theme of a “stealth state” – which allowed Obama to push policies in ways that avoided triggering opposition, but also prevented building support for government action – also came up in the discussions of education and environmental policy.
And there was debate about Obama’s efforts, or lack thereof, to strengthen the Democratic Party itself, and about how much personality – the X factor that academic historians, unlike journalists and most popular historians of the presidency, tend to play down – mattered to events of the last eight years.
After the formal discussion wrapped, Zelizer, the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society,” said he found himself puzzling over the paradox of Obama’s astute political intelligence on the one hand, and his lack of attention to the partisan side of politics on the other.
“That’s why having this conversation after Trump makes a difference,” he said. “You really see how not taking partisan political considerations seriously enough can cost the party and the country – if you’re a Democrat – a huge amount.”
At a group dinner on Friday night at a nearby Italian restaurant, there was plenty of wine and gallows humor. Gary Gerstle, a professor at the University of Cambridge, in a toast, jokingly proposed a theme for the group’s next gathering: secession.
There were comparisons to Brexit, and with Europe in the 1930s. “Except now, given what’s happened in the United States,” Gerstle asked, “who’s going to save the world this time?”
“Germany!” someone shouted.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said he wondered if 200 years from now, the most striking thing about Obama to historians might not be that he was the first African-American president, but that he had a “different character from most people who become president.”
“We usually elect people who are the kind of people who want other people to really like them,” he said. “But he doesn’t seem to be that way at all.”
Gerstle said he hoped the first draft of the historians’ papers, all written under the shadow of a presumed Clinton victory, would be saved, to provide a lesson for future scholars about the contingency of history.
“We’re always teaching our students not to write Whiggish history,” he said. “But it’s easy to get conscripted into telling the story of your nation, where you disregard the losers and champion the winners.”
“Trump’s election may end up being a turning point, and historians will want to tell the story as if it were destined to happen,” he continued. “But we were not totally crazy to think it wouldn’t.”