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.
But most reputable economists say it did. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus added anywhere from 500,000 to 3.3 million jobs and boosted GDP by between 1 and 4.5 percent. Indeed, within weeks of the stimulus going into effect, unemployment claims began to subside. Twelve months later, the private sector began producing more jobs than it was losing, and it has continued to do so for twenty-three straight months, creating a total of 3.7 million private-sector jobs. On the first key test—whether it helped the economy when the economy needed it most— the stimulus passed. And if the current recovery continues to pick up steam, then the stimulus will be remembered as having helped lead America out of the Great Recession.
But the potential significance of the stimulus may go even beyond that. First off, thanks to innovative management, the administration has been able to spend $787 billion with minimal fraud. (By comparison, FDR’s early New Deal spending was so fraught with waste and abuse that the term “boondoggle” arose to describe it.) Not only that, but the way the administration has chosen which projects to fund has itself been revolutionary. Instead of spending all the money in the usual manner—by formula, with each state and congressional district getting its “fair share”—the administration used a sizeable portion of the stimulus to create a dozen or more giant competitive grant programs. Potential recipients, be they state and local governments, nonprofits, or corporations, had to vie for the money by proposing their own entrepreneurial strategies for meeting federal goals, as well as procedures to measure the results of their efforts.
The best known of these is Race to the Top, the much praised $4.35 billion Education Department grant program. It is one of the few policies of this administration praised by left and right—and yet almost no one mentions that it was part of the stimulus bill. Just to be eligible to win the competition, cash-strapped states were suddenly willing to enact reforms they’d hitherto resisted. Dozens upgraded the quality of their student performance tests, tied teacher pay to those tests, adopted a common set of strong academic standards, and took caps off the number of charter schools allowed in their states. Whether these changes eventually improve student outcomes remains to be seen, but Race to the Top has arguably brought as much change to state and district laws and procedures as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. And there are a dozen other similar competitive grant programs embedded in the stimulus, in areas ranging from digitizing medical records to expanding freight rail capacity to spurring the creation of an advanced battery-manufacturing sector.
How will history judge the stimulus? Not so well if the economy stays weak or sputters out; quite well if it continues to improve. But beyond that, if some of the bets Obama has placed on education reform or transportation or energy pan out, and if the competition-based model of federal spending becomes more common, the “temporary” stimulus will have left an enduring mark on government and the economy.
Another major (and much-reviled) aspect of Obama’s economic legacy is how his team handled the meltdown of the financial sector. This is another achievement he made no mention of in his State of the Union address—and no wonder, because it’s complex, still unfolding, and involves the rescue of bankers. But it’s worth slowing down here to remember the crisis as Obama inherited it. As you will recall, the actual bank “bailout” took place in the fall of 2008, when the Bush administration created the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. By injecting more than $300 billion into hundreds of banks, and especially the nation’s biggest, TARP bought the economy some breathing room and gave the incoming administration some resources— another $350 billion in unspent TARP funds—to work with. But with consumers increasingly unable to make their mortgage and credit card payments—the economy was shedding upward of 800,000 jobs the month Obama was inaugurated—losses at the big banks were mounting faster than Washington could force-feed dollars into them, and no one really knew what they were carrying on their balance sheets. Any number of institutions looked like they could collapse, and that extra $350 billion was not enough to stabilize the system and pay for other crucial emergency programs, like mitigating foreclosures.
The advice the administration was getting from economists like Joseph Stiglitz, who had seen the crisis coming years before, was to use the moment to completely reshape the financial sector: nationalize the biggest, most troubled banks; toss out their management; break them up into smaller banks; have the government strip out and sell off the “toxic” assets on their books; downsize executive salaries and bonuses; and, in general, shrink the size of Wall Street, the better to limit its baleful influence on the rest of the economy.
Obama’s top economic advisers thought such a dramatic overhaul was both unnecessary and reckless to consider in the midst of an economic crisis; firemen don’t rethink sprinkler regulations while an apartment building is ablaze, after all. Instead, Timothy Geithner’s Treasury Department crafted a much more targeted intervention, aimed at stabilizing the financial markets and getting the economy back on track at the lowest possible cost to government. Rather than have the taxpayers assume the risky and expensive burden of taking over the banks—an expense that Congress, having already approved TARP and the stimulus, was in no mood to authorize—Geithner’s plan was to convince investors to come in and recapitalize them. His plan had three main parts. First, the Treasury, working with the Fed and other agencies, ran “stress tests” of the banks to determine the fragility of their books and how much more capital they’d need to be able to survive and lend in an even more dire economic scenario than was expected at the time. Second, it gave banks six months to raise that amount of capital from private investors, and said that, if they failed, Treasury would use taxpayer dollars to buy ownership shares of the banks at a preset price, effectively establishing a floor for private investors. Third, it created a fund, with both public and private dollars, to buy the toxic assets on the banks’ books, thereby giving some assurance that there would be a market for those assets.
The politics of the plan were dreadful. It looked like more mollycoddling of Wall Street. But, as Joshua Green noted in the Atlantic, it had the desired effect. Private money, $140 billion of it, flooded into the nineteen biggest banks; the lending markets unfroze; and, with the help of low interest rates from the Fed, the banks paid back the TARP funds, with interest. In 2008, the International Monetary Fund studied past financial crises in forty-two countries and found that their governments spent, on average, 13.3 percent of GDP to resolve them. By that measure, it would have cost the U.S. government $1.9 trillion. The Obama plan got the banks back on their feet at essentially zero cost to the government, and in historically near-record time. Let that sink in.
In addition to resolving the immediate crisis, the administration tried to insure against a repeat of it by issuing a plan to expand federal regulation of the financial markets, a plan that ultimately became the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, otherwise known as Dodd-Frank. The new law, which passed with almost no GOP votes, has been scathingly criticized since it first appeared in the House— by conservatives for being a big-government power grab and by liberals and various academic experts for being too weak.
But as Michael Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute explains, the new law parallels and expands upon the great achievements of New Deal financial regulation. Much as the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 mandated transparency in the securities markets and created the SEC to punish fraud, Dodd-Frank creates a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to do the same for everything from mortgages to credit cards. The Securities Exchange Act forced stock trading onto exchanges and mandated that traders have sufficient collateral. Similarly, Dodd-Frank pushes financial derivatives into clearinghouses and exchanges. The 1933 Glass-Steagall Act forced the separation of commercial banks from the more speculative activities of investment banks. The new so-called Volcker Rule in Dodd-Frank limits the ability of banks to trade securities for the firm’s own profit. Glass-Steagall also created the FDIC to monitor commercial banks and take them over if they get into financial trouble. Dodd-Frank gives the FDIC “resolution authority” over the “too big to fail” financial behemoths so that they too can be monitored and taken over if necessary.
At each stage as Dodd-Frank has moved through the legislative process, from House to Senate and now to the agency level for implementation, liberals have sounded the alarm that the insufficiently stringent law was liable to get progressively weaker as industry lobbyists jam it full of caveats and exemptions. Yet while the law does now include its fair share of loopholes (especially in the Volcker Rule), what’s surprising is that the measure has in general gotten tougher, not weaker, over time—often at the behest of lawmakers who wanted stronger measures than did Geithner. The Senate adopted the Collins amendment—a set of rules drafted by Sheila Bair’s FDIC that imposes tough capital requirements on banks, bank holding companies, and systemically risky nonbank financial institutions like hedge funds, limiting their ability to make the kind of highly leveraged and risky trades between each other that contributed mightily to the financial crisis. Thanks in part to the prodding of Gary Gensler, the Obama-appointed chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the language on regulating derivatives got much stronger in the Senate version of the bill, and since then the CFTC has written a reasonably strong and comprehensive set of rules and regulations to implement the law.
Washington narratives tend to get set early and resist new anomalous facts. So it is with the financial crisis. The initial take was that Dodd-Frank is weak tea and Obama caved to Wall Street. This view has persisted despite accumulating evidence to the contrary. Confidence Men”, Ron Suskind’s scathing critique of the administration’s handling of the financial crisis, opens with Obama in a Rose Garden address making clear that he would not be nominating Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB. The anecdote is meant to encapsulate the administration’s general political spinelessness. Today, the CFPB is headed by the widely admired Richard Cordray, placed there in a nervy recess appointment by Obama, and Elizabeth Warren is leading the polls in her race to win back Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat from the Republicans—hardly a bad outcome for the cause of financial justice.
True, the largest banks are now bigger than they were before the crises thanks to emergency mergers engineered by the Bush administration. But as Obama’s former economic adviser Austan Goolsbee told journalist Michael Hirsh, “The most dangerous failures—Bear Stearns, Lehman—were not even close to the biggest. You could have broken the largest financial institutions into, literally, five pieces and each of them would still have been bigger than Bear Stearns. The main danger to the economy was interconnection, not raw size.” With the capital requirements of the Collins amendment, the Volcker Rule, and the forcing of derivatives into clearinghouses, Dodd-Frank goes a long way toward dealing with the “interconnection” problem. The law’s “resolution authority” also gives regulators the ability to spot overly risky behavior by big banks early and to shut them down if they get into trouble. And the behemoths now have higher capital requirements than do smaller banks, another hedge against risk and an incentive for business to move from the former to the latter.
True, the bank executives on whose watch the crisis happened got lavish bonuses on their way out the door, and the bonuses continued to flow even as the sector was getting bailed out by Uncle Sam—a dispiriting and infuriating phenomenon to many Americans, liberal and conservative. Yet it’s also true that bank shareholders were forced to take a “haircut,” since the new private investment that flowed into banks thanks to Geithner’s recapitalization plan greatly diluted the value of their stock. That has provided at least some market discipline to counteract the “moral hazard” dilemma of government bailouts sending the signal that there is no penalty for recklessness. More importantly, by reducing banks’ ability to leverage capital and make risky trades with other people’s money, Dodd-Frank threatens the honeypot of the huge profits that have been the source of all that outsized compensation. And as a fallback, the law gives government the power to rewrite bank executive compensation packages if those packages are seen as incentivizing overly risky behavior—a power regulators have already begun to exercise. Finally, after years of pussyfooting around, the administration, prodded by aggressive state attorneys general, has finally launched a major push to investigate and prosecute possible criminal misconduct in the financial collapse.
How, then, will historians judge Obama’s handling of the financial crisis? That’s hard to say definitively because so much depends on follow through—specifically, on whether Obama has a chance to follow through by winning a second term. (If he isn’t reelected, the Republicans have vowed to gut Dodd-Frank.) Will the rules that regulators are now writing to implement Dodd-Frank be tough and smart enough? Will they be enforced? Will federal prosecutors bring some bankers to justice? Can the toxic assets still on banks’ books be disposed of without causing another banking collapse?
We can’t yet know the answers to these questions, but there are strong signs that Wall Street knows the jig is up. In anticipation of Dodd-Frank’s provisions going into effect, many of the biggest banks have already shut down their proprietary trading operations. Banks’ profits, which soared during the initial stages of the bailout, have plummeted in recent months even as other corporate sectors have been doing quite well. Compensation packages are down, too. If, five, ten, or twenty years from now, risky behavior by financial institutions once again leads to a crisis, Obama will be judged harshly for having failed to push for stiffer reforms at the moment when Wall Street’s political power was weakest. But if we get through the next decade or two without another financial meltdown, and Wall Street’s unhealthy influence over the economy abates, then Obama will be credited with not only having gotten us out of the financial crisis in the short run but also having crafted an effective new set of rules to reduce the chances of it happening again.
A similar “we shall see” factor looms over what is arguably Obama’s crowning achievement: the Affordable Care Act. In passing a bill that provides near-universal health care to the American people, Obama succeeded where five previous presidents over the course of a century had failed. He did so against the advice of some of his closest aides and the fervent, united opposition of Republicans. The law manages not only to extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans but also to cut the deficit and put in place dozens of new policies and programs aimed at reducing health care costs, the single greatest driver of America’s long-term fiscal problems.
Yet the measure’s major effects are yet to be felt, and its ultimate fate is highly uncertain. Most of the law’s benefits, including subsidies for the uninsured, do not kick in until 2014. Little wonder, then, that voters have a hard time getting excited about the ACA. And the bill’s various experimental policy measures to control health care costs are just that— experiments that might or might not work. Moreover, the law might not survive a legal challenge that the Supreme Court is currently considering, and will almost certainly be killed or gutted if the Republicans are victorious in November.
You can understand, then, why Obama was afraid to make more than a glancing mention of the ACA in the State of the Union. But the lukewarm-to-hostile attitudes people have about the law now are likely to fade if he manages to get reelected. With four more years to oversee the implementation of the law and protect it against whatever the courts and congressional Republicans hurl at it, Obama can ensure that it will be politically and programmatically secure. The benefits will have started flowing, and businesses and the medical industry will have begun to adapt to it. Over time it will likely become as much a permanent fixture of American life as Social Security.
Even those achievements that Obama is willing to brag about—ones that have created benefits that are already apparent—may ultimately be seen as grander in scope than we now appreciate, depending on how the future plays out. Take, for instance, his policies toward the auto industry. When he came into office, Detroit was in free fall. Without additional government help (the Bush administration had provided $13.4 billion in bridge loans), Chrysler and possibly GM could have been liquidated, putting at risk the entire network of domestic auto suppliers on which Ford and other carmakers depend. The Obama administration injected an additional $62 billion into GM and Chrysler in return for equity stakes and agreements for massive restructuring— eliminating brands, closing dealerships, renegotiating pay and benefit agreements, and, in Chrysler’s case, facilitating a merger with Fiat.
The federal takeover was deeply unpopular with the public and condemned by conservatives as socialism. But it is hard to argue with the results. Since bottoming out in 2009, the auto industry has added upward of 100,000 jobs. The Big Three are all profitable again, and last year they each gained market share, the first time that’s happened in two decades. Most of the $80 billion in bailout funds have been paid back; Washington is likely to lose only about $16 billion, less if the price of its GM stock rises. Even on its face, the policy has been one of the most successful short-term government economic interventions in decades.
But Obama’s restructuring of Detroit goes even deeper. A big part of the reason U.S. automakers were in such bad shape on the eve of the recession was a spike in gas prices that had left them with lots full of SUVs and light trucks they couldn’t sell. Unlike their foreign-owned competitors, who could shift from, say, Tundras to Corollas and weather the storm, Detroit simply didn’t know how to make money producing small cars, though they were belatedly trying to learn. So, as a condition of the bailout, Obama’s White House secured commitments from GM and Chrysler to put even more emphasis on building more fuel-efficient cars in the United States. Meanwhile, with money from the stimulus, the administration invested in companies that manufacture advanced batteries of the kind needed to make electric cars. And, while the automakers were feeling beholden, the administration convinced them to agree to a doubling of auto fuel efficiency requirements over the next thirteen years.
The overall strategy (which the administration doesn’t like to talk about because it sounds too much like industrial policy) is to create the conditions whereby American car manufacturers can profitably build and sell small, fuel-efficient cars in the United States. The hope is that this will obviate the need for additional bailouts if and when gas prices rise again, and position Detroit to export the kinds of cars most of the world wants. Will the strategy work? We shall see.
Or consider higher education. Obama has pushed through two major reforms in this area. First, working with Democrats in Congress, he ended the wasteful, decades-old practice of subsidizing banks to provide college loans. Starting in the summer of 2010, all students began getting their loans directly from the federal government. The move saves the Treasury $67 billion over ten years, $36 billion of which will go to expanding Pell Grants, the most significant form of aid to lower- and lower-middle-income students. Second, the administration has issued so-called “gainful employment” rules for career-focused colleges, especially for-profits. Those schools whose students don’t earn enough to pay off their loans—because they never graduate, or don’t learn marketable skills—will be cut off from the federal student loan program, effectively putting them out of business.
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.
One of the most important tasks a president must master—and Obama hasn’t—is speaking up for his own record. This has been especially challenging for him because of the still-widespread economic suffering across the country and the too-soon-to-tell quality of his biggest accomplishments. And again, his even temperament hasn’t helped. He has seemed to want his achievements to speak for themselves. Who wouldn’t? But the presidency doesn’t work that way. A president has to remind the public every day of what he’s already done, why he’s done it, and how those achievements fit into a broader plan that will help them in the future.
With his State of the Union and some subsequent speeches, he has only begun this task. And while it’s very late in the day, the election is still eight months away. The irony is that, while Barack Obama has achieved a tremendous amount in his first term, the only way to secure that record of achievement in the eyes of history is to win a second. And to do that, he first has to convince the American voters that he in fact has a record of achievement.
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