Jonathan Alter’s most recent book is “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies.”

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – One of America’s leading authorities on presidential leadership, former Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, offered insight into the legacy of the Obama presidency at the Robert W. van de Velde ’75 Memorial Lecture on April 2 at Middlebury’s Dana Auditorium.

The 57-year-old Alter, who has written two books about Barack Obama and one about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said he first met the would-be president in 2002 when Obama was an Illinois state senator. Characteristic of Alter’s public-speaking style, he used that encounter to inject humor into his lecture.

Alter had taken his young son to that meeting, and the boy was so impressed that he opined that Obama would become president one day. Many years later, at a college basketball game, the 44th president told Alter: “Tell your son Tommy I said hello, and” – pause – “that he should have talked me out of it!”

Alter said that it’s still too early in his presidency to say what Obama’s legacy will be, but it’s clearly been “more than Obama bargained for.” He came into office riding a tidal wave of hope and change, but those expectations were “way out of whack” with the political reality in Washington. The public believed that Obama wielded a magic wand that would transform America, but key Republican leaders were determined from the outset of his presidency “to do whatever it took to take him down.”

Republicans “did a kind of elemental political calculus” after the November 2008 election that showed four possible outcomes. If they joined with the president and the economy improved, he’d get the credit. If they joined with Obama and the economy worsened, they’d both share the blame. If they didn’t join with the president and the economy improved, the GOP would lose the 2010 mid-term elections. And if they didn’t join with Obama and the economy declined or was flat – which is what happened – then the Republican Party would come back into power.

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Alter once interviewed Nixon about Reagan’s legacy.

“It was a strict political calculation that any kind of cooperation with the president would not be in their self interest,” Alter said, “and I would argue that it was not an especially patriotic thing for them to do.”

The guest speaker analyzed the last six two-term presidents – Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush – and showed how critical the last two years of the second term can be in determining a president’s legacy.

Alter had the opportunity at Newsweek to interview Nixon about Reagan’s legacy, and the award-winning journalist – in his best Nixonian impersonation – recalled that the ex-president said it depended on the deficit, which was then very high. “If the deficit comes down and we get a balanced budget,” Alter remembered Nixon as saying, “then he will be regarded as a very good president. But if we are swamped by this deficit, which started with Reagan, he won’t be regarded so great.

“But then Nixon said, ‘That really doesn’t matter because history depends on the historian, and historians are like you. They’re liberals. If you are liberal, you go into journalism or history. And if you are conservative, you go into business. It will be up to you what Ronald Reagan’s legacy will be,’” Nixon told Alter.

That landscape has changed, Alter told the gathering of Middlebury students, faculty, and community members. “Politics has gotten so polarized that conservatives have their own think tanks, their own historians, and their own alternate reality, and they will write their own history of Barack Obama. There will be competing versions” of his presidency, as evidenced by the many books that have already come out about his tenure in the White House.

Alter devoted the second half of his lecture to an examination of Obama’s performance to date in five areas: the economy, social welfare, education, the environment, and foreign affairs. His criticisms of the president were few and far between, and mostly in terms of how he manages the public’s perceptions of himself.

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At one point Alter quoted Chris Rock: “Obama is not Michael Jordan. He’s just Shaq.”

Obama is not a great communicator, Alter said. He is weak at “framing issues in a compelling way to cut through the clutter and the noise. Obama has an allergy to sound bites. He writes beautiful paragraphs, but not the short sentences that linger in the mind and drive debate,” like Bill Clinton’s slogan for affirmative action: “Mend it, don’t end it.”

Alter faults the president for failing to reduce the gap between rich and poor in America – “this issue of the one percent,” he called it – and for “failing to pivot quickly enough from the Affordable Care Act to a jobs program” in his first term. Meanwhile Obama gets high marks from Alter for recovering every dollar invested in TARP, for “winding down two wars in the Middle East,” for cutting carbon emissions, and for striking a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program.

Obama has “redefined American liberalism, progressivism, and patriotism, and will be remembered as a very good president, if not a transformational one,” Alter concluded, with the proviso that a lot can happen in the next 22 months to shape that legacy.

— With reporting by Robert Keren and photos by Todd Balfour