Obama and His Historians: A Suggestion

As a historian, not to mention as the executive director of the AHA, I was pleased to read in the New York Times yesterday that President Obama listens to historians and discusses history but is “no history buff.” He appears to be serious in thinking about the past and how he can learn from it, rather than being merely satisfied with a handful of anecdotes. Moreover, he certainly included distinguished and thoughtful scholars in the sessions described in this article.

But I offer a suggestion that might help him even more. President Obama hopes that a group of eight presidential biographers will help him think not only about “what he could learn from the men they had studied,” but also what he might learn about the American people. I humbly suggest that the group be diversified a bit, with the addition of a few social, cultural, and intellectual historians. None of us knows everything—not even the most distinguished presidential biographers. A president who “admitted he was having trouble communicating his vision to the country” might benefit from insights into what it was about 1930s America that enabled Franklin Roosevelt to communicate so effectively (i.e. not just what it was about Roosevelt). Likewise, a president “struggling to understand the Tea Party and a level of opposition he said was ‘not normal’ by historical standards” would have benefitted from the insights of scholars who have studied social movements and political culture “from the bottom up.”

Any president who wishes to learn from his predecessors would do well to learn about the larger worlds in which those predecessors lived and operated. Consider for example what seems to be a peculiarly singular commitment on the part of some of this president’s opponents to assure the failure of his presidency. Historians of the American South and African American political activism will immediately recall W.E.B. DuBois’s observation that what white southerners feared most in the aftermath of the Civil War was not that the Reconstruction governments would fail, but rather that they would succeed. A president who leans solely on understanding the lives and actions of previous presidents to learn what “history” can teach him is bound to walk away with a narrow, and perhaps even misleading idea of the efficacy of presidential power and the dynamics of change. A broader view of history and what it can teach would better address many more of the president’s questions and better inform many more of his policies.

That said, we do appreciate that this president understands the importance of historical thinking, and the relevance of the past to the present and future.

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