When President Obama leaves office this week, his presidency will become part of American history. As with his predecessors, his time in the White House will be studied by historians and political scientists and inevitably it will be included on presidential rankings and other assessments of presidential legacies.
But exactly how his legacy will be assessed is a complicated question.
One person who has spent time figuring out how to answer that question is Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies and co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. She describes rating past Presidents as a “parlor game” with serious implications, as it can also help future Presidents do a better job and help political scientists understand “which characteristics we put a premium on.”
She shared with TIME the 10 criteria she uses to judge the impact of a presidency—and how she thinks Obama fares in each category.
1. Historic precedent of election; reelection
The first consideration is all about Election Day: How important is it that this President won the election, regardless of what he does with the office? And can he win another election four years later? Here, Perry gives Obama high marks, for his historic election as the first African-American president and his successful reelection by a healthy margin in the popular vote and Electoral College.
“The top three [on lists of great presidents] are always Washington, Lincoln and FDR,” Perry says. “I’m not here to say that Obama is going to rise to the level of Washington, Lincoln and FDR but I would say that simply by virtue of his historic election he’s bound to be viewed historically. And that has to be at or near the top of his legacy, that he breaks that racial barrier.”
2. Legislation passed and executive action taken
Perry notes that when it comes to the “substance” of his legacy, it will be remembered that Obama successfully championed several pieces of law that were both symbolically and substantively significant: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the economic legislation that helped see through the stimulus begun in his predecessor’s term, the Affordable Care Act, consumer protection and more. On the other hand, some of the legislation he supported failed to go anywhere.
“We look back at Harry Truman and say he couldn’t get Medicare passed, Kennedy couldn’t get it passed, but Lyndon Johnson did—and Lyndon Johnson went out to the Truman library and signed the Medicare law with Harry Truman sitting there,” Perry says. “Maybe someday when we get some gun control laws, maybe someone will go and sign it at the Obama library in Chicago.”
Plus, she says, polarization and changes in Congress during the 2010 midterm elections meant that Obama had to turn to executive action. He was “very accomplished” there as well. Perry predicts that, looking back on this time in the future, his support of civil rights for LGBTQ people will be seen as one of the strongest positions the executive branch took.
3. The economy
The standard that Perry uses to judge economic changes during a presidency is the so-called “misery index,” a combination of unemployment and inflation, and it’s one of the most solid quantitative measures of the direction of the nation during a presidency. “The misery index as [Obama] came into office was 7.83,” she points out. “As he leaves, in December, it’s 6.29.”
Though not every American may feel that he or she has personally recovered from the recession, Perry predicts that history will look kindly on Obama’s economic record. “When people look back at this period, that’s what people will remember about Obama: saving the economy and saving the financial system from just gumming up completely,” she says.
4. Handling of crises (existing/new; domestic/foreign)
In some ways, a President’s greatness is beyond his control: according to some theories—Perry points to Aaron David Miller‘s work on the subject, for example—true greatness requires a commander-in-chief to have navigated a major crisis. Without such circumstances, greatness is only potential. (As presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin told TIME in the course of offering her own assessment of Obama’s legacy, Abigail Adams made this point too: “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed,” she once wrote to John Quincy Adams.)
By that theory, President Obama is likely to land somewhere in the middle, as someone who successfully dealt with problems but did not have to deal with a crisis on the level of, say, the Civil War.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call the great recession of 2008, which Obama faced coming into office, an existential crisis for the country as a whole, but it was an existential crisis for our financial system,” Perry says. And, though the Bush Administration began many of the measures that Obama would continue, “I think [Obama] will go down in history as saving us from that.”
5. Supreme Court appointments
The quality and quantity of his appointments to the Supreme Court is one way a President can continue to influence the government after his term ends. President Obama made his mark on the Supreme Court with the appointments of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—but failed to get his third nomination, Merrick Garland, past a combative Congress.
6. National and international leadership
Whether a President gets historical credit for the things that happened during his time in office depends on how much he is perceived as a leader. Perry sees the political progress made for LGBTQ Americans during the last eight years as an example of the outgoing president’s “effective progressive leadership” on the domestic front. Internationally, she cites his successful efforts to rescue Captain Phillips and find Osama bin Laden as examples of his personal success as a commander-in-chief.
“I think people seem to forget so quickly the successful tracking down and elimination of Osama bin Laden, and yet that was a key goal of the Bush 43 Administration that it wasn’t able to accomplish but Obama did. I’ll use the term chutzpah in addition to leadership,” Perry says, pointing out that the mission could have gone the way of Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. “When people would say, ‘Where’s Obama’s leadership?’ Well, you know, how about ordering the elimination of Osama bin Laden in a daring nighttime raid?”
But, though the President was a global leader on the Iran nuclear deal and the rapprochement with Cuba, Perry says that the Middle East may complicate his legacy when it comes to international leadership, as it is too early to know what future experts will say about his treatment of ISIS and the crisis in Syria.
7. Communication skills
When the President addresses the nation, does he do so in a way that will be remembered long into the future? Here, Perry picks the answer will be yes for Obama—even though some may wish that he had used those skills more on Capitol Hill.
“We know this president is a superb orator with top-notch skills,” Perry says. In addition he succeeded in the role of “mourner-in-chief” at speaking to Americans in the wake of the many mass shootings that have marred the last eight years.
Scandals are often more memorable than even the most significant legislation, so even a small hint of impropriety can loom large in the memory of a presidency—but that’s not something Obama will have to worry about.
“The Obama Administration has been remarkably free. I think that’s connected to his communication skills and to the First Lady,” Perry says. “She will be part and parcel of that legacy of zero scandals, zero personal peccadilloes and seemingly no major political or professional scandals.”
9. Approval ratings upon leaving office and beyond
Most presidents’ approval ratings climb after they leave office, so going out with a high number is a very good sign in terms of predicting that a president will be remembered in a positive fashion. “Americans are really positive about future presidents and past presidents. They’re really mean-spirited about most incumbents,” Perry notes. “It’s familiarity breeding contempt.”
10. Durability of policies
Here’s where things get really tricky, especially in terms of assessing the President’s legacy in the week he leaves office.
Especially as a new party takes power in the White House, and as Congressional Republicans have already made progress in undoing the Affordable Care Act, it seems possible that much of the legislation and executive action associated with President Obama’s term will be quickly undone. But, Perry says, it’s more complicated than just counting how many years a policy was on the books. As she points out, even if the ACA is repealed, the conservation about the number of uninsured people in the U.S. can’t be un-had. “[The ACA] will be the half-a-loaf legacy rather than the whole loaf,” Perry says, but it will still be part of his legacy, not just a blip that doesn’t matter.
She also predicts that the Obama Administration has “set a template for diversity in the White House” that will endure.
So, overall, how will President Obama be remembered?
“In the long run,” Perry says, “he will fare well, I predict, in history.”