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President Trump’s critics warn that history will look unkindly on his effort to overturn a democratic election. This forecast, while understandable, may be wrong. History rarely looks on one-term presidents at all.
For the last four years I’ve covered his administration as a journalist while also researching and writing books about 19th-century American history. This made it natural to try assessing him from a distance, as future historians might peer at him. Someday the clamor of his tenure will fade, leaving behind a few essential facts, the first of which is his single term.
Few presidents who served four years or less find an enduring place in the popular imagination. One term is not long to influence a country so large and dynamic — and a president’s failure to win a second term can be a sign that he didn’t. If you are not from Indiana, you may not know my state produced Benjamin Harrison, a one-term president who was different from President William Henry Harrison, who died after one month in office. Few people visit the statue of James Buchanan in a lonely corner of a Washington park, and in my life I have met just one enthusiast for Chester A. Arthur.
One-term presidents who escape obscurity often did something beyond the presidency — like John Adams, one of the nation’s founders, or Jimmy Carter, whose much-admired post-presidency has lasted 10 times as long as his term. John F. Kennedy’s legacy rests, in part, on legislative achievements that passed after his assassination. Others are known for their failures while in office: Warren G. Harding for a corruption scandal, Herbert Hoover for economic calamity, Andrew Johnson for being impeached.
We can’t be sure what history will make of Mr. Trump, whose term featured scandal, impeachment and calamity, as well as a pandemic. His story may not be over; he remains at the head of a powerful movement, and reportedly talks of running in 2024. But to judge by information available today, he has a relatively narrow role in the American story: as the reaction to a game-changing president — Barack Obama.
Something like this is true of many presidents. A relative handful enact lasting change, while others respond to them. The ones who left a mark include Andrew Jackson, Mr. Trump’s favorite, who served two terms, from 1829 to 1837. Jackson founded the Democratic Party, reinforced slavery, pursued populist economic policies, and faced down a near-rebellion over states’ rights. When he exceeded his power to achieve his goals, critics called him King Andrew.
Jackson was followed by eight presidents who served in his shadow, two of whom died in office and none of whom went on to a second term. History does not linger long on most of them; they were subordinate characters, mostly shaped by Jackson’s agenda — either advancing or resisting it.
In the same way, Mr. Trump’s place in history may be overshadowed by Mr. Obama’s. Elected in 2008, Mr. Obama seemed to personify America’s growing diversity as a multiracial republic. His campaign motivated new voters, and he talked at first of transcending old political divisions. He said he wanted Americans to regain trust in institutions battered by 9/11, the war in Iraq and the financial crisis. He raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, signed the Affordable Care Act, tried to break an impasse over immigration and approved a nuclear agreement to ease a long-running conflict with Iran.
He also did not manage to transcend the old divisions. Facing unrelenting opposition from Republicans in Congress, he enraged them by using executive authority to govern around them. Numerous Republicans claimed Mr. Obama had acted like a king.
The Obama presidency paved the way for Mr. Trump. He rose by relentlessly attacking Mr. Obama, promoting the racist conspiracy theory about his birthplace and falsely claiming that he favored open borders. Mr. Trump told voters in 2016 that he was their “last chance” to win before they were overwhelmed by immigration and globalism.
It is astonishing to recall how much Mr. Trump devoted his term to re-fighting the battles of the Obama years. Using executive authority as Mr. Obama had, he rolled back housing and environmental regulations, reversed transgender rights in the military, and branded antiracism programs as racist.
But on many issues he only partly succeeded. He withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, but other nations did their best to maintain it. He abandoned Mr. Obama’s strategy toward China, but he struggled to make his own strategy work. He damaged the Affordable Care Act but never managed to repeal it, even when his party controlled Congress.
It was revealing that he publicly supported the most popular benefits of the health insurance law that he said he despised, such as protections for pre-existing conditions. His predecessor defined what health insurance should cover, and Mr. Trump accepted the definition.
Mr. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, but his successor plans to rejoin it. Mr. Trump ended Mr. Obama’s program giving legal status to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, but the Supreme Court restored it, finding Mr. Trump’s action “arbitrary and capricious.” Though Mr. Trump took other actions to limit immigration, the most permanent symbol of his policy may be an unfinished wall in the desert. He neither erased all of President Obama’s accomplishments nor completed his own.
President Trump still has a legacy. He attracted a vast and loyal following. The tax cuts he approved could last for years, while the three conservative justices he appointed are likely to remain on the Supreme Court for decades. His obsessive use of social media made him unlike any president before him, as did his open disregard of barriers between his public duties and personal business. He spoke well of authoritarian rulers, and accelerated the use of disinformation.
The epic conflicts he generated seem like perfect material for future history classes. It is easy to imagine a high school history book recounting the monthslong court fight over his effort to ban Muslims from entering the United States, followed by discussion on religious freedom and the Constitution.
But in those same textbooks, President Trump may be a minor player in the larger story of a democracy grappling with demands for a more equal society — an era marked by the election of Mr. Obama, the first Black president.
And Mr. Trump’s tenure already has a fitting bookend: On Jan. 20, he will be replaced by Mr. Obama’s vice president.
Steve Inskeep is a co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Up First, and the author of “Jacksonland” and “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”
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