Obama's Substantive First Year II

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A year ago this week, in even colder temperatures than recently, a young, charismatic, black president-elect gazed across the Mall in Washington DC and gave an Inaugural address that some felt was anti-climactic. It feels like an age ago, and so I went back to see what my first impression was:

"From the moment he gave his election night victory speech, Obama has been signaling great caution in the face of immense challenges. The tone is humble... He is not a messiah and does not act or speak like one. He's a traditionalist in many ways."

A year on, that seems like a good call to me. Those on the left who foolishly saw him as a revolutionary are in a major sulk right now. Those on the right who still see him as a leftist ideologue keep railing against the reality in front of their eyes - as if contemplating a small-c conservative black Democratic president is too much for their brains to grasp. To those who hadn't observed or read or listened closely enough to Obama, the first year therefore remains a baffling record. But to my mind, it is almost exactly what I expected and yet much more than I could have hoped for.

Obama is a liberal pragmatist in politics and a traditional conservative in his understanding of the presidency. Once you grasp this, his first year makes much more sense.

He has marshalled conservative constitutional norms - against the radical claims of Bush and Cheney with respect to the presidency - in defense of a liberal restoration of the importance of government. This has made for a frustrating year for those who want instant results - because he has often deferred to Congress; or those who want short-term tactical political coups - because he prefers strategy to tactics. But for anyone taking the long view, it is hard to see where Obama has really gone wrong.

What mistakes has he made?

His inheritance is one even Republicans concede was the worst since Reagan's: a global economy spiraling into a possible Second Great Depression; a deficit exploding just as long-term debt was poised to enter the red zone; failing banks; an imploding car industry; two flailing wars; a deeply polarized country; a mortgage crisis; a collapse in America's moral standing after the Cheney torture regime; 30 million Americans with no health insurance; crumbling domestic infrastructure; and eight wasted years in the fight to mitigate climate change.

So where did he go wrong? Was the stimulus too big or too small? In retrospect, it looks like a pretty good balance in putting a bottom under the economy without adding too much debt. Was the bank rescue insufficient, as many liberals at the time argued? Nope. If you judge by results, Obama got it right: no nationalization and targeted bailout money led to a stunning turn-around in which many of the major recipients of aid were able to pay it back within a year. Last week, Obama announced a big new tax on the banks to get back the rest and is preparing a major new bill for financial re-regulation. In other words, he didn't succumb to leftist populsim or right-wing ideology. He neither attacked the banks nor let them off the hook. And it worked. The global economy has since stabilized - something that was by no means inevitable.

Did Obama make a mistake by sticking with his campaign pledge to reform and expand health insurance in such a perilous economic time? My view is: no. He crafted a compromise bill that would provide insurance to 30 million people, reduce the deficit, and bring the drug and insurance companies along. Such a result enraged the left, and sent the right into a tizzy of fury - but it will endure as the biggest social reform since Lyndon Johnson if it survives the Massachusetts special election. Did he err by allowing the Congress to take the lead? Well: the Clintons tried dictating to Congress and look how that turned out. No president has succeeded in this area before, in good times and bad. Obama got his reform in a year of economic crisis. The further you remove yourself from this, the more impressive the achievement is.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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