How to grade President Obama’s first year in office? As Zhou Enlai replied when asked his opinion of the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to say.” Obama has set in motion a host of bold reforms that could break some of America’s deepest political impasses, or cause massive disillusionment if they fail. The big question now is whether his tenacity matches his audacity.
The string of “incompletes” on the Obama report card, however, hasn’t kept partisans and ideologues from rushing to judgment. To Charles Krauthammer, the President is “a man of perpetual promise” who has “achieved nothing.” That must be a relief, since the conservative columnist also maintains that Obama is a European-style social democrat bent on expanding government at home and appeasing America’s foes abroad. The backbone issue also arises on the Left. Many liberals fret that Obama isn’t tough enough to face down Republican obstructionists, or keep balky Democratic moderates in line. They also worry that his pragmatism and coolly logical approach to governing lacks the power to stir progressive souls. At this stage, though, all such judgments seem as premature as the Nobel Committee’s risible decision to award him a Peace Prize.
The President does have one big accomplishment under his belt: preventing the U.S. economy from sliding into the abyss. As Alan Blinder notes, the Administration managed to rescue the nation’s largest banks and get a hefty stimulus bill through Congress with impressive dispatch. That vigorous response, buttressed by an open-handed Fed, surely played a part in the stock market’s healthy gains since the Inauguration, as well as the economy’s return to growth (3.5 percent in the third quarter). But even if the recession is technically over, millions of working families are hurting. White House economists say unemployment will hit double digits soon and stay high well into next year. Consumer confidence is low, credit is still scarce, and there will likely be more foreclosures next year as mortgage rates reset.
Washington’s hyperactivity, moreover, seems to have awakened fears of “big government”, especially among independent voters who hold the balance in U.S. politics. There’s simmering anger in Middle America over taxpayer bailouts of greedy speculators and inept auto companies, reinforced by a sense that the government has intruded too deeply into the workings of private companies. None of this has led Obama to temper his ambitions. He is also trying to fix the health care system, create a new regulatory framework for finance, pass a complicated “cap and trade” scheme for carbon emissions, and turn around failing public schools. He’s promised to take on the highly combustible issues of entitlements and immigration reform just as soon as he can.
On the security front, he is attempting to check a spreading insurgency in Afghanistan, abet Pakistan’s struggle against extremists, and withdraw U.S. troops without destabilizing Iraq; shut down nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea en route to a “world free of nuclear weapons”; rekindle Middle East peace talks; and meet his one-year deadline for closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. Give the man his due: He’s not dodging the tough ones.
But by taking so many challenges on at once, Obama risks diluting his focus and making a themeless pudding of his presidency. His determination to solve stubborn public problems seems commendable, but his frenetic activity has yet to gel into a coherent story about the kind of society he wants America to be. The narrative of Obama’s presidency so far is more about him than us.
In any case, the President seems headed toward an historic breakthrough on health care reform that would at last make universal coverage a reality. As Democrats coalesce around a reform blueprint, however, public skepticism has grown to the point where a plurality now say they oppose the President’s plan. One reason is sticker shock: one-plus trillion dollars is a lot to spend now, even if reform won’t “add one penny” to the deficit, as Obama has pledged. Progressive fiscal hawks (like me) are concerned that congressional negotiators will water down the bill’s “pay fors” in a scramble for votes. They also suspect the final product will be weak on containing fast-rising medical costs—the issue that matters most for working families and businesses. Credible ways to cut health cost growth, including limits on the Federal tax break for employer-paid coverage and a new commission with real powers to rationalize and discipline Medicare spending, face stiff opposition from powerful party constituencies.
To his credit, Obama has tried to keep cost control front and center, even as congressional leaders have indulged in a sideshow debate over the public option. A government plan could expand choice, but none of the versions contemplated on Capitol Hill would attack the fundamental driver of high costs: An anachronistic fee-for-service payment system that encourages more care rather than better care. The danger here is that the final bill will simply fold forty million or so uninsured Americans into an unreformed system, with no effective checks on medical cost inflation. To prevent that from happening, Obama ultimately will have to impose his vision of reform—and his political will—on congressional Democrats.
That’s true, too, of his bold promise to rein in the unsustainable costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. With the economy still shaky, this obviously is not the moment to impose fiscal austerity. But it’s not too soon for the President to start laying the groundwork for fiscal restraint and entitlement reform once the economy returns to full strength. Otherwise, our mountainous public debts will drain capital from the private economy, force interest rates up, and likely scare off the foreign lenders who are keeping the U.S. economy afloat.
Finessing philosophical cleavages within his own party also will be key to Obama’s success on foreign policy. Although conservatives have lambasted the President as a serial apologist, the public strongly approves of his efforts to burnish America’s tarnished brand. By acknowledging U.S. mistakes and acting promptly to correct them—his ban on torture, for instance—Obama morally disarms America’s critics and shifts the onus back to the extremists and rogue regimes behind the world’s worst conflicts.
Of course, reducing anti-Americanism is a precondition for a more effective U.S. foreign policy; it is not the policy itself. It’s also true that Obama’s emphasis on diplomatic engagement has yet to bear much fruit. North Korea is still offering to sell us the same package of faux concessions it’s peddled before, Iran remains determined to develop a nuclear fuel cycle, and neither Russia nor China is interested in making either regime pay a steeper price for its intransigence.?
The President’s overriding security challenge, of course, is Afghanistan. He is treading a fine line between buttressing U.S. forces so they can check the Taliban’s advance and keeping our military footprint as small as possible so as not to spark a wider nationalist uprising against an American “occupation.” Meanwhile, public support for what he has consistently called “a war of necessity” is eroding amid a sickening spike in U.S. casualties. The key question for Obama is whether Democrats have the stomach for continuing the fight: Fully 61 percent oppose sending more U.S. troops. Should Obama instead heed his military advisors and escalate, he could find himself in the awkward position of waging war with more backing from Republicans than from his own party.
Whatever course he chooses, the President will need his party’s forebearance and support to succeed. If Democrats fall out over Afghanistan, he won’t be able to sustain a coherent policy, and the public could lose confidence in his party’s
ability to manage the nation’s security. This would be a calamity for the country. It would also throw a lifeline to today’s rudderless Republicans, allowing them to resurrect the old bugaboo of Democrats as “soft on defense”, an albatross of an image only recently shed.
President Obama and his party have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lock in a new progressive majority in U.S. politics. There’s only one way to do this: govern effectively. In today’s terror-struck world, this means not only solving domestic problems but also keeping Americans safe. For his party, no less than for President Obama, Afghanistan could prove the biggest test of all.