Obama’s Non-Disappointing Presidency

By
Photo: CHUCK KENNEDY/AFP/Getty

The one enemy Barack Obama cannot slay is the pervasive sense of disappointment that surrounds his presidency. Oh, he can persuade his supporters that some good things happened, and he has a good chance to persuade a majority of voters that he’s better than the alternative. But the argument that his presidency has actually been good is so hopelessly ambitious that he won’t even attempt it, cautiously assigning himself an “incomplete” grade for his first term. Various curtain-raisers for his speech at the DNC — see Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post — have all taken this disappointment as a given and have tried to explain the question of how Obama has let us down from various (mutually exclusive) standpoints.

I may be the only person in America to think this way, but here goes: I’m not disappointed in Obama at all. His first term has actually exceeded my expectations.

This certainly is not to say that nothing has gone wrong. Plenty of things have gone wrong. Most of them are outside Obama’s control: a worldwide economic collapse, a brilliantly executed Republican strategy to withhold cooperation for everything, and a series of self-defeating bungles by the Democratic Congress (which has somehow escaped the endless orgy of liberal self-recrimination.) What’s more, Obama has screwed up plenty of things himself, most notably his doomed strategy of trying to secure a deficit agreement in 2011, his failure to keep pressing on financial reform, and his broad acceptance of the Bush administration’s civil liberties rollback.

But I expected Obama to screw some things up, because even the best presidents screw some things up. (Franklin Roosevelt: “Sorry about those Japanese-American concentration camps and needlessly inducing a second recession.”) The relevant standard here is, has Obama accomplished more or less than I expected? Having been just 8 years old when Jimmy Carter left office, my basic standard of reference for a Democratic presidency is the Clinton administration, which enacted some nice fiscal reforms in its first year, which contributed to the growth and fairness of an economy that was already on the upswing, then suffered a crushing defeat in its attempts to reform health care. Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that he himself regarded as just barely more good than bad (he called it “decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit”) and a rooster-claiming-credit-for-the-sunrise “Balanced Budget Act.” There was plenty of general good governance alongside a fairly infuriating affair, which didn’t rise to the level of impeachment-worthy but was, to say the least, annoying. Overall, I found Clinton's presidency to be pretty good.

I expected Obama’s legislative record to exceed Clinton’s, but by less than it actually did. The domestic reforms embedded in the stimulus alone — the scope of which is described in Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal — did more to reshape the face of government in areas like education and energy than Clinton managed in eight years. Then you had health-care reform (which I hoped would pass, but would not have been shocked to be filibustered to death), financial reform (which I expected to fail completely), gays in the military, and so on. It is true that, as stimulus, Obama’s economic recovery bill was not nearly large enough to restore full employment. But for some perspective on its scale, recall that Clinton (facing a sluggish recovery from a far milder recession) proposed a $19.5 billion stimulus as his first major legislative measure, negotiated it down to $15.4 billion, and finally saw the whole thing collapse. In that light, Obama’s $787 billion bill looks like a fairly impressive political achievement.

Now, perhaps comparing Obama to Clinton’s record is setting the bar too low. Yet you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson to find a Democratic president who effected as significant change as Obama has, and L.B.J.’s presidency was not exactly an unmitigated blessing.

The common flaw in the parade of what-went-wrong first-term retrospectives is that they all lack any plausible historical baseline. Nobody was ecstatic with the performance of the Clinton administration. Carter was a nearly unmitigated disaster. Lyndon Johnson was hated by all sides and driven from office. In order to find a compelling counterexample of a presidency that fulfilled some larger destiny, Politico’s John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin reach all the way back to John F. Kennedy:

Obama has not been especially creative in using the moral platform of the presidency to force change. This is an arena in which all presidents, naturally cautious and self-protective, tread carefully. But the contrast with some of Obama’s own role models is notable. When JFK faced an integration crisis at the University of Mississippi in 1963, he gave an Oval Office speech saying: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” When Obama decided to endorse gay marriage, he gave an interview to a morning television anchor and made clear that he was merely stating his personal preference and that the issue should be left to the states.

This is a useful historical perspective to consider disappointment with Obama, all right, but not in the way Harris and Martin think it is.

Kennedy campaigned on liberal priorities like federal aid for education and health care for the elderly, but found his agenda bottled up by conservative southern Democrats in Congress. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot, in their book The Liberal Hour, detail the tortured, arms-length relationship between the civil rights movement and Kennedy, who supported integration but need segregationist support to move his domestic agenda. Kennedy had promised during the campaign to end housing segregation “with the stroke of a pen,” but reneged, prompting activists to mail pens to the White House. He nominated segregationist judges and had a busload of Freedom Riders arrested (as a compromise, to keep them from being lynched), and met with civil rights activists who “scorched [him] with anger.” After his assassination, Americans came to look back on Kennedy’s presidency through a golden-hued nostalgia, which is what allows writers like Harris and Martin to present Kennedy as a glamorous poet-king who represented something larger than the pedestrian struggles that actually consumed his presidency.

That feeling, more than a legislative record, is the missing quality so many people long for in Obama — the sense of a presidency filled with glamour and purpose, not tedious negotiations with the Senate Finance Committee. Certainly Obama promised to represent something greater than ordinary politics. So did George W. Bush. And Clinton. And every presidential candidate.

The Kennedy myth perfectly embodies the amnesiac quality of that longing. Kennedy’s presidency was experienced as a frustrating series of half-measures and moral compromises. There can be fleeting moments of inspiration, but the lived reality of politics can never feel inspiring. The best you could hope for out of Obama is that, a couple decades from now, people will wistfully opine that today’s politics lack the elegant idealism of the bygone Obama era, and nobody will remember that it didn’t feel that way at the time.