President Obama’s advisers are sensitive about his lame-duck status and insist that the White House is not exclusively in legacy-defining mode. But the president himself can’t seem to stop reflecting on his tenure and touting his accomplishments, while also trying to settle scores and rebut critics in the process.
In a series of lengthy interviews with magazine writers, newspaper columnists and historians — as well as in a couple of his own long-form essays — Obama has been presenting a favorable narrative of his presidency, framing it as a historic moment that managed to rise above unprecedented partisanship.
All presidents hope to have some say in how they are judged by history, usually relying on august farewell addresses and blockbuster memoirs. But Obama has started earlier and seems more publicly strategic than his predecessors about framing his legacy. He is determined to get the jump on his critics about how his presidency is preserved for posterity.
So far, a central theme has been to cast himself as the rational actor in an arena full of irrational ones.
In a cover story in the Atlantic last spring, Obama was disdainful of Washington’s foreign policy establishment for its dangerous groupthink and eagerness to reinforce foreign policy “credibility” through force. Earlier this month, in an interview with New York magazine, the president ridiculed Republican leaders in Congress for being beholden to far-right conservatives they cannot control.
The GOP can only save itself through “self-reflection,” Obama told New York. But he’s not confident it will happen. “There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse.”
In reflecting on his leadership, Obama rarely admits mistakes.
“I know there are problems that I say to myself, if maybe I was a little more gifted I might have been able to solve,” Obama told the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in an interview for Vanity Fair last month. “But that’s not because I believe what I did was a mistake. It’s that maybe it required the talents of a Lincoln.”
Behind the scenes, the White House has worked hard to help package the productions for maximum media hagiography, carving out extra time on the president’s schedule for portrait photographs and glossy videos to accompany the stories.
New York’s cover package, titled “Eight years in Obama’s America,” included a separate interview with Vice President Biden. And Obama posed for a series of black-and-white portraits, including one capturing him in silhouette as he gazed out of the White House at the Washington Monument.
The magazine billed the package as “a very early draft of his memoirs.”
“He’s definitely in a period of reflection,” said Stephanie Cutter, a former White House and Obama campaign aide.
Aides said the multimedia packages are the fruit of a carefully considered strategy after the November 2014 midterm elections to ensure that Obama could break through the rapid-fire daily news cycle and make the case for his accomplishments amid the cacophony of the 2016 campaign.
Four years ago, as he ran for reelection, Obama told CBS’s Charlie Rose that the biggest mistake of his first term was his failure to “tell a story” about the rapid change his administration was pursuing. When Democrats were routed in the midterm elections two years ago, Obama was criticized by some allies for not promoting his accomplishments loudly enough.
Aides said the White House was hesitant to do so, particularly on the economy, because even though economic data showed sustained growth, many Americans were still feeling financially insecure.
“If you’re not willing to tout your own accomplishments, then nobody else will, either, and that was clear after the midterms,” Cutter said.
The White House communications team settled on a plan to make Obama available for more in-depth, thematic interviews that addressed the broad goals of his presidency. Aides thought the long-form format, tailored to specific policy areas, played to the strengths of the former law professor who favors full-length conversations over sound bites.
Although the process would be more time-consuming, the finished packages would have a greater impact than “the garden-variety, ceremonial-type events,” said Shailagh Murray, a senior adviser to the president who coordinated the effort with White House communications director Jennifer Psaki.
Over time, the pieces would elevate Obama’s “repository of results and accomplishments,” Murray said.
The change has been evident. The Atlantic cover story in April spanned 19 pages, the longest piece published in the magazine in a decade and the product of four interviews with writer Jeffrey Goldberg.
Also in April, Obama argued that he does not get enough credit on the economy in a conversation with financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin for the New York Times Magazine. In August, the president made a data-driven case for the success of his landmark health-care law in a 4,250-word essay for the Journal of the American Medical Association.
During a trip to Honolulu and Midway Atoll in September, Obama granted interviews to three Times reporters for a retrospective package on his efforts to combat climate change. The president and first lady Michelle Obama even cooperated with Essence magazine for a 12-page cover package this month titled “Grace & Power” and billed as a “salute to the first couple’s finest moments.”
And last week, Wired magazine published a special issue edited by Obama, who contributed an essay titled: “Now is the greatest time to be alive,” a clear rebuttal to the ominous view of the country peddled by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Most of the pieces include criticism of his record, and the reporters, to varying degrees, challenge the president’s account of his tenure. The editor of the medical journal said Obama’s piece was rigorously fact-checked.
Obama’s strategy resembles that of Republican President Ronald Reagan, who gave more than half a dozen farewell-style addresses and had a panoply of Cabinet officials fan out to tout his legacy before he left office.
By contrast, fellow two-term presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were less able, or less willing, to tout their legacies in the final years. The garrulous Clinton was constrained because Al Gore, his former vice president, was distancing himself from Clinton’s scandal-tainted record during his own bid for the White House.
With the exception of a legacy-style speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, Clinton waited until after the election that year for the bulk of his exit interviews, a former Clinton aide said last week.
Bush was weighed down by abysmal approval ratings, in the midst of the Iraq War and, by the fall of 2008, the stock market crash. The Republican hoping to succeed him, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) also was running away from Bush’s record.
“Our situation was so different,” recalled Dana Perino, the White House press secretary from 2007 to 2009. Bush’s final year “was when he had a shoe thrown at him in Iraq.”
Obama is in a far more advantageous spot. His approval ratings have risen above 50 percent, and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has embraced his record in her campaign to succeed him.
Administration officials said their strategy was not intended to overtly dwell on Obama’s legacy, and they emphasized that the president is still pressing his governing agenda.
But they acknowledged that the interviews have taken on a retrospective quality, because journalists have been eager to write assessments of the president as the contest to replace him nears its conclusion.
“I don’t think they can help it now,” said Goodwin, the historian. “We sort of make them talk about [legacy] before it’s over.”