White House Scorecard for 2009: Why Obama Gets at Best a 'C" Grade

Barack Obama told Oprah last year that he deserved a "B+" for his first year in office. If he were being more honest, he'd give himself a "C."

I've been willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt simply because he is not George W. Bush. The Bush presidency was a Haley's Comet of badness, the sort of presidency that America can survive only because it occurs once every 80 years. The only historical events comparable to the Bush presidency are Herbert Hoover's and James Buchanan's.

All the same, Obama has not had a stellar start. In fact, I'd argue that the most disappointing part of the Obama presidency so far has been its ordinariness. Despite a lot of initial progressive hype, Barack Obama campaigned as an establishment Beltway Democrat and so far has governed no differently.

So while it's nice that the Obama administration has walked the economy back from total collapse this year, I'm not sure this is really an achievement. After all, letting economies collapse is not something presidents are supposed to do. Similarly, while it's good that American officials are no longer belligerently threatening to invade every single Middle Eastern country, that's really nothing to be too proud of. Because let's face it: if your strongest asset as a president is that you aren't enthusiastically thrusting the United States into an endless string of foreign wars, you aren't setting your expectations high enough.

The biggest mistake of Obama's presidency so far has been limiting the scope of the fiscal stimulus that Congress passed earlier this year. When Obama and his economic team were crafting the stimulus plan, they essentially decided to make a Goldilocks policy that would be neither too hot nor too cold. The thinking was that too much stimulus would be too hot and would lead to higher inflation and larger budget deficits, whereas too little stimulus would be too cold and would result in a massive depression. So instead, the administration compromised with "centrists" in the Senate to get a "just right" policy that would gradually walk the economy back from the cliff but that would still leave massive unemployment in its wake.

Similarly disappointing has been the administration's kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry that caused 2008's economic meltdown. As Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi has depressingly documented, Obama's inner circle of economic advisors is larded with officials who have bought into Washington consensus economic dogma. The result has been that bailed-out banks have grown rich on taxpayer dollars while doing virtually nothing to increase lending to small businesses.

And then there were the health care bill negotiations. The big problem here was that the White House refused to get its hands dirty in policy negotiations and left many of the key provisions in the bill up to the Senate. This, combined with the fact that the administration had cut sweetheart deals with the pharmaceutical lobby, ensured that Senate "centrists" would be able to gut the portions of the bill that were opposed by special interests despite being politically popular. This is why the final Senate legislation contained no public health insurance plan, no Medicare buy-in and no drug reimportation.

Now despite all this, I'm still fairly sympathetic to the fact that Barack Obama was dealt a lousy hand of cards upon entering office. After all, inheriting two unfinished wars and the worst recession since the 1930s would give any president a headache and would force any president to make unseemly compromises. But at the same time, working really hard at solving problems is a key part of any president's job description. Presidents that break the all-time record for most vacation days after only five years in office are mercifully the exception and not the rule. If Obama wants to become a good president, he'll have to do better than just not being Bush.


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