Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

You can't game a presidential legacy

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:55 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Former presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush 41, Bush 43, and President Barack Obama pose at opening of George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Former presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush 41, Bush 43, and President Barack Obama pose at opening of George W. Bush Presidential Center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: One can't predict sitting president's legacy. Much depends on what comes after
  • Whether next president lets previous president's signature program stand affects legacy
  • He says Obama kept some Bush counterterror initiatives. Nixon kept LBJs Great Society
  • Zelizer: Archives can affect understanding of legacy, as can future world events

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- What will President Obama's historical legacy look like decades from now? As the media sort through the debates over the Affordable Care Act and the budget, or the implications of the recent deal with Iran, many Americans are starting to think about how we will remember this president.

Predicting presidential legacies is tricky. Historians are particularly skeptical about anyone who thinks he or she can figure out what a president's legacy will be while he's still in office.

Why is this?

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The next president has a big role to play in how a president goes down in the record books. Whoever succeeds President Obama can help to legitimize or undercut the programs that have been put into place since 2009. When Republican President Richard Nixon allowed most of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to stand, it helped make those policies—and Johnson's domestic legacy—a permanent part of the political landscape.

The same had been true during the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower opposed efforts to roll back the New Deal. In recent years, President Obama's decision to accept and expand many of President George W. Bush's counterterrorism programs normalized a series of policies that had been highly controversial.

Implementation also matters. The success or failure of implementing a president's programs can have huge consequences over the long term when we think about what a president did. The short-term struggles over a policy, such as we are now seeing with the Affordable Care Act, don't matter as much as we might think. Many popular programs, including Social Security, started on shaky ground. But if policymakers can entrench a program, as occurred with Social Security by the 1950s, then the president who first proposed them looks pretty good.

The success of Social Security remains integral to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's legacy. Similarly, over time the success of Medicare and Medicaid has made it increasingly apparent that Vietnam often overshadowed the massive domestic accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson.

According to a recent CNN/ORC International Poll, a majority of Americans remain open-minded about the Affordable Care Act and believe that it will be fixed. If the regulations start to curb premiums and millions of other Americans have health insurance for the first time, ACA, and President Obama, will look much better.

Is Obamacare "fumble" the end of Obama?
Presidential Panel
George W. Bush's presidential legacy

Future events also will determine how we consider the legacy of a president. The interim deal the Obama administration and five other world powers reached with Iran, for instance, won't make much sense until we see how tensions in the region unfold and what exactly comes of Iran's nuclear power.

President Ronald Reagan's decision to negotiate with the Soviet Union over intermediate range missiles between 1985 and 1987 could only be assessed after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The negotiations are now considered to be a crowning achievement of the Reagan presidency, though at the time they were highly controversial, including among conservatives who distrusted Mikhail Gorbachev. President Clinton's economic policies look much better to many Democrats and Republicans in light of the frail economic conditions of the early 21st century. In contrast, the tepid response of the U.S. government to Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s remains one of the worst moments in FDR's record.

Finally, there is no such thing as a fixed presidential legacy. Historians have seen how presidential reputations have changed dramatically over time. Harry Truman left office as one of the most unpopular presidents of the time. He now comes out on the top of most lists of best presidents.

What's more, the opening of presidential archives can often give historians a very different impression of how a president performed. Americans also assess their presidents through the lens of the political era in which they live. During the 1980s, a conservative age, there was a more favorable view of Dwight Eisenhower. In recent years, after politics swung toward the liberal side of the spectrum, Lyndon Johnson received a second look. And presidents themselves have been playing a bigger and more active role in shaping the debate about what they did in the White House.

Although presidents can't help but think about how they will be treated in the history books, gaming the future is impossible. Indeed, that future will never be set in stone. What presidents can best control are the programs in front of them, making sure that things are working well and that they put into place an infrastructure of policies that has the best chance of outlasting their time in Washington.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT