Obama May Not Be the President Progressives Hoped For, But He's Still Getting Lots Done


What a difference six years makes! When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, people were literally dancing in the streets—as was the case in Philadelphia. Today, as Obama appears to be finding new muscles to flex in office, a great many of his earliest enthusiasts, who have been disappointed for years, are wondering if the candidate they believed in is coming to life.

“High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better,” wrote economist Paul Krugman in Rolling Stone, in a high-profile piece reconsidering and defending Obama's presidency. “Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.”

Krugman’s judgment came before Obama announced sweeping executive actions on immigration, protecting from deportation 40 percent of undocumented immigrants and single-handedly overturning five decades of anti-Cuba policy. Other positive assessments have ensued, causing speculation about a new and more powerful Obama.

“Obama seized the agenda, saw his initiative dominating the front pages and television news discussions and sent Republicans in Congress scrambling,” wrote the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, about the Cuba initiative. “This could well be the template for much of the next two years.”

While many pundits are focusing on the future, a more pressing question arises. Have progressives been missing the boat on Obama’s accomplishments in office?

Those on the political left have been wringing their hands for years on almost every issue. Yes, Obama has brought most of the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, but he has replaced ground forces with targeted assassinations by drones. Yes, he expanded health insurance coverage to 10 million Americans, including many low-income people, but Obamacare didn’t control premium costs. Yes, he finally acted on immigration, finally supports same-sex marriage, and his Justice Department is finally permitting states to legalize marijuana in different ways. These results have taken time, and they emerged with Obama not taking leadership positions, not driving the debate and seemingly coming around—at least as the public sees it—later and not sooner.

The list of disappointments is much longer and substantial. Obama bought into right-wingers' obsession with the federal debt and put future Social Security cuts on the negotiating table with House Republicans, despite a growing retirement security crisis affecting tens of millions of Americans. He has supported trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership that keep suppressing wages, as jobs are outsourced overseas. He has embraced the growth of an unconstitutional national security state and gone after whistleblowers and journalists who pointed it out. He failed to achieve meaningful new gun controls despite massacres in schools and other settings.

These domestic disappointments have left progressives more than jaded. Yet the reassessments of Obama and his team (such as this New Yorker profile of UN Ambassador Samantha Power) tend to say that Obama has never been a wide-eyed idealist but a man who simply wants to get stuff done. What's possible, but less than ideal, is at the core of the Obama reappraisals.       

By some measures the country is better off today than it was in 2008 when Obama was elected amid a terrible economic crisis. But the poetry of candidate Obama has been replaced with the dull prose of a technocratic governing style. His adminstration has been endlessly pummeled in headlines across the political spectrum, yet Obama has largely ignored the critics and forged ahead to get results in often-compromised ways. But they are still results, Krugman and others argue, even if they are devoid of the poetry.

“I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care less about his approval rating,” Krugman concluded. “I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.”

This week, Gallup reported that the “U.S. Economic Confidence Index” was more positive than negative for the first time since 2008, “a possible sign that Americans are feeling the accelerating economic recovery.” This is the classic Obama-era statistic—the figure was only plus 2 percent. Needless to say, 48 percent of those polled by Gallup weren’t optimistic about the economy. In a sense, pundits reappraising Obama either see a glass half-empty or a glass half-full.

Krugman’s defense of Obama is serious. He starts by noting that 10 million people who lacked health insurance have now obtained it. Those Americans now have more economic security, he said, “because they now have a guarantee of coverage if they lose or change jobs.” He said Obamacare has confirmed “the conservative healthcare nightmare,” which is that once it “has been put in place, it will be very hard to undo.” On the other hand, Obamacare didn’t socialize medicine, didn’t cap insurance costs, and didn’t treat healthcare as an individual right, like free speech, disappointing many.

Krugman next cites financial reform, adopted after Wall Street’s housing market bubble and crash sparked 2008’s Great Recession. Big banks and their irresponsible executives mostly faced no consequences other than dented balance sheets. But Krugman says that the Dodd-Frank financial reform law wasn’t toothless—as evidenced by recent moves in Congress where the 2015 federal budget restored taxpayer bailouts to risky investments. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by Elizabeth Warren before she was elected U.S. senator, has helped predatory lending victims, Krugman points out.

Obama has also made some progress on inequality, Krugman says. He let income tax cuts adopted in George W. Bush’s administration lapse, raising the average tax rate on the top 1 percent of 2013 earners to 33.6 percent, compared to 28.1 percent in 2008. He significantly expanded Medicaid, state-run healthcare for the poor, under Obamacare. Meanwhile, joblessness is down, from 10 percent in 2009, to now under 6 pecent. And he has seen the adoption of new federal sentencing guidelines that have lessened some areas of drug crimes, such as crack-powder cocaine disparities and allowing drug offenders to seek early release. (Rolling Stonelisted “55 figures that prove President Obama has accomplished more than you may realize,” in a sidebar to Krugman.)

Obama’s year-end press conference started with the president reciting a long list of accomplishments: “The strongest year for job growth since the 1990s.” “America is now the number -ne producer of oil, the number-one producer of natural gas.” “Our rescue of the auto industry is officially over.” “Ten million Americans have gained health insurance.” “We are leading the global fight to combat Ebola.” “Our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.” “We’re put more people back to work than all other advanced countries combined.” “We have the highest high school graduation [rate] that we’ve seen in a long time… record numbers of young people attending college.”

While Obama always says that more needs to be done, it is clear his administration is hardly idle. Take the environment. Obama has raised fuel efficency standards for cars, SUVs and light trucks, pushed solar generation and adopted new EPA regulations that will force old coal plants to close. While Obama has ducked making a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline, he told reporters at the year-end press conference that Keystone “is not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers. It’s not even going to be a nominal benefit,” whereas the new EPA carbon pollution rules will force power plants to cut emissions 30 percent by 2030.

These trade-offs, coupled with Obama’s pragmatism, make him more of a technocrat than a warm politician who makes the public feel he is on their side. Yet it’s also hard to deny that Obama has pushed the federal government center-left, despite every obstacle Republicans in Congress, red-state governors and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown at him.

What seems to be different as Obama enters his final two years is that he no longer feels obliged to make good on his 2008 pledge to cultivate a post-partisan political culture in Washington. That notion, assisted by endless Republican naysaying, has been relegated to the dustbin of history. We will see what emerges in 2015, such as Obama’s creation of a commission charged with reforming how local police departments have access to surplus Pentagon weapons.

Cynics will always find shortcomings in Obama’s—and any president’s—record. But in an era where Congress has been derided as a mostly do-nothing institution for years, the same cannot be said of his White House. Whether or not that’s emotionally satisfying is another matter. But by many measures, Barack Obama has been a substantial and accomplished president. 

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