Washington Matters


Obama's \"Failed\" Presidency

Mark Willen

Eighteen months into his first term, pundits and partisans are engaged in a shallow debate over how the president will be judged. They’re missing the point.



Call it the herd instinct, the echo chamber, a pack mentality, whatever -- there’s no denying that today’s 24/7 news cycle presents a big challenge for introducing intelligent political analysis and commentary into the public debate. We journalists and pundits spend way too much time reading and talking to each other, chasing the so-called narrative and trying to pick winners and losers in the Washington arena.

There’s a lot of that going on now, centered on how President Obama has pushed through Congress three landmark pieces of legislation -- an economic stimulus package, health care reform and an overhaul of financial regulation -- plus scores of other policy changes, yet is regarded by many as teetering on the edge of failure. The Washington Post and The New York Times went so far this past weekend as to ask dozens of so-called experts what the president can do to pull himself out of the ashes.

The real question, of course, is how you define failure. Obama promised and delivered a big stimulus, though it wasn’t as big as some wanted and was bigger than many thought we could afford. Almost all nonpartisan economists say it helped pull the economy out of recession and created jobs, but the vast majority of Americans don’t believe it for a minute.

The TARP bailout -- passed under President Bush but now owned by Obama, who extended it with bailouts of GM, Chrysler and others -- is also seen as a success by economists but is absolutely hated by voters. In fact, a vote for TARP is proving a kiss of death for many Republicans and will be trouble in the fall for some Democrats.

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Obama also promised health care reform and delivered a bill that his predecessors couldn’t. But liberals are unhappy that Obama abandoned the public option, conservatives see it as a government takeover and the public is understandably confused and will have to wait years to see if it works.

He also promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and to double down in Afghanistan, both of which he is doing -- to mixed success and to mixed reviews from those who elected him to do what he promised.

Today Obama signed into law a Wall Street regulatory bill designed to prevent another financial crisis or at least limit the damage from one. The bill’s failings will become clear in time. But the bigger political problem for him is that any success in curbing a crisis will never be known because you can’t prove a negative.

By any objective account, Obama has amassed a striking record of accomplishment -- one very close to what he promised during the campaign. Some pundits look at that and say the White House political operation must be the problem. It’s just not capable of getting the message out. No doubt, Obama and his aides have stumbled often, but that’s hardly the major problem.

The real reason for the talk of failure -- and the reason it’s real -- is that most Americans aren’t happy with the economy and they’re in no mood to judge anything else that’s happened a success. In some instances -- such as when they say the stimulus did more harm than good -- they are demonstrably incorrect. In others, they don’t like the growth of government and think doing nothing would have been better. Or else they think Obama’s priorities have been all wrong.

Americans are unhappy with Washington because the economy still looks like it is a mess. They don’t want to hear that it would have been worse otherwise or that it was all Bush’s fault. They want results -- more jobs and more prosperity and lower deficits. But no one can make that happen overnight. Certainly not Obama and certainly not Congress or Washington regulators. You can’t blame Obama if he finds it ironic that the very people who want the government to do a lot less complain that it hasn’t done more to solve their problems -- problems that most economists blame on private-sector greed and a lack of better government regulation.

So is Obama failing? If we judge by the public mood, by poll numbers, by the likelihood of big Democratic losses in the November elections, absolutely. If we judge by whether he’s lived up to what he promised in difficult circumstances, the answer is he’s doing quite well.

We’ll just have to wait and see. If the legislation and policy changes he’s implemented lead to a more stable economy and financial system, with more health care at prices society can afford, if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to an acceptable outcome, if his debt commission produces a sensible approach that is adopted despite the obvious pain it will cause, then we’ll eventually reward him with good grades. If not, there’ll be no shortage of F’s painted over his name.




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