Thursday, October 1, 2020
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The Issue of Determining a Legacy

The legacies of leaders are complex, and the moments that make them historic are not usually known at the time of their service. Actions that truly promoted change and made a difference will remain influential even after a leader leaves office. However, just weeks after leaving the White House, Barack Obama has been ranked the 12th best U.S. President overall in a new poll of historians conducted by C-SPAN. While they waited until the end of his presidency to measure the success of his work over the last eight years, it remains difficult to rank presidents when the effect of their recent work has yet to manifest itself.

Right before President’s Day, a team of advisors from esteemed schools such as Rice and Howard University oversaw C-SPAN’s survey, which asked participants to rank each president on a scale of one to ten in their effectiveness in categories such a crisis leadership, economic management, and international relations. These participants were professional historians that have studied the presidency thoroughly. It is essential in a survey like this that a professional and objective viewpoint be taken. However, while I would like to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that experts will most likely only focus on facts, it is undeniable that these are opinions of people who live in a specific political environment. They can only view Obama’s work in terms of what we know today, and as the effects of his policies shift, so will their opinions in the future.

This makes Obama’s ranking unstable. While it may accurately reflect how professionals feel today, this can radically shift in a few years. It also fails to take into account the voices of those in varying positions and social classes in America. A large percentage of citizens may have views that differ from that of these professionals. It is imprudent to view a survey that reaches such a small proportion of the population as the conclusive rating of the leaders of our country.

In addition, it’s important that the products of time be taken into account when viewing the legacy of a leader. Over the years, the actions of a president may be viewed with a certain amount of romanticism, such as Abraham Lincoln who has secured the top spot for many years mainly for being responsible for ending slavery. On the other hand, actions previously not appreciated may be seen in a new light in our current time period. This might cause presidents who previously were not popular to become more popular over time, increasing their ranking. This happened with Ulysses Grant, who ranked at the bottom for many years but moved up to the middle when historians began to recognize his commitment to humans rights and his international popularity. On the other hand, actions previously appreciated may be seen in a new light in our current time period. For instance, presidents such as Woodrow Wilson harbored extreme racist tendencies that were more accepted at the time, yet are detrimental to his image now. He’s dropped a few places on C-SPAN’s list in recent years as his hinderance of civil rights comes to light. While Obama has ranked high in pursuing equality, managing economics, and exhibiting moral authority, in time his actions may also come into perspective and affect historians’ opinions of him.

For recent presidents, the lasting impact of what they’ve put into place is yet to be seen. When it comes to categorizing leaders over a 200 year span, there are simply challenges that one cannot overcome. While the ranking of presidents from C-SPAN should be acknowledged, it’s important to know that the effects of a presidency are wide-ranging and ever-changing, meaning that any list is not definitive and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at