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Many college students sit in their chairs for seminars about the presidential theme every semester. And while the professor at the lectern will rightly illustrate the specifics—pardons and clemencies, declarations of war, and peace negotiations —there’s often one crucial role that gets missed: historian.
That’s right. The unmatched bully pulpit gives Presidents of the United States unprecedented power over their own legacy. Because every word that they speak can be heard by a worldwide audience, the President can influence the nation’s thinking over time. This phenomenon is not something that everyone understands. One professor of American civilization wrote an interesting 2018 book on the subject. Barack Obama is an American HistorianHow the 44th President used his reading of U.S. History to guide his political decisions. Some Presidents have a more indifferent view of history. In particular, the Oval Office’s last occupant appears to have adopted an ahistorical attitude.
Eventually, though, most realize that they’re simultaneously creating and midwifing the history of their nation. When they realize this, they are able to use their power for their own benefit. For all of the good that apparatchiks and technocrats can bring to improve government, the story of any President gets far richer when there’s been someone loyal to the boss keeping an eye on legacy. Myth-making isn’t something that died with the Greek and Roman tales.
Since they are interactive historical rewrites, how can presidential libraries be called anything but interactive presidential libraries? Tour any of them and you’ll notice plenty of sharp edges that have been sanded down. Until 2011, Richard Nixon’s library in Yorba Linda, Calif., described Watergate as an attempted coup by Democrats. In 2007, the National Archives took control of the site and switched the script for fact. Bill Clinton’s library in Little Rock, Ark., was incredibly terse when it came to the scandals of the 1990s when I visited in 2015. And during a pre-pandemic stop at George W. Bush’s library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, you’d never have known he left office with a 22% approval rating but rather guided America through its worst crisis in decades with steady leadership.
Ex-Presidents have an unrivalled power to restart their lives because they are members of the elite fraternity. It becomes more powerful the more they tap into it. And, among the current members of “The Presidents Club,”Barack Obama is the former President of the United States. He knows more about its potential than anyone.
The former President is making his return to the White House in preparation for his first official event there since he left office in 2017. The White House is billing the former President’s return as a time to celebrate the 2010 Affordable Care Act, whose historical narrative has been contested as much as any of the landmark laws that get their own seminars of study. Conservatives and Tea Party types in the wake of its passage flipped the balance of power in Congress that autumn as rafts of candidates made Obamacare—specifically, scrapping it—part of the Republicans’ successful platform. Antipathy has largely faded over time and Democrats have come to use the health care law as one of their party’s central planks, although it’s tough to forget just how brutal the anti-Obamacare rhetoric was at the time.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is officially known. It has increased health coverage for millions. By the time it reached the decade mark, over 20 million people were enrolled in the system. When Obama’s presidential library eventually opens, it’s good odds that there will be plenty of score-settling and chest-puffing about the fight that Democrats won to build a legislative legacy even at the short-term cost of political majorities.
Obama who values the ability to view his governance through historical lense, was able to see the legacy that his team has left. “We answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us,” Obama said the evening of the Affordable Care Act’s passage, with the iconic White House Cross Hall behind him. “When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenges. These challenges were met with triumph. They were not evasive of their responsibilities. We accepted them. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.”
Note that Joe Biden, then Vice President of the United States, also received the stakes. After introducing Obama that night, he delivered one of his many gaffes: “This is a big f—ing deal.”
Obama can make adjustments to his story because ex-Presidents retain the power of an eraser that allows them to erase the political histories. The messy part where Democrats tried to woo phantom Republican votes, the fact that Sen. Ted Kennedy was killed and a Republican won the seat or all of the legal challenges and attempts to repeal the law might be left out of his narrative. There’s a political advantage for Biden in Tuesday’s event, too. Given that not a whole lot of Biden’s own presidential history in-the-making is carrying huge glimmers of optimism, reminding the country of the 46th President’s own role in Obamacare can’t hurt. Biden’s agenda is in an uncertain place, with Republicans ascendant heading into the fall midterm elections and the current Democratic majorities in Congress unreliable allies. Pushing a popular former President and his landmark achievement isn’t a bad way for a low-effort glow-up.
Because of their positions, presidents can make history by making every announcement or improvisation. Some are skilled at speaking into the camera to create an instant narrative for future historians and libraries. True self-aware Presidents know they are capable of doing more than they think. Create history.
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