The first two years of the Obama administration have not been easy for the young President, and to many, they have been disappointing. His presidential campaign promised bold change, and many Americans believe that promise has not been kept, strongly signaled by an approval rating decline from 70% to well below 50% at one point. The negative reaction to Obama’s first two years in office has been so strong that it has spawned a political movement within the conservative right — the Tea Party Movement — whose sole purpose was to combat Obama’s domestic agenda.
However, President Obama is not being given enough credit for his legislative victories and for good decisions he has made while in office. Taken chronologically, the $787 billion stimulus bill was a necessary palliative to prevent the country’s slide into a deeper recession. The Obama administration acted properly in passing a financial reform law, understanding that the financial services industry was in need of tighter regulation and oversight. Obama’s fight for, and ultimate passage of, the health care reform bill was historic and needed (and it was legislation that he promised to voters during his campaign). Similarly, President Obama vowed repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on the campaign trail, and he’s delivered that victory as well.
Nonetheless, President Obama has received a great deal of criticism, and frankly, he doesn’t deserve nearly all of it.
First off, some Democrats argue that Obama failed politically during his first two years not because he was too partisan, but because he wasn’t partisan enough. In particular, they criticize the President for not taking greater advantage of a Congressional majority and a Senate supermajority to get more done during his first year. Ultimately, they chalk this up to Obama’s misjudgment of the fact that on contentious issues like health care reform, Republicans were going to be very unwilling to play ball.
I think this is a fair argument, however critics seem to forget that one of Obama’s major selling points during his campaign was being a President who would reach across the aisle and search for compromise. And that’s what he did, particularly during the crafting of the health care bill. Even when the Democrats retained a supermajority, Obama did not abuse it, because majority rule does not entitle the party in power carte blanche. So, could healthcare have gone faster? Sure, but it would have been at the expense of respecting the Republican minority and the more moderate Democrats with whom Obama was determined to negotiate.
Some critics go further and argue that Obama’s conciliatory bipartisan efforts were merely superficial. The reality is Obama the candidate campaigned as a moderate who would find common ground; however, Obama the President emerged as a liberal steward determined to advance a domestic agenda that, no matter how you cut it, was never going to get support from conservatives. This argument has some merit in that it sheds light on that fact that President Obama is a savvy politician. He understood quite well that running for President and beingPresident are two completely different behemoths. Once he got into office, his playbook changed quickly to that of a liberal-minded policymaker.
That said, painting a picture that Obama got everything that he wanted out of the legislation he signed into law would be inaccurate. Despite wanting a larger stimulus bill (which many economists believe in retrospect would have been better) and a health care reform bill with a public option, President Obama had to settle for what was politically achievable given the currents of opposition against him. He made concessions, particularly with health care reform, and shaped his policy ideas to accommodate those who were willing to horse trade with him. Hence, some will call Obama’s bipartisan efforts cosmetic during his first two years; however, the fact of the matter is he did reach across the aisle to negotiate, and he made sacrifices in order to enact historic policies.
While I have not touched on all of Obama’s achievements in office thus far, I also haven’t addressed all the points of criticism that have been levied against him. What I have tried to do is highlight some of Obama’s key areas of criticism, and explain why I believe those critics are wrong.
In the end, no one is right and no one is wrong in debating presidential politics. However, with regard to Obama’s first two years in office, a couple of things are certain: The President took office at one of the most difficult points in the country’s history since the Great Depression. The remarkable quantity of problems that Obama faced and their complex nature made his job one that was not going to be without great scrutiny. Yet in spite of it all, President Obama did actually deliver on campaign promises, and he passed historic legislation that has helped some of the neediest Americans. Furthermore he’s done so while facing some of the most determined opposition a President has ever had to contend with. All in all, the President has done a laudable job, and a 48% approval rating doesn’t get close to measuring the good work that he has done thus far.