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Opinion

February 22, 2014

Shribman: Defining the Obama years

Everything today is faster than it used to be, but this seems astonishing: Historians already are shaping their assessments of Barack Obama’s presidency.

That’s in part because the president has courted historians — Michael Beschloss, H.W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Kennedy, among many — so assiduously.

But Obama wasn’t alone in welcoming intellectuals into his circle. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was surrounded by them, including the agricultural economist Rexford Tugwell, who eventually wrote four books about FDR. So was John F. Kennedy, whose circle included the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., author of a Kennedy biography that is still consulted by students of the presidency.

But Obama apparently tempted fate when he made an astute comment to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

And so, on Presidents Day, Politico asked a panel of leading historians for their assessment of the Obama years. From Oxford’s Margaret MacMillan and Princeton’s Sean Wilentz to Yale’s Beverly Gage and George Mason’s Jeremy D. Mayer, they filed their Obama paragraphs and, being academics rather than journalists, those paragraphs were on the long side.

I’ve often written that history changes with time, and so I think the president requires three paragraphs, one that might have been written at the beginning of his White House years; a separate one written now, at the beginning of his sixth year; and one that might be written at the end of his presidency. So as not to be affected by the scholars’ critiques, I prepared three paragraphs of Obama assessment without consulting their first drafts of history.

Here’s what might have been written as the president took office:

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