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“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

December 20, 2014 Posted by | Great Recession, Politics, President Obama | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Fight Worth Having”: A Strategy On Judicial Nominees Takes Shape

For nearly five years, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — aka, the D.C. Circuit — has had seven sitting judges hearing cases, four from judges appointed by Republican presidents and three from Democratic presidents. Last week, President Obama finally saw one of his nominees confirmed to this bench, bringing some parity to the appeals court.

There are, however, three remaining vacancies, which Senate Republicans would love to keep vacant indefinitely. What does the White House plan to do about it? A plan has apparently come together.

President Obama will soon accelerate his efforts to put a lasting imprint on the country’s judiciary by simultaneously nominating three judges to an important federal court, a move that is certain to unleash fierce Republican opposition and could rekindle a broader partisan struggle over Senate rules. […]

White House officials declined to say who Mr. Obama’s choices will be ahead of an announcement that could come this week, but leading contenders for the spots appear to include Cornelia T. L. Pillard, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center; David C. Frederick, who often represents consumers and investors at the Supreme Court; and Patricia Ann Millett, a veteran appeals lawyer in Washington. All three are experienced lawyers who would be unlikely to generate controversy individually.

For those hoping for a more progressive federal judiciary, there’s a lot to like in this plan. Indeed, it’s arguably overdue.

It’s a pretty straightforward exercise — Obama has to nominate jurists to fill these vacancies, and he’s apparently focused on three excellent, mainstream choices, who would ordinarily garner broad support. From the White House’s perspective, if Senate Republicans act responsibly, great — the nominees will be confirmed, the D.C. Circuit will be at full strength, and the bench will be less conservative.

If Senate Republicans act irresponsibly and block these nominees out of partisan spite, Democrats will have even more incentive to pursue the “nuclear option” and end this style of obstructionism altogether.

And just to reiterate a relevant detail, filling judicial vacancies is important everywhere, but the D.C. Circuit is of particular significance — not only is it often a proving ground for future Supreme Court justices, but the D.C. Circuit regularly hears regulatory challenges to the Obama administration’s agenda. Indeed, as the NYT report noted, this bench “has overturned major parts of the president’s agenda in the last four years, on regulations covering Wall Street, the environment, tobacco, labor unions and workers’ rights.”

With this in mind, it’s a fight worth watching.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 28, 2013

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Federal Courts | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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