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.
While these are big moves, they might also turn out to be first steps. As the think tank Education Sector has written, by kicking the banks out of the student loan program, Obama has effectively eliminated the biggest lobbying force standing in the way of an über-reform of student aid: turning the confusing plethora of loan programs into one simple federal loan payable as a percentage of a person’s income over a working lifetime. Such a single “income-contingent” loan would make it possible for virtually every American to afford a post-secondary education without risk of going bankrupt. And with the gainful employment rules, the federal government will have the ability to track what kind of income students from different colleges earn after they graduate. If such data were made available for every college, parents and students would have vital information they don’t have now on the comparative value of their education choices, which in turn might provide market pressure on schools to keep tuition down and quality up. Obama has signaled that he’d very much like the authority to provide such information. Whether he can get it is an open question.
If it’s too early to know what history will think of Barack Obama, it is possible to ask today’s historians what they think. Two polls have been conducted since Obama took office that ask experts to rate America’s presidents based on measures of character, leadership, and accomplishments. A 2010 Siena Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Obama the fifteenth-best president overall. Last year, the United States Presidency Centre at the University of London surveyed forty-seven UK specialists on American history and politics. That survey placed Obama at number eight, just below Harry Truman.
I had conversations recently with six presidential scholars. Three of them—Robert Dallek, Matthew Dallek, and Alan Lichtman—said that, based on what Obama has gotten done in his first term, he has a good shot at ranking in or just below the top ten presidents of history, but with the proviso that he almost certainly needs to get reelected to secure that position. The other three—Alan Brinkley, David Greenberg, and Allen Guelzo—took a more jaundiced view. While conceding that Obama has put a lot of points on the board in terms of legislation, they felt that the highly compromised nature of that legislation, among other things, reflects qualities of leadership—a lack of experience, acumen, and forcefulness—that will keep him from ranking with the great presidents, and will more likely place him somewhere in the middle of the pack, presuming he even gets reelected.
These last three scholars’ views mesh with the broader feeling among Obama’s critics, especially on the liberal side, that Obama is fatally overcautious. What’s notable about such critiques is that they essentially rest on arguments that are counterfactual—that a savvier, more experienced, more energetic president could have gotten more done. Certainly that’s plausible, if unprovable. But it is equally plausible, as Ezra Klein has argued, that what has constrained Obama is not a lack of boldness but a lack of political space. With Republicans unified in opposition and willing to abuse the filibuster such that to pass any legislation has required sixty Senate votes that Obama has seldom had, it is unrealistic to think he or anyone could have done a whole lot better.
Even if his caution has led to achievements that are less sweeping than they might have been, that same character trait might also explain why none of Obama’s decisions has, so far, led to a calamitous outcome. This is no small feat, especially in a time of multiple world-historical emergencies. Indeed, some of our greatest presidents did not manage to avoid such self-inflicted disasters. The sainted George Washington, in an effort to retire Revolutionary War debt, chose to tax whiskey, and sparked a bloody insurgency, the Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson, hoping to punish European powers for harassing American merchant vessels, put a stop to all marine trade in and out of American ports, and succeeded only in causing a national recession. FDR, too, precipitated a recession when he slashed budgets in 1936; he also interned the Japanese and tried to pack the courts. Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Obama may well make similar kinds of grave mistakes in the future, but so far, as best we can tell, he has not made any.
The view that Barack Obama is overly cautious must also take into account the many times in his presidency when he took extraordinary risks. He did so when he turned down Detroit’s first bailout request, demanding more concessions, including government ownership and the resignation of GM’s CEO, before saying yes. He did so when, after passing the stimulus, he made health care reform his number one legislative priority, against the advice of some of his top political advisers; and when, after Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, he chose to jam the health care bill through reconciliation despite cries of outrage from the GOP. And he did so, most famously, when he chose to send special forces into Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden, without certainty that the terrorist leader was even there, with his senior national security advisers waffling, and with the clear understanding that if the mission went wrong, as a similar one did under Jimmy Carter, it could ruin his presidency.
It should be clear by now that I don’t believe that Obama’s record has been crippled by an excess of caution. Indeed, his last-minute decision to order extra helicopters into the bin Laden raid illustrates that daring and caution are compatible virtues, and he has a winning mix of both. It should also be clear that, on the strength of his record so far, I think he’s likely to be considered a great or near- great president.
That’s not to say that his instincts and decisions have always been right. I cannot, for instance, find a good reason why he should not have at least threatened to use Fourteenth Amendment powers to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling to break the hostage standoff with the GOP last year. Time and again, he has allowed himself to be played too long by Republicans pretending to be interested in bipartisanship. He could have used more experience going into the job, and his temperament does not make him a perfect fit for it. His disdain for the “political games of Washington” is understandable, sane, and appealing to voters, and part of why he is good at keeping his focus on the long term. But unless you can change the rules—which Obama has not been able to do— the game must be played. And games tend to be mastered by those who love them; think LBJ and Clinton.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.