Obama’s Record

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There’s a land office business these days explaining why Barack Obama sucks. Aaron David Miller takes to the pages of the LA Times today and, after a long bit of throat clearing about the greatness of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, he proposes this explanation for Obama’s lack thereof:

First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession….Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn’t found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared.

….Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional. It also convinced many, however unfairly, that he was a man of the left and a big-spending liberal to boot.

….Americans aren’t so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.

Is this such a sophisticated argument that I don’t get it? Or just plain dumb? In order to attain greatness, Obama needed to understand that the country wasn’t in the mood for greatness and just wanted him to focus on mundane matters? WTF?

Look: Obama passed a huge stimulus package, a historic healthcare bill, a pretty serviceable financial reform bill, has withdrawn 100,000 troops from Iraq, negotiated the New START treaty with Russia, made some decent progress on education reform and Pentagon procurement, and appears to be on track to repeal DADT. A terrible economy has hurt his fortunes, but let’s face facts: Republicans and centrist Democrats wouldn’t have allowed him to do anything more about this even if he’d wanted to. And in any case, as plenty of people have pointed out, Obama’s popularity is actually nearly identical to that of most other modern presidents at this point in their presidencies:

I don’t really understand where this general strain of writing comes from. Obviously Obama came into office with high expectations, but were there really a lot of people who expected him to be the second coming of FDR? If there were, I sure wasn’t reading them. The plain, boring fact is that Obama, like all presidents, is constrained by circumstances and by Congress, and he just hasn’t had the Congress to do much more than he’s done. FDR and LBJ won landslide victories and enjoyed enormous congressional majorities. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton won solid victories and had sizeable congressional majorities (though only in the Senate for Reagan). That’s who Obama should be compared to, and on that score he shapes up pretty well: clearly better than Carter and Clinton and quite possibly the equal of Reagan. (We’ll know for sure in another six years.)

There are plenty of things I wish Obama had done differently. I wish he’d pushed harder for transformative financial reform. I wish he hadn’t escalated the war in Afghanistan. I wish he hadn’t reappointed Ben Bernanke. I wish his record on civil liberties were better. I wish he’d use his undeniable rhetorical gifts to really sell a liberal vision to the American public, the way Reagan sold a conservative one.1 But this is real life, and no president does everything his supporters want him to do. By any measure aside from having your face sculpted on Mount Rushmore, Obama’s had a pretty good run so far. It’s crazy to pretend otherwise.

1I wish he’d pushed harder for a climate change bill too, but honestly, I don’t blame him much for this. Congressional support just flatly wasn’t there for anything even remotely ambitious, and there’s not much point in banging your head against a brick wall. For now, I’ll judge him by what the EPA ends up doing.


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