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Judging President Obama’s First (And Possibly Only) Term

25 Feb 2012 12:19

Islam Times - In his essay on President Obama’s first term, James Fallows dismisses Obama’s conceit that he would prefer to be “a really good one-term” president than a “mediocre” president who served two terms ...

Islam Times: “The reality,” Fallows writes, “is that our judgment about ‘really good’ and ‘mediocre’ presidents is colored by how long they serve. A failure to win reelection places a ‘one-term loser’ asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.”

For Obama, it’s about more than the asterisk. The most important fact of Obama’s reelection campaign is that, if he wins, the single most important accomplishment of his second term will be protecting the gains of his first term. If he wins, the Affordable Care Act — barring a truly unexpected ruling from the Supreme Court — becomes the law of the land. If he wins, Dodd-Frank becomes the law on Wall Street. If he loses, both policies are likely to be either rolled back or hollowed out. Bush’s victory in the Gulf War withstood Bill Clinton’s election, and the Camp David agreement was not undone by Ronald Reagan. In Obama’s case, however, a failure to win a second term will not just color his accomplishments. It will decide their fate.

Moreover, if Obama did win a second term his accomplishments would be comparatively limited. He will not enjoy anything like the congressional majorities of his first two years again. He is likely to face a Republican House or a Republican Senate or both. What he can accomplish in terms of new legislation will thus depend on how much congressional Republicans want him to accomplish in terms of new legislation.

Though there’s some reason to believe that losing the 2012 election could empower more moderate factions in the GOP, anything beyond modest levels of cooperation would remain unlikely. Divided government is not the place for miracles. As such, it’s likely to be the legislation from Obama’s first term that decides his legacy and holds the most hope of addressing the country’s toughest policy problems. Of late, there have been a number of sweeping assessments of Obama’s first term. Andrew Sullivan’s essay in Newsweek was the most admiring. Obama, he writes, plays a “long game” that frustrates both his supporters and his detractors alike, but has led to an incredible record of success on his core priorities.

“The president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.”

Noam Scheiber’s article on “Obama’s Worst Year” — which is an excerpt from his new book on Obama’s economic team, “The Escape Artists” — is more critical. He argues that “Obama’s greatest vulnerability as a leader” has been his consistent misunderstanding of the opposition, his endless desire to cut a deal with Republicans. To Scheiber, Obama’s turn toward deficit reduction in 2011 was an unmitigated disaster. “His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.” The saving grace was his eventual recognition that confrontation was necessary. This pattern of extended passivity followed by miraculous recovery, Scheiber says, has been present throughout Obama’s career: It was there in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, his response to Jeremiah Wright, his health-care plan. “Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour,” Scheiber warns. Fallows’s piece is perhaps the most balanced of the three.

Obama “was unready for the presidency and temperamentally unsuited to it in many ways,” and yet, there has been a profound “underappreciation of his skills and accomplishments — an underappreciation that is as pronounced as the overestimation in those heady early days.” For Fallows, the best argument for Obama’s second term is that he has learned important lessons during his first. “The evidence suggests that given a second term, he would have a better chance of becoming the figure so many people imagined.” All three pieces are smart, perceptive and worth reading in full. But they all suffer from the same flaw: They don’t convincingly consider the counterfactual. Of course, the presidency is not a lab experiment. We cannot tweak a few variables and rerun the last few years to test their effect. In that way, reviewing the flaws in a presidency is a hard thing to do well, and an impossible thing to do perfectly. Every political pundit — indeed, every citizen — has ideas about what could have been done better. But they have no way to know if their ideas really would have led to a better outcome, or simply to new, and perhaps even worse, problems. It is not Sullivan, Scheiber, or Fallows’s fault that time only flows in one direction. What we do know is what Obama has actually done. Health-care reform. Dodd-Frank. The stimulus bill. The 2010 tax deal. The stepped-up campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan.

The raid on Osama bin-Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. Solyndra. The appointments of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The continuation of the Bush administration’s expansive view of executive authority, particularly as relates to the war on terror. The end of the Iraq War. For Obama’s presidency to be remembered as one of the most consequential in recent American history, he does not need a new strategy, or a new personality. He simply needs to win a second term so that he can protect the accomplishments of his first.
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