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Every semester, flocks of college students settle into their seats for seminars on some variation on the theme of presidential power. 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. Presidents in the United States have a unique power over their own legacies owing to their unmatched bully pulpit. As every word they utter can capture a global audience, Presidents can, over time, move the way the country thinks about itself. Some understand this explicitly; one professor of American civilization even wrote a fascinating 2018 book about the phenomenon, Barack Obama: American Historian, and how the 44th President harnessed his own reading of U.S. history to inform the political moments of his own life. Other Presidents are more indifferent to history, and the last Oval Office occupant in particular seems to have adopted a fiercely ahistorical posture.
Eventually, though, most realize that they’re simultaneously creating and midwifing the history of their nation. And, when they fully appreciate it, they can use the power for their own advantages. 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.
After all, what are presidential libraries if not interactive rewrites of history? 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. (The National Archives took the site over in 2007 and flipped the script in favor of 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.
Because of their membership in the most elite fraternity on the planet, ex-Presidents enjoy an almost unrivaled power to reboot their stories. The harder they lean into that superpower, the more potent it becomes. And, among the current members of “The Presidents Club,” none knows the potential better than former President Barack Obama.
He is heading back to the White House for his first event there since leaving 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.
Officially known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the measure has expanded health coverage to millions; as it passed the decade mark, more than 20 million people had been brought into 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 appreciates the power of positioning his governance through the lens of history, understood the legacy of what his team had accomplished. “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. We overcame them. We did not avoid our responsibilities, we embraced it. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.”
It should be noted that then-Vice President Joe Biden also got the stakes, if not the historical tableau. After introducing Obama that night, he delivered one of his many gaffes: “This is a big f—ing deal.”
Given ex-Presidents still wield an eraser for the political histories, Obama will make his own tweaks to the story, for sure. His narrative might spare the messy stretch when Democrats chased phantom Republican support, or how the effort almost came crashing down when Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away and a Republican won his seat, or the endless legal challenges to the spine of the law and the multiple efforts to repeal it. 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.
Presidents, by dint of their position, stand to make history with every declaration or improvisation, whether intentional or not. Some know how to speak into the camera, creating a real-time narration for their libraries and for future historians. The truly self-aware Presidents understand they can do one better: they can create history.
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