Archive for March 10th, 2012

President Obama: One of the Greats?

This image is taken from the Washington Monthly which has a story The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.   I’ve been puzzling my liberal friends and annoying/shocking my conservative buddies by repeating my prediction that President Barack Obama will likely be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.

Liberals believe that Obama has somehow not been strong enough, some claim he’s been “GOP Lite.”  He caved on the debt ceiling, extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t stood up to the GOP.   They see his efforts to make deals with Speaker Boehner as having been weak and foolish.  To many on the left Obama is a militarist who has continued US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing what he needs to to curry favor with the Pentagon.   Moreover, he’s too close to Wall Street, having used advisors like Summers, Geithner and other “insiders” instead of embracing radical reform.   Instead of pushing change, he’s trying to be liked by Republicans who want only to destroy him.

Republicans think Obama has been dangerously radical, weak on defense, and unfriendly to business.   They see the modest compromise ridden health care reform the Democrats see as sometimes worse than doing nothing as some kind of radical dangerous burst of socialism.  Sometimes the criticism is bizarre.   Newt Gingrich warns that Obama has been “pretending” to be reasonable for four years in order to slam his agenda down our throats after his re-election.

The often bizarre beliefs his opponents hold about him is indicative of Obama being a transforming President - when the country is in transition, many people don't like it!

In short, the extremes of each party have tended towards seeing anything not in line with their perspective as bad.  They are in two parallel universes, showing the depth of the partisan division over Obama’s Presidency.

Given tea party noise, continuing unease about the economy and the partisan divide it’s easy to miss all that the President has accomplished.  That list of fifty accomplishments is pretty substantive, and beyond what most Presidents do in their first four years.  Now some on the right might think some of these accomplishments are mistakes — policies we shouldn’t have engaged in.   But that’s a different issue.   In terms of getting things done, Obama has been an effective activist President.

Rather than put together an argument about why he may be destined for greatness, I’ll channel an historian from the year 2050…hold on, turning out the lights, starting the seance…OK….

“Why do we consider President Obama to have been one of America’s great Presidents?  Well, in 2008 the United States slipped into a severe recession caused by thirty years of deficit spending and current account deficits as the country binged on cheap consumer goods produced elsewhere and bought with borrowed money.  Many said the US was in collapse, and predictions ranged from complete breakdown in authority to a weakened state groveling to the Chinese to keep them from dumping dollars and treasury notes.   Two dubious wars had divided the country, harmed the economy, tarnished America’s image and seemed to symbolize US decline.

President Obama came into this horrible situation and arguably prevented the Great Recession from becoming a depression.  Forging a compromise heavy on tax cuts to help please Republicans, the stimulus package of 2009 helped save the US and arguably the globe from a spiraling depression.   Obama also continued President Bush’s policy of rescuing the credit markets with the Troubled Asset Relief program, which also staved off depression and prevented a banking collapse.

His first years were rough, even as he engineered major changes like a health care reform program that over time has cut US health care costs and which now enjoys immense support.  He supported the civil rights movement of that era by ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” carefully bringing the Pentagon on board to undercut opposition.  In foreign policy he not only patched up relations with the rest of the world (being more popular abroad than at home during his first term), famously getting along with leaders of diverse views, but he also took a stance for freedom, helping push out dictators in the Arab Spring.

When the global economy turned around his second term, his popularity grew, and many now credit President Obama with saving the US from decline as a superpower.  He recast US policy as one of working with like minded states to pragmatically solve problems, beginning the alternative energy cooperative that has allowed a smooth shift from fossil fuels to alternatives in a way that did not bring about a feared oil catastrophe.   As one biographer put it, ‘President Obama is a major reason why ‘peak oil’ became simply a transition, not a disaster.’

His shift of emphasis from hard power to soft power, as well as limited American involvement won support at home from a public weary of middle east wars, and caused other countries to recognize the need for cooperation – America isn’t going to do it alone. It paid dividends when diplomatic pressure forced Iran to give up its nuclear program and gave room to Iran’s dissidents who ultimately forced the clerics to move towards a truly democratic and modern Iran.  Obama’s shift also turned the US into a kind of hero to the Islamic world, credited with helping end the regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.   Without a mix of US pressure and support the Saudi Royal Family would have never ceded power without a fight.

Historical causality is often hard to label.   Things had gotten so bad by 2008 that perhaps any leader would have become great, the times can make the man.   But President Obama’s pragmatism, willingness to compromise, and recognition that the US could no longer say “we lead, you follow” helped guide the US from its unipolar moment to its position of multipolar cooperative shared leadership.   It was in his second term that the initial plans were created to recast the power grid, restructure the American tax code (which had become byzantine in its complexity by 2008) and ultimately put the US on a path of sustainable success…”

Bringing about "change you can believe in" doesn't happen overnight.

The reality is that President Obama took charge at a time when the country was in transition, and at this point, if you see above the noise and uncertainty, there are real signs that we’re making progress.   We’re not only starting to restructure the economy but recast our role in the world and set up policies with an eye on a very different future than the world of the 20th Century.

Yes, his foes will never accept that — many still hate FDR, and no one denies his greatness.  But President Obama is in the midst of a transformative Presidency, starting the country on a new direction.   That is a recipe for greatness.