So I’m at a golf fundraiser earlier this fall for a scholarship in the name of a beloved high-school classmate who died of cancer some years back. Before teeing off, a group of us chatted pleasantly... until we lurched onto politics, and one of my old friends, a bright and cheerful person and successful money manager in her mid-50s, observed that in her opinion, Obama has been a terrible president – “the worst president in my memory, anyway.”
Really, I wanted to say; does your memory not extend seven years? But I am not notably equable in such discussions, and there at the country club, at a fundraiser to endow a scholarship for students of color (our late friend was African-American), I didn’t feel like engaging in a pitched battle over the merits of first black President in U.S. history. I did however humbly promise Jane that I would at some point send her an email “conclusively refuting your appraisal of Obama.”
So, Jane, let me take out the three-wood and take a swing at it.
I’m not claiming Obama is a great president; I actually don’t think he’s temperamentally that well suited to the job. Ironically, at a moment when Republicans are clamoring to elect an outsider, we already have one in the White House. As a politician, Obama is the anti-Bill Clinton. Schmoozing and glad-handing; strategizing; crafting brilliant compromises; cultivating allies and dispensing opponents with glee: most politicians revel in this game. Not Obama. I see him as a professor or policy wonk who, by virtue of ambition, eloquence, and an appealing life story, ended up on the other side of the teleprompter. His distaste for politics shows in how he comes off: cerebral but aloof; perpetually disappointed; and a bit of a scold.
That said, I do believe he’s a person of conviction, and he has managed to bring some of these convictions to bear. How productive an administration has his been? I’ve mulled and culled and put together a scorecard. In no particular order except as these things occurred to me, Obama has:
dramatically expanded health care, bringing millions of Americans – 30 million and counting -- in from the cold;
pushed through the stimulus over resistance from deficit hawks in and out of government, overseeing fiscal policies that helped the US recovery, however imperfect, far outpace the European one, while saving the US auto industry, recouping almost all the bail-out money, and reinvigorating an economy that in one year alone – 2010 – created more private sector jobs than the Bush Administration did in eight years;
taken substantial steps to jump start the badly needed infrastructure spending that has broad support among Americans;
been instrumental in helping boost the minimum wage – another measure favored by the great majority of Americans;
helped states and Homeland Security save thousands of first-responder jobs threatened during the recession;
eliminated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees;
remained resolute on behalf of the reality of global warming and the importance of reducing carbon emissions;
frozen White House salaries, banned gifts from lobbyists to employees in the Executive Branch, banned anyone from working in an agency they had lobbied in previous years, and put strict limits on lobbyists’ access to the White House;
made the process of filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act more open, transparent and accessible;
taken steps to curtail the massive NSA data collection processes that infringed on citizens’ privacy and to establish adversarial arguments in FISA court proceedings;
made significant reductions in drug sentencing guidelines for non-violent prisoners, causing the first federal drop in the prison population in three decades and helping reduce mass incarceration in a country with the world’s highest proportion of its citizens imprisoned;
reversed an errant American foreign policy of reckless, ill-thought out, destructive and enormously costly foreign military adventures;
closed secret US detention facilities abroad, helping rein in a policy that outsourced interrogation and detention in order to put such actions beyond the reach of American laws and democratic debate;
prohibited the use of torture and released the relevant memos from the prior administration, over furious political objection, so that the American people could have an open discussion of the subject;
ended the military stop-loss policy, intensely unpopular with troops and their families and considered by many to be a back-door draft, that prevented over 120,000 troops from coming home even when their tour of duty ended;
helped scuttle the F-22 stealth fighter plane boondoggle, at a savings of $40 billion;
boosted spending for VA hospitals generally and significantly for mental-health services for vets;
expanded Pell grants for college students and reformed student loan programs to ease the crushing burden of student debt;
extended health coverage under the COBRA health insurance law for the unemployed from 9 months to 15 months;
steered the FCC to adopt strong net-neutrality rules to preserve the web as an equal-access structure;
ended the economic boycott of Cuba, opening the way for mutually beneficial economic relations and a great deal of development;
eliminated restrictions on embryonic stem cell research to promote important medical advances;
taken actions to help make child-care more affordable to lower-income working families;
and nominated two of the four women ever to serve on the US Supreme Court in the history of this country.
In closing, it’s worth noting that Obama did all this while cutting taxes for 95% of Americans, reducing the federal budget deficit from 9.8% of GDP in fiscal year 2009 under Bush to 2.9% of GDP in 2014 – and getting a huge thumbs-up from investors who, whatever their politics, have fueled a booming stock market, reversing the losses suffered under Bush and making the Obama administration arguably the greatest bull-market administration in US history, with the Dow Jones almost tripling its value during his tenure.
Of course, Republicans have principled disagreements with some of the measures I listed above (insofar as they espouse any principle beyond Reject Obama); and some on the left fault him for not taking these and other measures far enough. Many of the right-wing criticisms that plague Obama are canards easily refuted by readily available facts – that he is soft on illegal immigration (in fact, deportations in 2013 were three times as high as they were at the start of the Bush Administration); that he is soft on terrorists (cf Osama bin Laden, or the many thousands of drone strikes Obama has personally directed). But facts don’t deter the most implacable Obama-haters.
So what is the final tally on the Presidential scorecard? My own bet is that history will acknowledge -- positively -- the lasting significance of Obamacare. To be sure, it’s difficult to capture the ultimate meaning of a moment when you are in that moment, and time alone will firm up judgments. But the worst president in living memory?
Jane, I’ll give you a mulligan on that one.