An Expansive View Into Obama’s Transformative Presidency

The first set of transcripts from the Obama Presidency Oral History will be released today.

Caroline Harting
May 31, 2023

“How will Obama’s Presidency be remembered? A massive new oral history project will help shape his legacy,” read the headline in The Washington Post on May 16, 2019. The article announced how a team of sociologists and oral historians from Columbia University’s Incite and Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) were chosen by the Obama Foundation to document President Obama’s (CC'83) time in the Oval Office. To accurately reflect the transformative nature of this presidency, the team set out to create a presidential oral history like no other.  

Just over four years later, 470 people have been interviewed with roughly 1,100 hours of video and audio recordings, much of it produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, the team is ready to publish the first set of their interviews on the topic of climate change. What sets this project apart from other presidential oral histories? Columbia News talked to the leadership team to find out.

The Team

The principal investigator on the Obama Presidency Oral History is Peter Bearman, Jonathan R. Cole Professor of Sociology and director of Incite. Mary Marshall Clark, director of CCHOR, and Kimberly Springer, curator of the Oral History Archives at Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library, were co-investigators. All three have decades of expertise in the field of oral history.

Bearman and Michael Falco, executive director of Incite, found three accomplished historians—Dov Weinryb Grohsgal, Nicole Hemmer, and Evan McCormick—to lead the research. Grohsgal was a dean at Princeton University and had done research into key moments of the Obama presidency, like Obamacare and the fiscal crisis. When Hemmer joined, she was at the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history, where she focused on the media, conservatism, and the far-right. McCormick specialized in foreign policy issues, inter-American relations during the Reagan years, and contested ideas of security, democracy, and rights in the Western Hemisphere. He brought a global focus to the project.

Next to join the team was Terrell Frazier, an experienced oral historian and sociologist. Back in 2019, he was working on his sociology Ph.D. at Columbia when Bearman tapped him to be the lead interviewer for the project. Frazier’s research investigated the relationship between social movement actors’ social positions and their capacities for strategic action.

Along with this team and dozens of other staffers, students, and interviewers, the project was guided by the Obama Presidency Oral History’s advisory board that consisted of prominent historians, journalists, sociologists, and lawyers. “The board has been influential in driving some innovations in this project,” remarked Bearman. “We’ve been able to take the board’s guidance and broaden the frame quite remarkably.”

On the archival side of the project, Chelsea Reil, joined Columbia University Libraries in 2022 as the person responsible for describing the collection and stewarding the project through the cataloging process. 

The Project's Design

A typical presidential oral history focuses on the president and a small group of advisers around him. Bearman and his team, however, wanted this project to reflect Obama’s approach to the presidency, one where he aspired to be in touch with the American people. “We wanted to decenter the presidency,” said Bearman. “We explored the relationship between those who have power and those who are recipients of that power. But we also examined how the experiences of those ‘ordinary’ people percolated back into the policies of the administration.” 

To provide a full picture of Obama’s impact, the team identified nearly 40 policy topics, including healthcare, Black politics, climate change, the environment, and energy. The research process then revealed a variety of people to possibly interview: not just high-level administration figures, but also mid-level staffers, activists, people affected by the policy, and also those who affected or shaped policy, like elected officials, university presidents, and people of every walk of life. 

Presidential oral histories often have a very small number of interviews devoted to first ladies and how they operate outside of the West Wing. The team took a different approach with a significant focus on the office and included more than 30 interview participants. “I didn’t try to compare First Lady Michelle Obama to other first ladies,” said Clark, who conducted dozens of East Wing interviews. “I focused more on the productiveness of her and her husband’s work together.”

The Interview Process and COVID's Impact

The Columbia Center for Oral History Research is the oldest and one of the largest oral history centers in the country. Clark and Frazier utilized some of the interviews from the center’s vast oral history collections, including the September 11, 2001 Oral History Project and the Guantanamo Bay Oral History Project, to help train the interviewers in the project’s opening phase.

Each interviewer spent significant time engaging with the narrators prior to the interviews. Additionally, an enormous amount of research was distilled into specific topical outlines that each interviewee would receive prior to the interview. Initially, the interviews were scheduled to be in person. However, only a few were completed when the COVID-pandemic hit, and the team needed to shift gears to remote interviews. 

“Like all oral histories, they’re shaped by the moment in which they are collected,” remarked Bearman. “Today, plague and loneliness and isolation are not the first things that come to mind when we think about the world. But in 2020 and 2021, they were powerful frames for people, and we were able to think deeply with our narrators about what the world was like in a period just before this unusual moment in time.”

How to Access the Interviews

The public will be able to access the interviews in several ways. Incite will launch a preview version of the project’s website on May 31. The first tranche of interviews available will focus on President Obama’s work on climate change. More sets of interviews will be released throughout the year and into 2024. 

“The website will allow individuals to watch the video we captured, listen to the audio, and to read the transcripts,” explained Bearman. “We hope the site will reveal the ways in which issues relate to each other and the feel of the presidency.”

The interviews will also be made available for use by the Obama Foundation and the Obama Presidential Center, which is under construction in Chicago’s South Side. The archive will be housed and preserved at Columbia University Libraries' Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Incite also commissioned interviews with partners at the University of Hawaii and the University of Chicago that focused on President Obama and the First Lady’s earlier lives and careers. These subsections of the project will be housed at both Universities.  

When asked what she hopes people will learn from the archive now and in the future, Reil responded, “I hope they learn the power of people's personal stories and experiences when taking a wide view of history.”