“A Consequential President”: Obama’s Record Makes Him A Major Historical Figure In Ways Most Presidents Are Not
In early January 1999, as President Clinton’s penultimate year in office was getting underway, columnist George Will could hardly contain his “disgust” for the Democrat in the White House. He published a piece condemning Clinton – one of many similar columns for the Washington Post conservative – but he did so in a very specific way.
Clinton is “defined by littleness,” Will said, adding, “He is the least consequential president” since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.
It’s arguably the harshest of all possible criticisms. All presidents quickly grow accustomed to a wide variety of rebukes, but no one ever wants to be dismissed as inconsequential. It’s another way of saying your presidency is forgettable. It doesn’t matter. History won’t judge you unkindly because judgments require significance, and you’re just … irrelevant.
More than a decade later, President Obama has also received his share of criticisms, but it’s probably fair to say “inconsequential” is an adjective that no one will use to describe his tenure.
We talked the other day about the remarkable stretch of successes the president has had just since the midterm elections, and it led Matt Yglesias to note the “incredible amount” Obama has accomplished over the last six years.
It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama’s party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats’ overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a “realigning” election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won’t be.
I agree, though I’d go a bit further than just his two more recent predecessors and argue that Obama’s record makes him a major historical figure in ways most presidents are not.
This isn’t even a normative argument, per se. Obama’s critics, especially on the right, can and should make their case that the president’s agenda is misguided and bad for the country. A leader can have a wealth of accomplishments, but those deeds must still be evaluated on the merits.
What Obama’s detractors cannot credibly claim is that those accomplishments do not exist. By now, the list is probably familiar to many observers: the president’s Recovery Act rescued the country from the Great Recession. His Affordable Care Act brought access to medical care to millions of families. Obama rescued the American auto industry, brought new safeguards to Wall Street, overhauled the student loan system, and vastly expanded LGBT rights.
He improved food safety, consumer protections, and national-service opportunities. He signed the New START treaty, ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, reversed a failed U.S. policy towards Cuba, and used the Clean Air Act to make strides in addressing the climate crisis. He brought new hope to 5 million immigrants living in the United States, moved the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction, and helped restore America’s standing on the global stage.
The list goes on and on.
Yglesias is right that neither Clinton nor Bush can point to a similar litany of policy breakthroughs, but truth be told, very few presidents can. Note than when Paul Krugman praised Obama in his Rolling Stone cover story a couple of months ago, he used two distinct adjectives: “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”
All of this comes with two meaningful caveats. The first, as noted above, is that being “consequential” is not evidence of an a priori good. One can acknowledge a president’s accomplishments without liking them (or him). Tom Brady may be a consequential quarterback, but if you’re a Dolphins fan, you’re probably not impressed.
The second is that there’s a degree of fragility to some of this record. Next year, for example, Republicans on the Supreme Court may very well tear down the American health care system. In time, they may also derail Obama’s climate agenda. Congressional Republicans will spend the foreseeable future chipping away at everything from immigration progress to Wall Street safeguards. And if the nation elects a GOP successor for Obama, the next president may very well undo much of what this president has done.
But at least for now, we probably won’t see any columns about Obama similar to what George Will said in 1999.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 19, 2014
Here’s a little blast from the recent past, a meeting of the minds between Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume in October 2013:
O’Reilly asked Hume, “Is he just not interested? Is he bored with it? Is it deniability?”
Hume said that unlike some past presidents, Obama is “not a micromanager” and prefers to rely on others. O’Reilly charged that right now, Obama’s performance is so bad, he’s in “major trouble on the history front” and has to be “in the bottom ten” in a ranking of all the U.S. presidents.
This was a major theme in conservative and not-so-conservative media for quite some time: Obama is passive, he’s bored, he just doesn’t care anymore, he’s like a senior two weeks from graduation who just can’t wait to get it over with. Here’s a piece from June by Ron Fournier passing on complaints about Obama from anonymous Democrats, including “his disengagement from the political process and from the public.” “He’s bored and tired of being president,” Fournier cites one as saying. Not long after, Fox News actually took a poll asking people, “Do you think Barack Obama wants to be president anymore?”
I suppose that six months ago Obama might have been bored with some parts of his job. One certainly couldn’t blame him for being bored with the process of trying to get something out of Congress. But I always thought the charge was absurd. People do all kinds of armchair psychologizing of the president based on the occasional snippets they see of him in public, combined with the opinions they hear from other people who, like them, have no access to the actual person. I’m not saying I haven’t been guilty of that from time to time, but you have to be careful about imputing attributes and psychological states to him just based on whether you approve of the things he’s done or hasn’t done lately. And that’s what it usually comes down to.
But with today’s announcement that we’ll be undertaking a normalization of relations with Cuba—a mere 54 years after the embargo began—combined with other recent moves on immigration and climate change, Obama is looking pretty engaged. The approaching end of his term and the loss of both houses of Congress seem to have liberated him. While the Cuba deal was apparently in the works for many months, it wasn’t something in the headlines like immigration. Who knows how many other surprises Obama may have in store.
And while it’s true that there are limits to things the president can do just with executive action, this could be a new model for a way to use the bully pulpit. Obama can’t actually end the embargo entirely—that would require an act of Congress. But by taking some concrete action where he can, he’s forced the issue onto the agenda. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a move in Congress to finally bring the embargo to an end. For some time, there have been Democrats and Republicans who favored it; because of what Obama has done, they might have the opportunity to move that legislation forward. He could try to create the same kind of evolution in other areas.
In any case, the man certainly looks like he’s been set free. He doesn’t have to worry about getting reelected or about losing Congress (done both), so he can go back to see what fell off the to-do list and do things that he’s always wanted to, whether they were politically risky or not. This might be an interesting two years after all.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, December 18, 2014
“The ‘Obama Refuses To Lead’ Crowd Falls Silent”: It’s Striking To Realize What The President Has Done Just Since The Midterms
Kevin Drum pauses today to take stock of the recent actions from President Lame Duck.
So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He’s been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I’d say.
It’s funny, in a way, to think about how long ago the midterm elections seem. Seven weeks ago, President Obama was apparently supposed to be a defeated man, crushed by an electoral rebuke, pushed into irrelevancy by an ascendant far-right majority in Congress. It was up to the White House, the Beltway said, to start looking for new ways to make Republicans happy.
There’s a script that lame-duck presidents are supposed to follow, and gosh darn it, Obama would be expected to play by the rules, slipping further and further out of frame.
But given today’s developments, it’s striking to realize what the president has done over the 58 days since the midterms.
Obviously, there’s today’s historic announcement about U.S. policy towards Cuba. There’s also Obama’s breakthrough climate agreement with China, the successful secret mission that freed American prisoners in North Korea, and the sharp reduction of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
And that’s just foreign policy. Closer to home, the president has unveiled a major new immigration policy that will bring new hope to 5 million immigrants; he’s taken the lead on net neutrality; and he’s scored a series of confirmation victories in the closing days of the Senate.
All of this comes against the backdrop of an improving job market, a highly successful ACA open-enrollment period, falling gas prices, a Russian crisis that arguably benefits the United States, and the number of Ebola cases in the United States falling to zero.
The White House’s many critics don’t want to hear this, but if Obama were a Republican, it’s likely we’d be inundated with coverage about how “President Comeback just got his mojo back.”
Indeed, I continue to think about Dana Milbank’s column from two weeks ago today.
…Obama has demonstrated a preference to mull rather than to act. Former Obama Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, in his memoir, wrote that Obama too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
Today’s historic agreement with Cuba belies such criticism – plenty of presidents have talked about a more sensible course on Cuba, but this president actually did something about it. This required some bold leadership and a willingness to take a risk on a contentious issue, and Obama delivered.
To be sure, we can and should argue about the merits of the president’s decisions. Maybe this dramatic foreign policy shift is a major step forward, maybe not. Perhaps Obama’s post-midterm moves will advance the nation’s interests, perhaps not.
But the point is, for all the chatter about a disengaged president who’s reluctant to act, the last seven weeks prove those assumptions wrong. Obama has clearly taken charge, pursuing an ambitious agenda with striking vigor.
Every pundit who carelessly throws around the “why won’t Obama lead more?” cliches clearly needs to rethink the thesis.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 17, 2014
“Is Obama Bold Enough For You Now?”: Conservatives Derided Him For Timidity, Appalled At What A Tyrant They Now Think He’s Being
Remember when the problem everyone had with Barack Obama was how passive he was? In late October, Charles Krauthammer lamented Obama’s “observer presidency with its bewildered-bystander pose.” Dana Milbank agreed that “The real problem with Obama is not overreach but his tendency to be hands-off.” Milbank quoted Mitt Romney approvingly for his criticism of Obama for not being sufficiently “focused” on the Ebola threat (I guess a more focused president would have managed to avert the thousands of American Ebola deaths—oh wait). Anonymous Hillary Clinton aides tell reporters that unlike the “passive” Obama, their boss is going to be “aggressive” and “decisive” when it comes to foreign crises. Leon Panetta writes a memoir criticizing Obama for being passive, but the specific criticisms look a lot like, “I told the President to do something, and he didn’t follow my advice!”
This isn’t a new complaint. For years, pundits who are supposed to have some sense of how politics actually works have looked at the institutional and political limits surrounding policymaking and whined, “Why won’t Obama lead?” as though he could do things like make Republicans agree with him if only he were to exert his will more manfully. A close cousin of this inane belief is the idea that Obama could solve some complicated problem by giving a really good speech about it, an idea that has had disturbing currency among Obama’s liberal critics.
Perhaps some of this comes from the contrast between Obama and his predecessor, who called himself “the decider,” so decisive was he. During his time in office, reporters and headline writers were forever referring to George W. Bush’s proposals and actions as “bold,” almost regardless of what they entailed. And some of them actually were. Invading Iraq? Now that was bold. Had Obama decided to invade Syria, that would have been bold, too. But we probably wouldn’t be too pleased with the results.
Even when Obama has done bold things, he’s seldom described that way. Perhaps it’s because of his generally calm countenance; I’m really not sure. But his career has been characterized by periods of patience interrupted by calculated risks taken when the timing seemed right. So maybe it’s because many of the “bold” things Obama has done, like running for president after only a couple of years in the Senate or proposing ambitious health care reform, actually worked out. In retrospect, everyone thinks an electoral or legislative success was pre-ordained, and the sage observer saw it coming all along. Perhaps if Obama crashed and burned in dramatic ways more often, he’d get more credit for boldness.
But now, with two years remaining in his presidency and faced with a Congress unified under Republican control, Obama doesn’t look so passive. He’s using executive authority to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, he’s making agreements with China on carbon reductions, he’s issuing regulations on ozone. Of course, the same conservatives who derided him for timidity are appalled at what a tyrant they now think he’s being. Could it be that nobody really cares whether he’s being too bold or too passive, and those complaints are just a cover for their substantive disagreements with whatever he’s doing (or not doing) at a particular moment?
If there’s an area where you think Obama hasn’t done what he should have, go ahead and make that criticism. You might be right. There may be issues on which he’s allowed the status quo to continue when you think more aggressive moves were called for, and you could be right about that too. But presidents constantly make choices to pursue some paths and not others, to allow some policies to remain in place while trying to change others, to start some political fights that they think look winnable while avoiding others that don’t. If you think some issue ought to be higher on his agenda, the fact that it isn’t is probably just because he doesn’t agree with you on that particular point, not because of some broader orientation toward passivity that is holding him back.
And if you’re pleased that he’s moving on immigration and climate change, is it because you think the things he’s doing are worthwhile, or because you just favor boldness in the abstract? I’ll bet it’s the former.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, December 1, 2014
On a day when we pause to consider those things for which Americans ought to be thankful, I feel obliged to mention my appreciation for many of the things that Barack Obama has accomplished as President of the United States, and my profound relief that he is in the Oval Office rather than any of the Republicans who sought to displace him.
On this day, it seems appropriate to reflect not only on Obama’s considerable achievements, but on how much worse our situation might be if his opponents had been in control of events from January 2009 until now.
With our continuous immersion in harsh commentary from factions and ideologues across the spectrum, a mindless negativity tends to dominate assessments of his presidency. He is certainly more flawed than his most zealous supporters would ever have admitted six or seven years ago, which is why some of them are disproportionately disappointed today; he has made regrettable mistakes in both policy and politics; and, as we saw in this month’s midterm election, he has suffered declines in public confidence that injured his image and the fortunes of his party. His approval ratings remain low.
And yet, whatever his fellow citizens may feel, the undeniable truth is that Obama righted the nation in a moment of deep crisis and set us on a navigable course toward the future, despite bitter, extreme, and partisan opposition that was eager to sink us rather than see him succeed.
So I’m thankful that Obama was president at the nadir of the Great Recession, rather than John McCain, Mitt Romney, or any other Republican who might have insisted on austerity and prevented the stimulus spending that saved us from economic catastrophe. It wasn’t large enough or long enough to prevent the human suffering of unemployment, but it was sufficient to bring recovery, more rapidly than most countries have recovered after a major panic.
The simple proof may be found in the record of growth that outpaced every other industrialized country in the world – a record that seems even more impressive because the crash began here, as a consequence of irresponsibility and criminality in American financial markets. Undergirding the stimulus was his courageous decision to bail out the automotive industry, denounced as “socialism,” saved at least a million jobs and prevented the further deindustrialization of America.
I’m also thankful that Obama – a politician who respects science and listens to scientists — was president as we began to encounter the difficult realities of climate change. Having declared his determination to double the production of renewable energy in this country, he has far exceeded that objective already. Under his guidance, the federal government has acted against excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, required automakers to double their fuel economy by 2025, ordered agencies to achieve sustainability in operations and purchases, and invested tens of billons in smart electric grids, conservation, and clean fuels.
I’m thankful that he oversaw passage of financial reform, despite his overly cautious failure to prosecute the financial felons who caused the crisis and his refusal to take down any of the big banks. Like the stimulus and the auto bailout, the Dodd-Frank Act is imperfect but useful and necessary – and wouldn’t have occurred if the bankers and their most abject Republican servants had been fully in charge.
I’m even more thankful that he pushed through the most extensive and generous reform in American health care since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act – which, despite its troubled debut, has proved to be a remarkable success. It isn’t Medicare for all, but Obamacare is insuring and protecting millions of Americans who would otherwise be subject to the Tea Party Republican policy, pithily summarized by that mob screaming “let ‘em die” at the GOP debate in 2012. Health care costs are falling, Medicare’s solvency has improved, and millions more of the country’s poor and working families are covered by Medicaid, in spite of Republican legislators and governors who would, quite literally, let them die.
Finally, I’m appreciative of many other policy decisions Obama has made – promoting human rights by ending anti-gay discrimination in the military, banning the Bush era tolerance of torture, outlawing unequal pay for women, and most recently his executive order on immigration. I’m grateful that he is seeking peace through negotiation with Iran, instead of going directly (and insanely) to war as McCain or Romney would almost surely have done. I’m glad he had the guts to order the operation that finished Osama bin Laden.
None of this diminishes the president’s political errors, his sometimes naïve attitude about “bipartisanship,” his excessive deference to the national security and defense establishments, or his persistent susceptibility to wrongheaded cant about entitlements and deficits.
But he remains admirably cool under attacks that would madden most people. He refuses to mimic the cynical, mindless, and ugly conduct of his adversaries. He still proclaims American values of shared responsibility and prosperity, of cooperation and community, of malice toward none and charity for all.
In different ways, those ideals were epitomized by the presidential founders of this national holiday – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – and their persistence is reason for thanksgiving, too.
By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, The National Memo, November 27, 2014