When a reporter asked President Obama about criminal justice reform at a year-end press conference Friday, the president gave a sobering response.
"Just to go back to my general principle," he said, "It took 20 years for us to get to the point we are now. And it will be 20 years, probably, before we reverse some of these major trends."
This is a long-game view of his administration's place in history, and of what it can do to bring change. And it wasn't limited to just that one issue on Friday — this mentality seems to suffuse Obama's thinking these days.
In the press conference, the president urged the media to zoom out from the daily headlines and look at the big picture of his efforts to stop climate change, fight ISIS, start a political transition in Syria, and close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
Obama has always nodded to his place in history. But his second-term rhetoric has shifted away from calls for sweeping change and toward an attempt to set expectations about what is achievable — and to defend his policies as producing incremental progress that will pay off for future generations.
For instance, when he bragged about his administration's 2015 achievements — improvement in the economy, increased insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — he framed them as "our steady, persistent work over the years ... paying off for the American people."
Obama is increasingly taking the long view
This is, of course, a stark contrast to Obama's rhetoric during his 2008 campaign, which positioned change in lofty, idealized terms. And it's also a contrast from the early days of his administration, when Democrats controlled Congress and sweeping new laws seemed possible.
Part of the rhetorical shift is surely because Obama's had to reckon with the limitations of the president's power. With the low-hanging fruit plucked and his congressional majorities gone, further change is now grinding and difficult. And some would surely argue that Obama calls for taking the long view because he's simply failed to make much progress on several important issues.
But this defense of incremental change has been on Obama's mind these days — as he made clear earlier this year, in a revealing appearance on Marc Maron's WTF podcast. Here's what he said:
"When I ran in 2008, there were those posters out there – Hope, and Change. And those are capturing aspirations about where we should be going... [But] as soon as you start talking about specifics, then the world’s complicated, and there are choices that you have to make. And it turns out that the trajectory of progress always happens in fits and starts...
Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements and to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south. So that ten years from now suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were... Societies don’t turn 50 degrees. Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees."
Indeed, a nearly two-year-old profile of Obama from the New Yorker's David Remnick makes a similar point — showing that for years now, Obama has been trying to focus on how his actions will be judged by history, rather than in the moment:
That appeal to patience and historical reckoning, an appeal that risks a maddening high-mindedness, is something that everyone around Obama trots out to combat the hysterias of any given moment. "He has learned through those vicissitudes that every day is Election Day in Washington and everyone is writing history in ten-minute intervals," Axelrod told me. "But the truth is that history is written over a long period of time—and he will be judged in the long term."
The president is more focused on his legacy than ever
Now Obama's heading into his final year as president. He's more disconnected from the news cycle than ever before, and more focused on his legacy and his place in history than ever.
And this has opened him up to some criticism. In a recent off-the-record meeting with foreign policy columnists, Obama "indicated that he did not see enough cable television to fully appreciate the anxiety after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino," according to the New York Times (which strangely dropped that language from its story later on).
Obama has been pilloried for this comment by conservatives. But in his view, he's already pursuing the correct policies to fight ISIS and terrorism as a whole — even though they've only turned the ocean liner a few degrees. So his Oval Office address on terrorism was meant to make the case that the US was heading in the right direction on these issues — and that more sweeping policy overhauls would be a mistake.
Whether he's right will be up to history to decide.