In a two-hour special, “The Legacy of Barack Obama,” set to air this evening at 9 p.m. on both CNN and CNN International, Zakaria examines the successes and failures of Obama’s presidency, looking at both his ambition and the way that led him to try to put new policies into place. Too often, Zakaria said in an interview, “we focus on the sensational and the daily scamper. What we are trying to do is ask what will this presidency look like when the history books are written?”
The author, who hosts a Sunday program on CNN that looks at policy and international affairs, said he aimed to drill deeply among Obama’s closest advisers. Among the interviewees are former senior adviser David Axelrod; presidential historian Doria Kearns Goodwin; former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; senior advisor Valerie Jarrett; retired General David Petraeus; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; and President Obama himself.
Many last looks at a president’s legacy can afford to take a more definitive tone, but Zakaria noted his effort will end with a question mark, owing to President-elect Trump’s vows to undo many of President Obama’s signature accomplishments. “It’s definitely a cliffhanger,” he said. “Every segment we did we have to ask ourselves: How much of this get unraveled in the first few days of Trump’s presidency? How much will be unraveled in the first few months?” Zakaria and his producers had to take steps to explain to viewers why some initiatives will stick around despite the new leader’s promises, and acknowledge some were bound to be repealed.
But he found much to seize upon as well. From the start of his first term, Zakaria said, Obama was determined to make a mark. “The ambition and the desire to be consequential are some of the most interesting things about Obama,” he noted. There is a note of desire to emulate President Ronald Reagan, said Zakaria. “Reagan was able to fundamentally reshape the trajectory of America in a way that Bush was not able to and Clinton was not able to. You can tell that Obama really wanted to move certain things forward.” The report will also examine Obama’s ability to achieve forward strides in such areas as criminal justice and climate change, despite being opposed by a Republican-dominated Congress for six of his eight years in office.
There are mistakes, too. After killing Osama bin Laden and crippling al Qaeda, the Obama administration had to confront a more dire threat. “Three years later, ISIS is storming across the sceen. Syria is in chaos. The new terror group is capturing and beheading Americans and capturing Iraqi towns,” explained Zakaria. “How did this happen?” The report will also look at Obama’s inability to get lawmakers to come together on gun violence, particularly in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings Newtown, Conn., in 2012. “He mounts this very aggressive campaign involving the families and the parents of the victims, and still he falls six votes short in the House of Representatives, and you can just tell,” Zakaria said. “His face is livid with anger, but he’s also heartbroken.”
Zakaria and his team collected so much in their interviews that some outtakes are likely to surface on “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” his Sunday-morning CNN program, as well as online.