An Undergraduate’s Perspective of the 126th Annual Meeting: “Historians and the Obama Narrative”

Editor’s Note: Scott Nielson, a senior undergraduate student at BYU, is blogging for the AHA about his experiences attending the 126th annual meeting.

The “Obama narrative” has received much attention from journalists, producing an interesting body of work for historians who are now making the “first draft” from a historical perspective, as James Grossman put it this morning at the “Historians and the Obama Narrative” session.

The various panelists grappled with a few of the pervasive media oversimplifications of the narrative, focusing a large portion of the discussion on racial perceptions and also commenting on elements that influenced Obama’s worldview and political approach.

Peniel Joseph of Tufts University pointed to the Black Power movement, which has not been widely discussed by president or candidate Obama but nevertheless provided members of the black community with common roots of identity while avoiding a narrow definition. Without that movement, Joseph argued that the president would not currently reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

James Kloppenberg of Harvard University noted that Obama has been “an experimentalist not a dogmatist,” tracing his campaign for president of the Harvard Law Review, where he built a broad coalition of support that even reached members of the Federalist Society, and his work as a community organizer, listening to foot soldiers and crafting compromises.

Thomas Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania then commented on Obama’s failure to anticipate the level of opposition by “intransigent” Republicans, which came into full view following the 2010 midterm elections, especially as it relates to disillusionment on the left (perhaps even among some of the panelists themselves). Interestingly, he did point out that this deeply rooted obstructionism has a long tradition in American history—we did have a civil war, after all.

While the comments panelists offered certainly answered many questions, Dianne Pinderhughes’s observation that as a witness of the election of our first black president, no one actually saw it coming, and as a result, no one has been able to properly explain exactly how it happened, seemed rather reflective of the general topic. As Jim Grossman pointed out, a historical discussion of a sitting president raises important methodological questions and may require a few years before coming into clearer view.

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