Term in Office: 44th president, 2009-
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Illinois
Evaluating the sitting president is a challenging task. For years, when doing rankings as facebook notes or for previous blogs I’ve written, I just didn’t do it. It seemed self-evident: the presidency isn’t over- why bother evaluating it? Isn’t it jumping the gun or succumbing to premature judgment? Beyond that, there is a very real problem of myopia; we may be just too close to the incumbent’s time to be objective. We read the news, absorb the commentary, and lose any sense of perspective. Despite these qualms, we also have to recognize that history is never over, and there is a never-ending treadmill of a record that has to be absorbed. At a certain point, you have a make a first draft of history, and that is what I will attempt here.
While we are speaking of presentism, let me begin with a personal anecdote. When I saw my doctor last month, he was alarmed by a lump he found in my clavicle. He referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat guy whose gut reaction was that something was very wrong; that kind of lump is usually the first symptom of lymphoma to manifest itself. For two agonizing weeks, I did not know whether or not I had a serious form of cancer, and my mind turned to grim possibilities. What would it be like to spend the next two or three years, or longer, as a cancer patient? What if I had to leave my job? (Think chemo is expensive in the U.S.? Try chemo in Singapore.) What would happen if I lost my medical insurance because I was no longer employed?
Fortunately, I had a biopsy performed, it came up negative, and with a clean bill of health, I flew to Singapore to resume my teaching responsibilities. Nevertheless, this health crisis brought home for me how important the much-criticized signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency, the Affordable Health Care Act, has become. The law has its flaws, and I will discuss them, but most of my criticisms come from the left (it is too friendly and accommodating to existing drug companies and continues the wrongheaded scheme of tying one’s health insurance so closely to one’s employment). Despite these drawbacks, I cannot say enough how relieved I was that the law was in place: if necessary, I would be able to purchase my own insurance if I could no longer work, and couldn’t be denied for a pre-existing condition (and believe me, lymphoma would have been a pretty serious pre-existing condition.) If the question is, to paraphrase Reagan, would I have been better off now than I would have been eight years ago, the answer is a resounding and unmistakable ‘yes.’ My rankings prioritize helping the vulnerable, and there aren’t many who are more vulnerable than the seriously ill, and this law, for all its complexities and for all the issues still being ironed out, is a considerable boon to them.
So, despite the number of persistent criticisms Barack Obama has attracted, we need to step back, and take the larger view– remember all the persnickety armchair presidents who thought Truman and Eisenhower were rudderless in the 40s and 50s? Now, both men are considered very successful. So in the absence of time and cognitive distance, I will try, in my own meager way, to consider Obama’s larger place in history, even as that drama is still unfolding. Andrew Sullivan (who, I may add, is a self-professed conservative so completely distraught by the state of modern conservatism, he became one of Barack Obama’s strongest supporters) wrote these words on the night of his re-election in 2012:
“But this president has never been a radical; he has always been a moderate; he has been immensely skilled at foreign policy, ended one war and won another, killed Osama bin Laden and saved the American auto industry, deflected a Second Great Depression and initiated universal access to healthcare. He has presided over a civil rights revolution and the beginning of the end of prohibition of marijuana. He has created the new and durable coalition that was once Karl Rove’s dream.
Americans saw this. They were not fooled. And they made the right call, as they usually do. What was defeated tonight was not just Romney, a hollow cynic, but a whole mountain of mendacity and delusion. That sound you hear is the cognitive dissonance ringing in the ears of ideologues and cynics. Any true conservative longs for that sound, the sound of reality arriving to pierce through fantasy and fanaticism.”
A great assessment from a man who is anything but a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Let’s look at how this began, though: the 2008 election through which Obama came to office was a singularly exciting moment– two strong candidates and excellent campaigners with very different visions of what they would do in office. There was a sense that a sea change took place after the George W. Bush presidency; even committed Republicans were walking away from many of his decisions. But those of us who expected the millennium in 2008 would be disappointed. The overwhelmingly Democratic, almost filibuster-proof* Congress that was elected with Obama seemed poised to initiate a Great Society-like shift that would empower and enfranchise those left behind by the Bush years. To our chagrin, Congress played it safe, probably believing the dreadfully misinformed hype that they would control the legislature for years to come. The Bush tax cuts, even for unfathmobly wealthy earners, were kept in place. Estate taxes, the fairest way to put more money in the coffers to begin reducing the deficit, were hardly even considered. An ugly, but unfortunately necessary bailout for the automotive industry passed with Obama’s signature, but so too did the badly needed Dodd-Frank reforms of the financial industry. For a president running on widespread programmatic and temperamental change in the nation’s capital, change was there, but it seemed sluggish and slow and tentative in coming.
Obama then made a major tactical error in making health care the major cause in which he funneled most of his political capital. As I said in my write-up, this was a badly needed bill, even in its present watered-down form without a public option or a Medicare-for-all approach. Obama should have recalled that pushing health care reform as a first priority decimated the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and helped cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994. In hindsight, he almost certainly should have used his political capital on a more widely popular and more easily marketed measure– a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill, something that would have been broadly supported and easily comprehended by the public, and would have had a salutary effect on the economy, allowing for greater credibility to push further reforms. Instead, Obama’s signature domestic achievement was a complex, overlong bill that easily fell prey to absurd talk about “death panels,” losing doctor choice, ruinously high taxes, and a vast array of misleading claims and outright lies.
Partly out of unhappiness with the Affordable Care Act, partly out of frustration over the still-sputtering economy, the Democrats endured the worst defeat a majority party endured in a couple generations, returning the GOP to control of the House and severely cutting into their lead in the Senate. But the triumphant GOP was not Bob Dole’s Republican Party. Instead, a movement that started out in the Ron Paul wing of the party, quickly diffused into a broader, more populist TEA Party, devoted to a kind-of mythic Jeffersonian limited government. Adapting the Gasden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag, it grew into a movement of sad sexagenarians playing dress-up and living out patriot fantasies without a modicum of a patriot’s willingness to sacrifice. All too often their mantra of “taking the country back” had, sometimes intended and sometimes not, strong racial overtones, and the movement was not unrelated to the demographic sinkhole white Americans have found themselves in. At any rate, there is no accounting for poor behavior at the tea party, the bad feeling in the Darjeeling. Basic cooperation and civility, hallmarks of any Congress, went out the window. A litany of disgraceful conduct and bizarre claims, within and without the halls of Congress followed, from getting interrupted at the State of the Union (“you lie!”) to Dinesh D’Souza’s poorly substantiated movie claiming Obama is a relentless anticolonialist with an axe to grind against Western culture. And of course, there was the “Birtherism” questioning the president’s American citizenship with virtually no convincing proof, and did not relent even after his birth certificate was made public. Lots of presidents had to wade through malicious enemies and weird-ass claims about their past, but no president had to deal with it so consistently and relentlessly as Barack Obama, as attempts to code him as “different from most Americans” became a backhanded way of protesting the first president of African descent.
All this is to say, Obama had to deal with some of the worst congresses in U.S. history– only a couple of the Gilded Age congresses and the class of 1946 even come close. The leaders of our national legislature have refused give-and-take politics crucial to any fair discourse– the deficit must go down, but it’s always got to be revenue cuts, never any tax raises. On three different occasions now, the House has played chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States, refusing to approve a raise to the debt ceiling- on spending Congress had already committed to- without concessions. How can one accomplish anything within the boundaries of one’s power with such a group, willing at times to blow up the world economy just to make an ideological point? Accordingly, a promising presidency became mired in gridlock where ineffectual half-measures became the best one could hope for. Consider that as I write this, a Farm Bill is poised to show up on the presidents desk that cuts food stamps by nearly a billion dollars a year, while preserving most of the unnecessary farm subsidies that bolster agra-businesses like Monsanto. Democrats reluctantly went along with the bill, and Obama is likely to sign it into law because it is probably the best that they can hope for given the partisan makeup of Congress at this time. What all of this amounts to is something that might be called “the damage control presidency.” That’s good- the backsliding must be contained- but it is such a pale shadow of what could have been during these years.
So far, however, I have avoided three elements I address in almost every write-up: temperament, administrative skill, and ethics. How does Obama compare by these metrics? So…Temperament. Obama, as Jonathan Alter put it, lacked “the schmooze gene” that came instinctively to Clinton, Bush 43, Reagan, and even, to an extent, compulsive thank-you note writer, Bush 41. The most common metaphor involved household pets; most presidents are affable, gregarious dogs, while Obama has been compared to a cool and aloof cat, replete with an unwillingess to suffer fools and glad-handlers. On the whole, this is a good thing, I would argue. We’ve had too many shallow baby-kissers and impulsive “deciders”, and his careful, no-drama deliberation– very much a Picard to George W.’s Kirk, is a turn for the better.
Administrative skill. Sigh. He started out well, picking a very strong cabinet, including a gracious inclusion of a vanquished rival for Secretary of State, and recognizing Robert Gates as the indispensable man in Iraq. But there was a stunning aloofness and a lack of fire in the belly, a condition that many have characterized as “leading from behind.” While Clinton’s team drafted a health care plan, Obama let Congress figure it out. Same with immigration, gun control, and every other plan that ended up stymied in congressional gridlock. And yet, Obama could not be considered indecisive; even Robert Gates’ sometimes-critical memoir credits his second boss with taking to the presidency prodigiously, including the bold decision to technically invade Pakistan in hopes of taking out Osama bin Laden. Still, Obama’s relative disinterest in the cabinet departments and his lack of executive experience prior to his presidency makes this one of his weaker areas. A wider array and greater depth of experience would have served him well here.
As far as ethics? The corrupt “Chicago style” politics some pundits predicted never really materialized (By the way, have you ever noticed how “Chicago-style politics” flawlessly transitioned from a polite way of saying “the Catholics are too corrupt to govern” to a polite way of saying “the blacks are too corrupt to govern” in the 60s and 70s?) The small, petty, money-grubbing scandals that pockmarked the Clinton presidency, and the corporate cronyism (remember the no-bid contracts on war supplies?) that besmirched the Bush-43 presidency never materialized. It is important in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where every flaw and foible is overanalyzed by a panel of self-professing experts, how remarkably, though certainly not flawlessly, clean this administration has been. Despite the vigilance of congressional Republicans, Fox, and dozens of right-leaning blogs, nothing really stuck. The IRS scandal defused when it became clear that a rogue office overzealously looked at groups claiming non-profit status, and even then, liberal groups were questioned just about as often as conservative groups. No convincing evidence has emerged, despite constant coverage on FOX, that Benghazi was anything more than a tragic flare-up of sectional violence. The most recent red flag, “you can keep your plan” may well be the most damaging and the president needs to answer for it, but even then, Obamacare resulted in shockingly low numbers of Americans forced to buy into a plan inferior to what they already had. Altogether, though, very little sticks, and the administration, for all the scrutiny it is under, has kept itself quite clean.
Let’s take a look, though, at where all this led. His support for same sex marriage was a close and careful political calculation, but it was also a vital moment for the movement to have the president’s support, and history will remember that he was the first sitting president to support it. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation Obama signed, was an important step forward for the “equal pay for equal work” principle. Women’s access to contraception is greater than ever, thanks in part to the health care law. Social justice and speaking up for marginalized communities is a big part of my rankings, and here, Obama clearly succeeded.
Due to his positioning in the presidential pantheon, Obama had the opportunity to depart from his predecessors’ choices or continue them, and the result is a mixed bag. He fulfilled his campaign pledge to withdraw from Iraq, drew down our forces in Afghanistan, reversed the petty doctrinal ban on stem cell research, ended the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were little more than a smokescreen for torture — but on the other hand, NSA surveillance remains out of hand, Guantanamo remains open, and drones continue to develop, often at cost to civilian life. In these instances, Obama may have erred by turning Bush-era decisions into something more intractable, that is, a precedent, by keeping, and in some cases escalating, their practice.
Unlucky #13 it is. Not bad at all, but I expected Obama to be a top 7 president when he was inaugurated, the sort of guy we might mention in the same conversations as Harry Truman or Theodore Roosevelt as the best of the near-great presidents. Maybe it was youthful naivety, maybe a truly progressive moment, but more importantly, a recommitment of our social contract toward good government, was actually possible during that short window. Instead, we got a presidency that at times had a strong energy and commitment to restorative justice, but at other times, dawdled, fumbled, and spent too much time negotiating with a disloyal opposition that did not return the good faith. And now, we return to the long view: when we talk about the Obama presidency 15 years from now, many of our perfectly valid frustrations and reservations will seem small and petty. The disastrous and inexcusably slow rollout of the healthcare.gov website will be relegated to footnotes, but a bill that led to more Americans, especially the poor and the chronically sick, having access to health care will be remembered as a signature achievement. Slow, steady piecemeal reform, while keeping the forces of plutocracy and banksterism at bay? Perhaps that is the only change we can believe in these days.
*A number of discrete events conspired to keep the Democrats at 60 votes for only a very short period of time between 2009-2011, including the delay in certifying Al Franken’s very narrow win in Minnesota, Ted Kennedy’s death, Arlen Spector’s timely switch to the Democratic Party, and ultimately, Scott Brown’s election to Teddy’s seat.