Political Animal


March 08, 2012 9:55 AM “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama”

By Ed Kilgore

Most of what we talk about here at Political Animal these days—and indeed, most of what the whole chattering classes discuss—is affected fundamentally by Barack Obama’s character, ideology, political strategy, policy initiatives, stewardship of the economy, re-election prospects, legacy—and of course, his many enemies.

But while we skirt the subject all the time, a very basic assessment of his presidency so far, and of its potential, is rarely undertaken. That’s the burden of the cover package in the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly.

The centerpiece, by editor in chief Paul Glastris, has the deliberately provocative title of “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.” It takes a careful look at Obama’s record on all major areas of domestic and international policy, and helps explain the anomaly that while experts give him relatively high marks as compared to his predecessors, the public and most people involved in day-to-day news coverage aren’t convinced that he’s done a lot. That, says Glastris, is in no small part because of his very unusual status as a president who took office in the midst of an economic calamity, facing almost universal opposition from conservatives and perhaps unrealistic expectations from liberals: “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.”

The other obstacle to a balanced assessment of Obama, as Glastris’ title suggests, is that his accomplishments are fragile. We don’t know exactly where the economy is headed next. The Affordable Care Act has largely yet to be implemented. And much of what has been done since 2009 could be reversed if Obama’s re-election fails.

It’s also clear that much of the public isn’t even aware of the administration’s full record. In a sidebar article by Glastris along with Ryan Cooper and Siyu Hu, “Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments” are listed, ranked and briefly discussed, beginning with health care reform and ending with cancellation of the F-22 fighter boondoggle.

Part of the problem of fully assessing the Obama legacy, Glastris explains in his Editor’s Note for the March/April issue, is that much of his policy agenda, for better or worse, represents a continuation of the work of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in no small part because Obama has surrounded himself with veterans of the Clinton administration, from his Secretary of State to his economic team. This aspect of the Obama record is frustrating to some liberals and maddening to most conservatives, much like the 42d president himself.

This cover package is certain to stir controversy on the left and right, and includes judgements that will not especially please the president’s allies, either. But it is essential reading in an election year where Obama’s place in history will ultimately meet its most important reckoning.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Dredd on March 08, 2012 10:34 AM:

    He took his two little girls swimming in the Gulf shortly after the BP disaster so as to minimize the catastrophe. Not good. He is the only American president to claim the right to kill Americans on U.S. soil without charges, without counsel, and without trial. Not good.

    Is someone in a trance?

  • T2 on March 08, 2012 10:38 AM:

    unlike Clinton, who was able to cobble together some compromise actions with the GIngrich-led Congress, Mr. Obama has faced absolute opposition since he was sworn in. Then doubled down by the TeaParty 2010 elections when so-called Progressives boycotted the election due to a view that Obama had done nothing substantial for THEM.
    A list of Mr. Obama's accomplishments, when see non-partially, is pretty darn solid on domestic and foreign issues. And he seems a decent man. It is hard to envision him having sex in the Oval office while his wife slept down the hall. But you never know.
    I happen to think he's done a good job in the face of terrible problems on all fronts, in in view of the current state of the Oppostion. When you look at who the GOP is proposing for his replacement- Mitt, Richard"Rick", Newt, it's very hard to make a case they'd be an improvement on any level. A national disaster would be an easier case to make. And then there's the Supreme Court.

  • Memekiller on March 08, 2012 10:42 AM:

    I agree with the overall premise of the piece, but one of the things that annoys me is this tendency to refer to critics on the Left as starry-eyed idealists, which seems to be dismissive and ignore some very real concerns early on. I think nothing illustrates this better than the, what always appeared to me to be very conscious "Sistah Soljah"ing of Paul Krugman. As always, Krugman, in retrospect, turned out not to be idealistic at all, but right in all his fears about the Obama candidacy. Why Obama chose to be on the Village side is obvious, I guess, by uncharacteristically lacking in a long-term view.

    Like Krugman, I'm a fan now. The debt-ceiling fiasco seemed to have made a Kepler moment, where Obama stopped trying to invent epicycles to make his post-partisan view of the Universe fit the realities, and I'm more excited about this election than I've ever been because unlike the first time around, Romney will have to be beaten by running as a Democrat and against the failure of Conservatism.

    Which brings me to the most important point simply writing off Obama's critics as naive idealists has left his - to be dismissive - idolators with a big blind spot. The major reason Obama doesn't get any credit for his achievements is that Democrats act a little embarrassed about them, and pretend they didn't really happen, and would just rather forget ever happened.

    Want credit for ACA? Run on it the way Obama would like to if he ever gets his coveted Grand Bargain. People know he saved the auto industry. Why? Because he's proud of it. He brings it up at every opportunity. By getting timid in the face of the Conservative demonization of Obamacare, and letting themselves believe it could be a loser for them - the way Democrats didn't want to be on record as voting to raise the debt ceiling, without looking ahead to the benefits once the GOP purposely brought our economy to the brink.

    Their timidity in championing what is, in fact, Obama's greatest achievement to date, they've allowed conventional wisdom to take hold that healthcare was, somehow, unpopular.

    The way the "realist" Obama defenders act, you'd think austerity and de-stimulating the economy swells them with more pride than healthcare. Starry-eyed idealists would rather tout the stimulus and healthcare, even considering how short if falls due to Obama's willingness to play Linus to Lucy's football.

    But this Obama is the one the idealists always wanted, and, it seems, the idealists like me think there's more to be proud of than those always-defenders. Obama's successful offensive strategy now is an admission by Obama that our criticisms had merit.

  • SecularAnimist on March 08, 2012 10:57 AM:

    Future generations will judge Obama's presidency on one issue: global warming. And based on his first term, they will judge him to be a tragic failure.

    Why? Because if we, now, fail to deal with global warming, it will destroy our civilization, and indeed the very capacity of the Earth's biosphere to support human civilization, and those future generations will experience almost unimaginably hellish suffering.

    And so far, Obama is utterly failing to even seriously address global warming, let alone deal with it effectively.

    Instead, he seems to be proudly claiming the 2008 McCain/Palin "Drill Baby Drill!" plan to massively expand fossil fuel consumption as his own, while tossing a few meager bones and giving lip service to the renewable energy technologies that MUST replace fossil fuels within the next 10-20 years if we are to have any hope of averting the most catastrophic consequences of global warming.

  • CDW on March 08, 2012 10:57 AM:

    I took the time to write a reasoned and rather long comment and used preview to make sure it was what I wanted to say. Guess what. I forgot to do the captcha thing and your stupid web site simply wiped out everything I had written.

    So - I know this will devastate PW and the rest of the commenters, but I'm sick of captcha, which doesn't keep out the trolls, and will not be commenting again. If I don't comment, I don't read. REally. Why do you have such hostility toward your readers, anyway?

  • boatboy_srq on March 08, 2012 10:58 AM:

    Part of the problem is the horrific state of the opposition party. "Loyal" opposition seems to be a conveniently forgotten concept, and the candidates and the Conservatists in Congress are doing their best to present a vision of a sectarian, theocratic state dedicated to eradicating Teh Other (by which they mean anyone not just like them or who disagrees with them in the slightest). As I put it in 2010: when you're choice is between the even-marginally competent and the bats##t crazy, there really isn't a choice.

    The chief issue I have with defense of Obama falls under the "things could be SO much worse" column, as T2 describes. There's no doubt that from anything but a Conservatist perspective that Obama is proving a far better president than any of the GOP alternatives. But that doesn't make him a GOOD President - given the candidates the Right is fielding, he could actually be a BAD leader and still be better than the alternatives. That Obama has proven to be a good, effective leader should stand on its own, without comparison to the insanity prevalent on the Right.

    For me, Obama has a good start and is on a good if not perfect path, but it will take his second term to actually merit GOOD in terms of policy achievements.

  • JMG on March 08, 2012 11:11 AM:

    My opinion is that every failure/disappointment/problem of Obama's Presidency stems from a single fact: Things were much worse than he thought, and it took him quite some time to realize. The economy, the state of the opposition, the state of his own party, everything.

  • SYSPROG on March 08, 2012 11:12 AM:

    I dare say that MOST Presidents analyzed in their third year would be 'incomplete'. It is history that shows us whether their ideas were 'good' or 'bad.

  • Ron Byers on March 08, 2012 11:48 AM:

    CDW, I suffered the same with captcha this morning. I wrote what I thought was a good comment only to lose it because I couldn't read the Captcha and it didn't give me a chance to try a second time.

    I don't know why Washingtonmonthly hates its commenters either. I guess I will ask. Paul, Ed, why do you hate your readers?

  • hornblower on March 08, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Best President of my long lifetime. Our political system rarely produces leaders of this caliber.

  • Patango on March 08, 2012 12:05 PM:

    Thanx Ed and great responses

    The President has near zero personal flaws , and is a focused hard worker , you can tell Barak and his wife come from that back ground , which is refreshing to see in to days politics , it is a job people are going to micro criticize no matter who is in the seat , so it is all right to forgive ourselves and others if we go over board from time to time ...

    Another thing that gets lost in the frey , after an administration and party that brought us 9/11 and the financial collapse , is the fact that the gop are not apologetic for any of their failures , or retrospective , or taking responsibility ect. ....This is more offensive than anything The President could ever fail at , and it gets zero coverage , from day one the gop have blamed dems and obama for their own inept governing , and have gotten a pass from their electorate ...

    Sorry to go off subject a bit there but imo this has effected how the nation views President Obama , as the comments have pointed out a bit there , the guy is doing what is asked of him , while having 50% of the population sit on his chest , and the press acting like it is not happening ...

    Look at the vile coming from the right , can you imagine them getting behind obama had 9/11 happened on his watch? The gop would have had a melt down and impeachment proceedings , and the press would have given them a pass , just as they are doing now ..

    And yes , as MEMEKiller points out so well , democrat politicians having no back bone is a HUGE part of that problem also , The President could rise above all this and shine even more with some back up...

    Maybe the next election and some retrospective will give everyone some pause? At least the dem pols and the press any way ....

  • j on March 08, 2012 12:50 PM:

    History will not look kindly on the last two years of our country, we elected our first black president who had all the right ambitions for the country, even though he was taking on the greatest depression of our lifetimes, we were a broken country after 8 years of GWB, Obama tried his best to work with the other side, whose leader stated
    on the day after the president was sworn in, that his task was literally to destroy his presidency.
    Our allies in Europe even are aware and they cannot
    believe the republicans would destroy the country to hurt this president.We will always be ashamed of this period, the rest of the world cheered for us when we elected a black president, they thought we had put racism behind us, alas the worst in us has come back!

  • steve on March 08, 2012 1:34 PM:

    Hello people. Obama is a politician. A vey skilled one. That is the reason he is so threatening to the right and so frustrating to us others who desire more significant change (yes we can). The first job of a politician is to get reelected and that means picking your allies and enemies and your battles. In a different context, Obama might have tried to do more, but in this context, it is too difficult. After what happened to the dem's and clinton after the first attempt to change heatlthcare, Obama probably knew that the ACA would probably cost the dem's the 2010 election. Despite that, he found a way to get it done. I'm impressed with that. He also is finding a way to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan despite the opposition of the military. I hope that he has the skills to restrain Netanyahu. Here, it would be helpful is liberal dem senators and representative from Jewish district would step forward (where are the patriots when we need them). No, as the Republican primary demonstrates, the fault isn't with Obama, its us.

  • sherifffruitfly on March 08, 2012 2:18 PM:

    "much of his policy agenda, for better or worse, represents a continuation of the work of the last Democratic president"

    Bullshit. Much of Obama's agenda represents UNDOING the crap Clinton did. DADT: gone. DOMA: refuse to defend. Clinton's deregulation of wall st: partly reinstated. Cinton's healthcare zero: Obama got much, but not all that's desired.

    If by "continuation" one means "fixing what Clinton fucked up", then yes.

  • Werewolf on March 08, 2012 2:38 PM:

    One little nitpick-DADT was actually an improvement over what came before, which was witch hunts for gays in the military. Before DADT, the MP's would actually look for homosexuality, and if you were ghey, it meant a dishonorable discharge. DADT at least had "Don't Ask" going for it, and if you came out you were given an administrative discharge, not as bad as dishonorable. And I believe that Clinton would have liked to legalize homosexuality in the military, but between Repub and Blue Dog opposition, he had to settle for the compromise position of DADT.
    Clinton did, of course, fail to get healthcare reform, and deregulation of Wall Street *did* truly suck.

  • H-Bob on March 08, 2012 3:33 PM:

    Are Obama's accomplishments really different from what another Democratic President (e.g., Hillary or Biden) would have accomplished ? On the legislative front, Hillary had experience with Republican intransigence and would not have wasted a year with the "transcending partisanship" and "reaching across the aisle" nonsense that watered down the ACA and Dodd-Frank. She probably would have kept the Blue Dogs under control instead of letting Pelosi's House bills die in the Senate. Most of the domestic "accomplishments" are extremely weak versions of the Democratic agenda. He's done "just enough" but hasn't shown any special flair or unique accomplishments. The incidents involving the Somalian pirates and capturing bin Laden can be claimed as unique Obama accomplishments.

  • Cranky Observer on March 08, 2012 10:48 PM:

    Glastris is one of the people we have to thank for neoliberalism and its manifestations, including the DLC and Third Way, so I'm not sure he's a particularly reliable guide to the achievements of any President. Certainly not one who claim on the campaign trail to be a liberal.