The Obama Administration is a work in progress, and a fair-minded report card would feature far more incompletes than letter grades. Still, one may venture some interim judgments.
On the positive side, the President has put in place a competent White House and Executive Branch, which seem to be functioning reasonably smoothly and with no more than the usual quota of leaks and recriminations. While it is hard to understand why the Administration has been so slow to make nominations for so many key positions, it is reasonable to hope that most will be filled early this year. In domestic policy, the President and his economic team managed to stave off a second Great Depression and to enact a stimulus package that lifted growth and employment modestly above the levels they would otherwise have reached. As well, the President appears likely to achieve some version of health care reform. In foreign policy, Mr. Obama’s conciliatory tone and commitment to multilateralism have improved America’s standing, especially among European publics. And he seems on track to draw down American forces in Iraq more or less on schedule.
But the President has encountered his share—perhaps more than his share—of disappointments and failures as well. Abroad, the concrete gains from his policy of engagement are hard to discern. Despite intense Administration efforts, meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks seem no more likely than when he took office. His decision to reverse the Bush Administration’s commitment to robust anti-missile emplacements in Poland and the Czech Republic yielded no reciprocal gesture from Russia. The Iranians’ response to his proposal for defusing (at least temporarily) the nuclear crisis is disappointing, as is the continuing refusal of both Russia and China to support tougher sanctions against the Islamic Republic. His decision to reduce (at least rhetorically) the emphasis on democracy and human rights in American foreign policy does not seem to have eased relations with those countries—such as China and Egypt—that in the past have been most resentful of such pressure.
Results have been disappointing on the domestic front as well. In the spring, Administration officials predicted that the stimulus package would cap unemployment at 8 percent. As of this writing, the jobless rate is above 10 percent and will probably go higher before beginning to subside sometime in 2010. The Administration itself forecasts above-average unemployment for years to come, and its proposals for additional job generation seem fragmentary at best. Efforts to stem the tide of housing foreclosures got off to a slow start and have yet to make a major dent in the problem, which may well get worse instead of better.
While the financial system has been stabilized, the Administration’s decision not to remove most “toxic assets” from the books of major banks has contributed to a credit contraction that is generating liquidity problems for perfectly solvent businesses. And the Federal budget deficit, which came in at $1.4 trillion—nearly 10 percent of GDP—for FY2009 will total $9 trillion over the next decade, absent major policy changes. Already, there are signs that the global financial system will neither tolerate nor be able to sustain this course. Meanwhile, too, the dollar is plunging in world markets, and other countries are beginning to talk openly about alternatives to the dollar as the global reserve currency.
While the President remains personally popular, public opinion surveys point to declining support for many of his policies. And the people are signaling their disappointment with some of his key strategic choices. His decision to pursue comprehensive healthcare reform along with an economic rescue and recovery program has contributed to rising public concerns about spending and the budget deficit, and to the growing perception that he is trying to do too much. As Obama took office, 70 percent of Americans saw him as possessing “strong leadership qualities”, and 63 percent rated him as “firm and decisive.” As of late October, those figures had declined to 56 and 48 percent, respectively. Although we can only speculate about the relationship between these trends and the President’s extended reconsideration of the Afghanistan policy he had announced just this March with considerable fanfare, it is hard to believe that there is no connection. His deliberative decision-making style turns out to be a two-edged sword, at least in the court of public opinion.
In his dazzling speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, which catapaulted him onto the national stage, Barack Obama held out hope of healing the breach between Red and Blue America, a theme he continued during his lengthy presidential campaign. Even then, there were warning signs—in particular, the gap between his post-partisan tone and the substance of his agenda, which was in many respects less bipartisan than Bill Clinton’s had been in 1992. While he extended White House invitations to numerous Republicans early in his presidency, his decision to allow Democratic congressional leaders to draft the stimulus package contributed to the Republicans’ unanimous rejection of the final bill. By late summer, the partisan divide was as deep and bitter as it had been for many years.
We will never know what might have happened had the Administration adopted a different strategy. The results might have been no better. After all, the post-2008 remnant of the Republican Party is staunchly conservative. For the first time ever, the most liberal Republican senator is more conservative than is the most conservative Democrat. If for political purposes we define the political center as the point of overlap between the two parties, then the center has literally disappeared in the U.S. Congress, complicating the task of forging cooperation between the parties. Still, the President never tried very hard to render bipartisanship a matter of substance as well as tone, making it all but certain that he would not redeem an important promissory note he had issued to the American people during the campaign.
As Barack Obama took the oath of office in January, public trust in our political institutions stood near historic lows. A year later, it has not increased at all. We do not know why. But one may speculate that the gap between the large hopes his campaign engendered and the modest results his Administration has thus far produced offers at least a partial explanation.