Obama the history man

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Obama the history man

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In last night's debate, Obama returned to the history-conscious rhetoric of his 2008 campaign (photo: Barack Obama)

Last night’s debate—the third and final bout of sparring between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney before the election—was a victory for Obama. In the conversation on foreign policy, he was aggressive, assiduous and articulate. Two weeks before 6th November, he came across like the president he is.

For entertainment value, he slipped in a few memorable one-liners that skewered Romney’s efforts to position himself as a centrist in these final weeks. “Governor,” the president said, referring to Romney’s recent declaration that Russia poses the most significant geopolitical threat to the United States, “when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

And then, of course, there was Twitter’s favorite jibe, in which the President explained to Romney why the US navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1917. “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Victory aside, the president’s comments on foreign policy also managed to highlight one of the most revealing aspects of his persona as a leader: his obsession with history and, specifically, the place of his presidency within it.

It’s often said that the impression of Obama as history conscious derives from the soaring rhetoric he used in 2008—“the moment,” in his words, “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal […] when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.” Last night saw a definite return of that sentiment, which had been fairly dormant in the last few months of the campaign.

Obama uttered the word “history” five times in the debate—and never to refer solely to his own nation. As he said when stressing his support for Israel: “we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. A moment later, he cast his administration’s policies toward Iran in similarly grandiose terms: “we then organised the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history.”

The past four years, he seems to suggest, stand out against the entire trajectory of the recorded human past, and only a world-historical figure such as himself can take the helm in times as epoch-altering as these. (Interestingly enough, one of the president’s main criticisms of Mitt Romney last night was his failure to accept that narrative: “Governor Romney,” he said, “you keep trying to, you know, airbrush history here.”)

This was a fundamental part of Obama’s final pitch to the American people before the election: the notion that he is (or believes himself to be) a president who has not only understood the course of history but has also managed to master it in the process.

He essentially said as much when discussing his policies in the Middle East. “The central question at this point is going to be: who is going to be credible to all parties involved? And they can look at my track record, whether it’s Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities. And they can say that the president of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history.”

In that sense, the election isn’t just about the particular issues on the table. It’s also a question of whether the American people agree with Barack Obama’s interpretation of his own legacy.

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James McAuley
James McAuley is a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford 

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