The conservative view of President Obama has straddled two difficult-to-reconcile portraits. One indicts him as a “Reagan of the left,” fundamentally (and, in their view, disastrously) altering the shape of the state. The other casts him as a hapless mediocrity, a Jimmy Carter redux. At the moment, the latter view is more in evidence — just in the last week, columns have appeared with headlines like “Is It Too Late for Obama to Rescue His Legacy?” and “The Failed Presidency of Barack Obama.”
On January 20, 2009, when Obama delivered his inaugural address as president, he outlined his coming domestic agenda in two sentences summarizing the challenges he identified: “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” Those were the four major areas of domestic reform: economic recovery measures, health-care reform, a response to climate change, and education reform. (To the justifiable dismay of immigration advocates, Obama did not call for immigration reform at the time, and immigration reform is now the only possible remaining area for significant domestic reform.) With the announcement of the largest piece of his environmental program last Monday, Obama has now accomplished major policy responses on all these things. There is enormous room left to debate whether Obama’s agenda in all these areas qualifies as good or bad, but “ineffectual” seems as though it should be ruled out at this point.
Certainly, when Obama unveiled his domestic ambitions, few thought to accuse him of setting the bar too low. In a speech before a joint session of Congress a month after his inauguration, which was the incoming president’s version of a State of the Union Address, Obama identified those same four priorities in more detail. This was about the time conservatives began to completely freak out; Charles Krauthammer, a voice of relative sobriety, called his speech “the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. president.”
It was not that, but Obama did call for quite a lot to get done. The response to the great recession included an $800 billion stimulus, a bank reorganization, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and the auto bailout. None of these measures completely satisfied anybody, but the failure of any of them might well have triggered a deep, Great Depression–like meltdown. Obama’s education reforms, while significant, have had a more modest effect. His race-to-the-top grants, tucked into the stimulus, unleashed a wave of standards-based reform nationally. He has made more modest progress in bringing accountability and broader access to pre-Kindergarten and college education; I predict Hillary Clinton will pick up the call for universal pre-K as a centerpiece of her 2016 domestic platform.
I’ve written quite a bit recently about Obama’s environmental agenda. One can question whether it will survive a legal challenge or successfully culminate in international cooperation, but there’s no doubt that it has fulfilled his original goal. In 2009, Obama promised to “double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years.” Since then, wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold. He likewise called for “a market-based cap on carbon pollution,” which is exactly what the new power-plant regulations would create.
Health-care reform has been the most controversial initiative of Obama’s presidency. Conservative opponents of national health insurance, and left-wing critics who object to government subsidy of private insurance, can still object philosophically to Obamacare’s objectives, but there is no doubt that he is achieving them. Obama time and again defined two major goals for health-care reform: tamping down rising medical costs, and expanding access for those who couldn’t afford it. The uninsured rate is dropping:
And medical inflation has fallen to its lowest rate in half a century:
More insurers are planning to enter the markets, and the widespread price hikes conservatives confidently predicted appear unlikely. Republicans have slowly begun reconciling themselves to the law’s irreversibility. Republican pollsters are advising their candidates to soften their anti-Obamacare rhetoric; even as implacable a critic as Mitch McConnell has obscured his position on repealing the law.
All of Obama’s domestic reforms involved compromises and imperfections, a quality they have in common with every major accomplishment in history. Also like the major accomplishments of the past, Obama’s will undergo future revision. All will continue to generate some level of conservative recrimination — one can still find conservatives here and there determined to phase out Social Security or outlaw the U.S. income tax. Most of them will recede into the backdrop of the policy landscape and eventually serve as the baseline against which to portray future liberals as the true radicals, just as Republicans now embrace Medicare. It is also possible that the remaining two and a half years will envelop Obama in some kind of disaster, like Iran-Contra, Vietnam, or Watergate. What’s no longer possible is to imagine that historians will look back at Obama’s presidency and conclude not much got done.