TEN MONTHS IN…. President Obama’s detractors on the right believe the president has racked up some accomplishments, all of them awful. The more widespread impression among news outlets and many who voted for the president is that Obama hasn’t accomplished much at all.
Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg has a contrarian piece this weekend, arguing that the opposite is actually true. If health care reform is completed by mid-January, Weisberg argues, the president will deliver a State of the Union address in a couple of months “having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency.”
We are so submerged in the details of [the health care] debate — whether the bill will include a “public option,” limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox — that it’s easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government’s role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.
Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February — combined with the bank bailout package — prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain’s economic advisers, on this point: “The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do — it is contributing to ending the recession,” he said. “In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent.”
When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush’s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America’s global role.
Ranking presidents by first-year accomplishments is kind of tricky, but Weisberg’s case is hardly dismissible. President Obama, faced with inherited challenges no U.S. leader has seen in generations, and restricted by the first Senate in American history to abandon majority rule altogether, is probably fairly pleased with his first 10 months.
The success of his first year will be largely dependent on the outcome of the health care debate, but Obama may soon be able to point to his first 12 months in office and say he rescued the economy from a depression, passed the health care reform bill Americans have been waiting decades for, approved most progressive budget bill in a generation, got a Supreme Court nominee confirmed, lifted the ban on stem-cell research, passed a national service bill, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed new regulations of the credit card industry, passed new regulation of the tobacco industry, achieved some key counter-terrorism successes, and helped improve the nation’s standing on the world stage.
There have been plenty of painful missed opportunities, but as first years go, this isn’t bad. Imagine what Obama’s record would be like if Republicans hadn’t gone mad and if supermajorities weren’t needed on every vote in the Senate. (Or better yet, imagine what Obama’s record would be like if he entered office in 2001, with a strong economy and massive surplus.)
Obviously, icebergs loom. If the economy continues to struggle, the Democratic base remains frustrated, and lawmakers decide they’d rather duck the big issues in an election year, 2010 may yet prove to be a disaster. If Democrats lose their majority in either chamber, Obama’s agenda is finished.
But in the meantime, Weisberg’s piece may be contrarian, but it’s a perspective the White House will be endorsing heartily in mid-January.