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How will Barack Obama be remembered in history?

The 44th president will be remembered as the first black head of state, but experts say that's not all.
Barack Obama taking the oath of office in 2009. Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama’s presidency is undeniably historic — he’s secured his spot in the history books as the first black American to hold that high office. But what else will Obama be remembered for?

Obama’s list of accomplishments has grown over two terms, with highlights including the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, the nuclear agreement with Iran, an international climate change agreement and an auto-industry bailout which helped propel the U.S. out of the 2008 recession.

But his most-remembered achievement, even as Republicans are attempting to dismantle his progress, may be the Affordable Care Act, experts say.

“The fact that he put health care on the table as a conversation, the fact that [the ACA] exists, means that people have now begun to think about the right to health care,” said Karen M. Turner, a journalism professor at Temple University.

“Presidents in the past have tried to do that, but never got as far as Obama to actually implement a health care program,” she said. “Now that we have it, even if it is going to be changed, the fact is there is something.”

However, the future of the ACA and other programs Obama initiatives is still uncertain, meaning we don’t really know in what light he’ll be remembered 20 or 50 years from now, said Chris Capozzola, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“How he’s remembered depends on what happens next,” he said. “Presidents leave office with one reputation and that reputation can change over time.”

John F. Kennedy was remembered fondly at first, partly because he was assassinated, Capozzola said, but retrospectively, historians have been more critical of what he accomplished.

On the other hand, Harry Truman was thought of as a “complete failure” when he left office, he said, in part because of how divided the country was at that time. Generations later, people began to appreciate his role in the Cold War.

Still, to Capozzola as well, Obama’s work regarding healthcare has a secure spot in history.

“I think the Affordable Care Act will be harder to dismantle than its opponents think,” he said. “History shows that entitlement programs are generally popular with the American public.”

That partisan opposition Obama weathered will also color his legacy, Turner said. She noted that historians will have to contextualize how Obama “ran into public barriers” regarding Republicans, who said point-blank that they were not willing to work with him as president.

Even though he had adversaries, Obama’s “exemplary” demeanor won’t be challenged when looking back on his presidency, according to Robert Shapiro, a government professor at Columbia University.

“His critics referred to him as ‘No drama Obama.’ Obviously he was a very serious, deliberate thinker when making decisions,” he said. “Not that they'll be proven to be the best decisions, but his processes to reach them will be seen as good ones. Also, his personality and style were highly presidential.”

Shapiro compared Obama to a legendary list of presidents including Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy as heads of state who have had “charismatic styles and presence as leaders.”

Obama is also relatively young, Capozzola said, which means he will have a long post-presidency.

“It remains to be seen how he will handle his ex-presidency,” he said, “but I think we can't take it for granted that he will be an active ex-president who has set his eye to the history books.”

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