Opinion

The easy historicism of President Obama

Has any other president so tied his work to the course of history?

Tuesday night's superficially unremarkable State of the Union address was fine — the way the person you're in a bad relationship with says they're fine as they choose to leave you behind. The state of the union, President Obama told us, was also fine. Despite the scars, the rancor, the missed opportunities, he still spoke loftily about America. History in the bad sense, as he has always told us, will still be defeated by history in the good sense, the one he's insisted on bending us toward.

If we have had a more self-consciously historical president than Barack Obama, nobody alive was around to see it. This feat of his is all the more impressive when you pause to realize how self-consciously historical everyone is today. When something is good, we say it's historic. So, Tuesday night featured a recounting of the good, the historic, and the historic good: "We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history," he told us. "Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world," he said. "Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history," he boasted.

The one thing people are sure to recall about Obama's presidency is his insistence on tying it to the course of history, in the sense of an unfolding logic that can tell us where we are and where we are going. He lay the foundation of Tuesday's speech about the future — it would be about the "next five years, ten years, and beyond," he said — with this paean to our past:

America has been through big changes before  —  wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. [Obama]

Yet the details are rarely so grand. In his understanding of history, there are simply leader-managers and those who subvert them. There are those who face facts and care about others and those who peddle fiction. These latter types are the only source of anger in Obama's world. Last night, Obama saw the long game the way only the most placid technicians of history can.

But over two slow and uneasy terms, the fruits of this long game remain just as uncertain and spectral as they did when Obama began. He has accomplished many things, some of them great, but how durable are they? What will American health care look like in the future? What position will the U.S. adopt in the world? How will the middle class fare? These are all unsolved mysteries, haunting both parties, tormenting the electorate, and our president left the podium without real answers. Where does the arc bend now?

I have always felt a kinship with Obama right where he is mocked and derided most — as a sphinx, a cipher, an imperious housecat. But I'm no president and no historicist. Who can tell how his presidency will be judged in 20, 10, even 5 years? It's not at all clear that his efforts will succeed over time. And if they fail, blame won't fall first at the feet of his enemies.

For all its dash and savvy, this president's final State of the Union merely underscored how much of our gnawing doubt he takes for granted.

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