He’s gotten more done in three years than any president in decades. Too bad the American public still thinks he hasn’t accomplished anything.
In mid-January, pollsters for the Washington Post and ABC News asked a representative sampling of Americans the following question: “Obama has been president for about three years. Would you say he has accomplished a great deal during that time, a good amount, not very much, or little or nothing?”
When the poll’s results were released on January 18, even the most seasoned White House staffers, who know the president faces a tough battle for reelection, must have spit up their coffee: more than half the respondents—52 percent—said the president has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing.”
It is often said that there are no right or wrong answers in opinion polling, but in this case, there is an empirically right answer—one chosen by only 12 percent of the poll’s respondents. The answer is that Obama has accomplished “a great deal.”
Measured in sheer legislative tonnage, what Obama got done in his first two years is stunning. Health care reform. The takeover and turnaround of the auto industry. The biggest economic stimulus in history. Sweeping new regulations of Wall Street. A tough new set of consumer protections on the credit card industry. A vast expansion of national service. Net neutrality. The greatest increase in wilderness protection in fifteen years. A revolutionary reform to student aid. Signing the New START treaty with Russia. The ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Even over the past year, when he was bogged down in budget fights with the Tea Party-controlled GOP House, Obama still managed to squeeze out a few domestic policy victories, including a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction deal and the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in more than seventy years. More impressively, on the foreign policy front he ended the war in Iraq, began the drawdown in Afghanistan, helped to oust Gaddafi in Libya and usher out Mubarak in Egypt, orchestrated new military and commercial alliances as a hedge against China, and tightened sanctions against Iran over its nukes.
Oh, and he shifted counterterrorism strategies to target Osama bin Laden and then ordered the risky raid that killed him.
That Obama has done all this while also steering the country out of what might have been a second Great Depression would seem to have made him already, just three years into his first term, a serious candidate for greatness. (See Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments.)
And yet a solid majority of Americans nevertheless thinks the president has not accomplished much. Why? There are plenty of possible explanations. The most obvious is the economy. People are measuring Obama’s actions against the actual conditions of their lives and livelihoods, which, over the past three years, have not gotten materially better. He failed miserably at his grandiose promise to change the culture of Washington (see “Clinton’s Third Term”). His highest-profile legislative accomplishments were object lessons in the ugly side of compromise. In negotiations, he came off to Democrats as naïvely trusting, and to Republicans as obstinately partisan, leaving the impression that he could have achieved more if only he had been less conciliatory—or more so, depending on your point of view. And for such an obviously gifted orator, he has been surprisingly inept at explaining to average Americans what he’s fighting for or trumpeting what he’s achieved.
In short, when judging Obama’s record so far, conservatives measure him against their fears, liberals against their hopes, and the rest of us against our pocketbooks. But if you measure Obama against other presidents—arguably the more relevant yardstick—a couple of things come to light. Speaking again in terms of sheer tonnage, Obama has gotten more done than any president since LBJ. But the effects of some of those achievements have yet to be felt by most Americans, often by design. Here, too, Obama is in good historical company.
The greatest achievements of some of our most admired presidents were often unrecognized during their years in office, and in many cases could only be appreciated with the passing of time. When FDR created Social Security in 1935, the program offered meager benefits that were delayed for years, excluded domestic workers and other heavily black professions (a necessary compromise to win southern votes), and was widely panned by liberals as a watered-down sellout. Only in subsequent decades, as benefits were raised and expanded, did Social Security become the country’s most beloved government program. Roosevelt’s first proposal for a GI Bill for returning World War II veterans was also relatively stingy, and while its benefits grew as it moved through Congress, its aim remained focused on keeping returning veterans from flooding the labor market. Only later was it apparent that the program was fueling the growth of America’s first mass middle class. When Harry Truman took office at the dawn of the Cold War, he chose the policy of containment over a more aggressive “rollback” of communism, and then he built the institutions to carry it out. He left office with a 32 percent public approval rating. Only decades later would it become clear that he made the right choice.
Of course, much could happen that might tarnish Obama’s record in the eyes of history. The economy is still extremely weak, and could stay that way or relapse into recession; Afghanistan could go south in a big way; or Obama could simply fail to win reelection, and then watch as his legacy gets systematically dismantled at a time when most ordinary Americans still don’t know its worth. This would be the most crushing blow, because a number of Obama’s biggest accomplishments function, like FDR’s, with a built-in delay. Some are structured to have modest effects now but major ones later. Others emerged in a crimped and compromised form that, if history is a guide, may well be filled out and strengthened down the road. Still others are quite impressive now but create potential for even greater change in the future. At this point, it’s hard to get a sense of these possibilities without lifting the hood and looking deeply into the actual policies and programs. Hence, there’s no reason to think that today’s voters would be aware of them, but every reason to think historians will.
Let’s begin with the policies that have prompted the most disappointment from the left and anger from the right: Obama’s big moves on the economy. The most visible aspect of Obama’s agenda in this arena was the American Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus. Almost no one has a good word to say about it these days. Voters have soured on it. Obama made no mention of it in his State of the Union address. Liberals complain that it was too heavily weighted with not-very-stimulatory tax cuts meant to lure GOP votes (which it didn’t), that it should have been even bigger (true, though it was bigger than the one the Democratic-controlled House proposed), and that a significantly bigger one could have passed Congress (dubious). Conservatives claim it didn’t increase jobs or help the economy at all.
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