The Public Humanist

Obama: Not a Prophet, but a Good President

photo by Martin Schoeller

photo by Martin Schoeller

Many Americans, including this author, were ecstatic that Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election. As the 2012 election campaign moves into high gear, it is time to evaluate his time in office.

If we were choosing a national prophet, Obama would be in trouble. In his Inaugural Address ( he said: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” To be gentle, this admirable political sentiment was faulty as analysis of our partisan politics and thus the implicit prediction was miserably wrong. Obama has been confronted at every turn by stale political arguments. His response to such partisanship has been openness to compromise; that he continued his accommodating approach so long elicited criticism from some supporters.

Luckily for Obama, we are not electing a prophet; we are electing a chief executive. Do his first term accomplishments merit another term? In spite of the hyper-partisan politics, Obama has a significant record of accomplishment in three of the four areas he highlighted in his Inaugural Address: War, Economy, Health Care, and Schools.

War: “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.” He delivered on Iraq, and has a schedule for ending military involvement in Afghanistan. Moreover, he seized the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring. In his Inaugural, he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Obama deserves credit for the subtle role the US played in supporting the overthrow of Khadafi in Libya. His cautious approach to Syria is laudable. It is refreshing to see the US supporting self-determination. Obviously, no one knows if Tunisia, Egypt, Libya will make the difficult transition to democracy, but the US role, though minimal, has been positive.

For some critics such subtlety is a sign of weakness. After all, he has negotiated with (gasp!) Iran. However, such critics must then explain his strong military response to terrorism (e.g., Osama Bin Laden, drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). This use of power has been criticized from the left as Presidential overreach. While it is still too early to know if it makes the US safer, there is no doubt it is good policy for a Presidential election year.

Health care: this has been the Gordian knot of US politics for decades. In spite of the example of virtually all of Europe and in spite of decades of public opinion polls showing that the American people want better health care, the US has been unable to guarantee health care for all of its citizens. Given our history on this issue, some critics, assuming the Supreme Court would overturn the Affordable Care Act, criticized Obama for wasting political capital to get it passed. But his political judgment has now been vindicated. Even though the Act is not a perfect solution (it will not cover 100% of Americans), Obama deserves credit for this significant legislation. However, on this issue we should remember the German saying, “After the reform is before the reform.”

Economy: Obama earns good marks for his response to the economic crisis, the great recession that he inherited; his stimulus plan (combined with Bush’s “Troubled Asset Relief Program,” better known as TARP) staved off another depression. But Obama loses some points because he did not listen to his chief economic advisor, who recommended $300 million more in stimulus funds. More stimulus would have meant a more robust recovery. Of course, he may very well have been correct in his political judgment that, given partisan politics, he could not request the larger amount.

Those criticizing him for failure to deal with the federal deficit are dealing with a half-truth. Indeed, this country must get its fiscal house in order but not at the expense of economic recovery. Note also that Keynesian counter-cyclical finance includes repaying debt—when the economy is sound.

Obama’s economic policy has been bedeviled by amnesia and hyper-partisan politics. Criticism of Obama’s stimulus (even though similar in scope to George W. Bush’s massive rescue of financial institutions through TARP) is breath-taking in its audacity. But wait a minute, I’m a historian; it’s my profession to remember who did what, when, and why. Republicans who criticize deficit finance never believed that Keynesian finance rescued the US from the Great Depression in the first place (through that massive economic stimulus called World War II). So why should they admit they controlled the ship of state when the US hit the economic reefs? Why should they admit that the Bush tax cuts turned the Clinton surplus into an enormous deficit? To admit such truths would be political suicide; they want to defeat Obama, not reelect him. In other words this is politics as usual, similar to every election since the 1800 Adams-Jefferson election.

The Common Good? John Adams abhorred partisan bickering such as we have witnessed in this presidency (and so many others). But the founders’ hopes for a faction-free democracy focused on the common good were utopian. That a new constitution with specific provisions for countering factionalism (partisan politics) took effect in 1789, so soon after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, was an admission that the ideal was unattainable.

Since 1789, factionalism has often been strong. The common good has also been emphasized at various times, especially during national crises, such as the Civil War and the Great Depression. But given the structure of our government, it takes a major crisis and a landslide election, utterly submerging the opposition, before any administration can act with energy. And, in those circumstances, the humbled minority still contends that government actions do not represent the common good.

Barack Obama’s administration has been successful thus far in spite of extreme partisanship. But President Obama has failed in one promise—to end the hyper-partisanship of Washington politics, just as his predecessor failed. Success of course requires a willing partner.

Whoever wins the election will face serious challenges, in foreign relations, the economy, health care, the environment, funding the federal government. As a nation we have been most effective in responding to crises when we have acted with bipartisan cooperation.

Surely, now is a time for such cooperation; the common good requires no less.


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