Obama's Substantive First Year II


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.

His first Supreme Court nominee? Sonia Sotomayor was a smooth, shrewd choice, rewarding Hispanics (who support health reform by massive margins, by the way), and elevating a competent, moderate liberal. His war management? Again, you see the caution of the first Bush, led by Clinton and Gates at State and Defense. Obama kept the second Bush's timetable for Iraq withdrawal, dispatched three Somali pirates, intensified the drone attacks on al Qaeda, saw a huge drop in al Qaeda's popularity in the Muslim world, a huge rise in pro-American sentiment around the world, and recrafted an Afghanistan strategy that won both Democratic support and the enthusiasm of General Stanley McChrystal. I retain severe doubts about the future in both Iraq and Afghanistan and suspect both efforts to create stable states there are doomed. But I have learned to reserve judgment in the fog of war and neither of Obama's big decisions here seemed obviously misjudged. They seemed like the least worst option on the table.

More broadly, his quiet demotion of inflammatory rhetoric in the war on Jihadist terrorism in favor of talking softly and taking one Qaeda leader out at a time strikes me as a shrewder way to win this war than Bush's grandstanding. On Iran, he helped the Green Movement immensely by removing the "Great Satan" card from the Khamenei junta's weakening hand. If he can target sanctions precisely at the Revolutionary Guard, he could help some more. But his breakthrough was in understanding - as any conservative should - that this is the Iranians' revolution, not America's. And the job of the West is to get out of the way.

His only obvious failure has been Israel. He misjudged the intransigence of Netanyahu and the power of his support on Capitol Hill. But he will keep persisting in trying to rescue the Jewish state from the perils of its own hubris and paranoia.

And on the social issues, he has stepped right back to help unwind polarization, and allow society to evolve and federalism to work. By merely refusing to use federal agents to police states where medical marijuana has been legalized, he has all but ended cannabis prohibition in large swathes of the country without lifting a finger. Although his term saw marriage equality lose in Maine, it also saw gay marriage rights come to the US capital, Washington DC, and the debate shift so much that we are now watching a Reaganite conservative, Ted Olson, argue that the California initiative that denied marriage to gays violated the equal protection clause of the federal constitution.

He has also failed to end the cultural and partisan polarization in America. But he has not empowered it. The energy for this polarization has come from the hard left (which is angry at him) and the hard right, which, to a great extent, has gone completely bonkers in the wake of their defeat in 2008. This rabid conservatism - one that seeks more tax cuts as debt spirals, that thinks Gitmo is an asset in the war on terror, that wants no extension of health insurance, no bailouts, no stimulus - may well ride some populist anger to short term success at the ballot box (watch Massachusetts' by-election next Tuesday). But under Obama, the Republicans have become whiter, more extreme, more religious, and synonymous in the public mind with polarizing fugures like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn beck. This may be a good ratings strategy for a cableĀ  network like Fox News, but it's a highly risky one for a party attempting to win back the center.

And Obama himself? Suffice it to say that his first year revealed something we already knew. He is a very cool customer, a very shrewd strategist, and has also managed to marshall the stagecraft and elegance to inhabit the role of the presidency with more ease and grace than anyone since Reagan. Two years ago, a black president was unimaginable. Now it seems like background noise. Like all of Obama's revolutions, this was a quiet one. But in the eye of history, my guess is it will be seen as game-changing - for America and the world.

(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty.)