“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
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
“Government Is Not Just About Sugar”: The GOP Helps Americans Appreciate The Importance Of Government
There’s a lot of terrible news for Republicans inside the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but one of the worst bulletins is this: Americans are becoming more appreciative of government.
The poll shows that 52 percent of respondents said that government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people. That figure is up four points since June, and is at the highest level since July of 2008, when it stood at 53 percent.
The economic crisis was building during the summer of 2008, and people were growing increasingly weary of President George W. Bush’s laissez-faire attitude. Barack Obama’s more optimistic vision of government’s possibilities became infectious and helped propel him to victory, but after he took office, the popularity of government, as measured by that question, quickly fell and has been below 50 percent for most of his presidency.
Now it is back up, and Republicans have only themselves to thank. There’s nothing better than shutting down government to remind people of how much they need it. The television footage of shuttered offices and national parks, as well as people who are suffering because of lost wages and federal assistance, has had a significant effect.
So did the 2008-2009 recession and its aftermath. More people came into the government’s orbit, seeking assistance or benefiting from stimulus money, including much of the automobile industry. The poll showed that nearly a third of respondents said their family was personally affected by the current shutdown, compared to only 18 percent during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. The budget crisis has even made health care reform substantially more popular than it was just a few weeks ago.
This is one of the great existential fears of the right, of course, and is one of the few things uniting the various ideological wings of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney complained about the 47 percent of Americans who were “dependent on government,” and Senator Ted Cruz recently accused Mr. Obama of trying to get Americans “addicted to the sugar” of his health care law.
But this week, Americans know that government isn’t just about sugar. It’s a necessary part of their lives, and Americans expect it to be there when the private sector lets them down, as it did during the recession and as it has done on health care for so many years. Now as the Republicans’ abysmal new approval ratings show, voters are also gaining a clearer picture of precisely who in Washington is letting them down.
By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, October 11, 2013
“The Opposite Of Patriotism”: Republican Resistance To Hurricane Relief Is A Stink Of Hypocrisy, And Worse
Provoked by opposition to Hurricane Sandy relief among House Republicans – and the delay in voting the first tranche of aid by Speaker John Boehner – both New Jersey governor Chris Christie and representative Peter King (R-NY) denounced the irresponsibility and cruelty of those betrayals. Even when that first bill passed, 67 Republicans voted no, in contrast with only 11 who voted no when Congress provided emergency funding for Hurricane Katrina (far more quickly, too) in 2005.
The Tea Party Republicans in Congress would offer various excuses for their hostility to Sandy relief, from budgetary constraints to far-right ideology. But those who voted no hail from states that have benefited from all kinds of federal relief over the past two decades, financed by Northeastern taxpayers who send a wildly disproportionate sum in levies to Washington every year.
Moving down the alphabet from Hurricane Andrew onward over the past two decades, it is not hard to trace tens of billions of dollars for storm relief alone that have flowed from New York and Connecticut to the South, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and other regions over the years, with never a word of demurral over costs, “pork,” or “offsets” from other federal spending.
Then consider the many other forms of federal aid that have benefited the regions where “conservative” fiscal stringency supposedly prevails, and a disturbing habit quickly emerges: Republican members of Congress tend to support aid packages that benefit their own states or districts, while opposing help for other Americans. This doesn’t hold true for all Republicans or conservatives, of course, but it is nevertheless a detectable pattern.
The most obvious example in recent years is the rescue of the auto industry, a decision of national importance supported by both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which nearly all Republicans rejected – except those from Michigan and auto-plant districts in several surrounding states. Those in favor included Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chair from Wisconsin, who voted for the bailout and then, while running for vice president on the GOP ticket, pretended to have opposed it. But he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Sandy relief.
The Republicans in Kansas, whose entire four-member delegation voted against Sandy relief, never voiced any opposition to the massive aid provided by the federal government in 2007 when the city of Greensburg was devastated by a Force 5 tornado – or for that matter all the other instances of disaster assistance accepted by that benighted state over the decades. Nor did the Republicans in places like Missouri or Georgia or any of the other states severely damaged by flooding in recent years suddenly stop their routine pleading for federal aid, which they duly received.
The biggest frauds are naturally to be found in Texas, one of the drought-stricken states where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and sundry federal agencies have been spending vast sums to help farmers, ranchers, and other suffering residents. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a right-wing Texas Republican whose district includes bone-dry Lubbock, praised those federal bureaucrats just last summer for spending funds to help farmers and ranchers in his Lubbock district “mitigate damage caused by wildfires and drought.” Quoted in a local newspaper, Neugebauer said, “I hope that FEMA will quickly follow suit and declare a major disaster declaration for affected Texas counties.” But this week, Neugebauer was one of seven Texas Republicans who voted against Sandy relief, along with fellow wingnuts from drought-afflicted districts across the South and West.
All this represents something worse than cheap hypocrisy, which often crosses political and ideological lines. The behavior of these Republicans is rooted in their selfish ideology and regional chauvinism – and their rejection of a generous spirit that has united this country for more than a hundred years. It is the opposite of patriotism.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, January 5, 2013
“I’m a son of Detroit. I was born in Detroit. My dad was head of a car company. I like American cars,” said Mitt Romney on Monday night when he met with President Obama to discuss foreign policy. “And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.”
That might be considered true—unless moving the most important American auto parts manufacturer to China counts as hurting the U.S. auto industry. But those words now stand as one of Romney’s most glaring falsehoods in the final debate.
Romney’s defensive statement came in response to a remark by Obama noting that the Republican nominee is “familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas.” Moments later, he added: “If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney about our auto industry, we’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China.”
Most viewers had little idea what Obama was talking about or why Romney felt the need to rebut him so specifically. But their coded exchange almost certainly referred to an investigative report that broke wide on the Internet, without much attention from the mainstream media so far—Greg Palast’s article in The Nation magazine, exposing Romney’s huge profits from Delphi, a crucial auto parts company that moved nearly all of its jobs to China after taking billions in auto bailout money from the Treasury.
As Palast reported, the Romneys made millions from that intricate deal, put together by one of his main campaign donors, billionaire investor Paul Singer — through a “vulture fund” known as Elliot Management. Having bought up Delphi at fire-sale prices, Singer and his partners essentially blackmailed the Treasury into paying them billions so that Delphi would keep supplying parts to General Motors and Chrysler. They stiffed the company’s pensioners, pocketed the bailout funds, and moved all but four of the firm’s 29 plants to China.
The neglect of the Delphi story by mainstream and even progressive outlets such as MSNBC has been remarkable, particularly because neither Romney nor his campaign has denied it. If anything, a statement issued by the campaign to The Hill, a Washington publication, seemed to confirm Palast’s reporting by attempting to deflect blame onto the Obama administration:
Romney’s campaign did not deny that he profited from the auto bailout in an email to The Hill Wednesday afternoon, but it said the the report showed the Detroit intervention was “misguided.”
“The report states that Delphi had 29 US plants before the misguided Obama auto bailout, and just four after. Is this really what the president views as success?” Romney spokeswoman Michele Davis said.
“Mitt Romney would have taken a different path to turning around the auto industry,” Davis continued. “As President, Mitt Romney will create jobs and give American workers the recovery they deserve.”
Taking Delphi bankrupt under the management of Singer and Romney’s other partners didn’t create jobs or security for Delphi’s American workers. After taking nearly $13 billion in bailout financing from the Treasury — with the support of Rep. Paul Ryan, who has also received generous support from Singer — the new Delphi management abrogated the company’s pensions, closed all those U.S. plants, and moved production to China. And so far, Romney has escaped any questions about why he and Ann Romney invested their millions with vulture investors who used taxpayer funds to destroy American jobs.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, October 23, 2012