James Grossman: Obama and His Historians: A Suggestion





James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association.

As a historian, not to mention as the executive director of the AHA, I was pleased to read in the New York Times yesterday that President Obama listens to historians and discusses history but is “no history buff.” He appears to be serious in thinking about the past and how he can learn from it, rather than being merely satisfied with a handful of anecdotes. Moreover, he certainly included distinguished and thoughtful scholars in the sessions described in this article.

But I offer a suggestion that might help him even more. President Obama hopes that a group of eight presidential biographers will help him think not only about “what he could learn from the men they had studied,” but also what he might learn about the American people. I humbly suggest that the group be diversified a bit, with the addition of a few social, cultural, and intellectual historians. None of us knows everything—not even the most distinguished presidential biographers. A president who “admitted he was having trouble communicating his vision to the country” might benefit from insights into what it was about 1930s America that enabled Franklin Roosevelt to communicate so effectively (i.e. not just what it was about Roosevelt). Likewise, a president “struggling to understand the Tea Party and a level of opposition he said was ‘not normal’ by historical standards” would have benefitted from the insights of scholars who have studied social movements and political culture “from the bottom up.”...

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