Lucky for us, an under-performing president

Fresh off of giving himself a B+ for his first year in office, Presdent Obama defended his first-year legislative record during an interview with the Washington Post. Obama apparently did not assign a grade to his legislative record, but considering his abysmal performance in the realm of foreign policy, his domestic mark would need to be a high one indeed to justify an overall rating of B+.
Obama’s defense of his legislative record does not seemed to have impressed even his interlocutors at the Post. Post-man Scott Wilson notes the failure to enact cap-and-trade legislation and financial regulatory reform. Like an under-performing school boy, Obama appears to have responded to this criticism mainly with promises about what he will accomplish in the future.
Obama told the Post that “the most important thing we did this year was to ensure that the financial system did not collapse.” But it requires a broad definition of both “we” and “this year” to defend that statement. If the federal government actually did prevent the collapse of the financial system, then the measures that accomplished this were put into motion while George W. Bush was still president. The Post’s account of the interview does not have Obama pointing to anything he did to save the financial system.
In judging Obama’s legislative record, one should take into account the almost unprecedented advantages he had when he took office. These included massive majorities in the House and the Senate (where the Democrats eventually would obtain a super-majority), as well as his extraordinarily high personal popularity. Factoring these advantages into the equation makes Obama’s record seem slim indeed.
The Post notes that, although Obama gave primacy to his (imaginary) preservation of our financial system, “health care reform dominated his agenda and will stand as at least one pillar he leaves behind.” Yet, as things stand now, it appears that this “pillar” falls far short of what his political base had hoped for, to the point that many members of that base do not even support the Senate version of the legislation. And those who support it do so on the theory that ensuring lots of new people is better than not insuring them, rather than on the theory that the legislation represents sensible reform.
At one level, it’s difficult to place major blame for this on Obama. It’s not his fault that the Senate is populated by prima donnas and special pleaders.
On the other hand, there can be little dispute that Obama failed to exercise much leadership when it came to health care reform. As the Post notes, “throughout the health-care debate, the president has declined to weigh in with specfic preferences.” Instead, he left it up to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to formulate the legislation. Obama thus assumed the risk that end-product would turn out to be as incoherent as this one likely will be. Considering what a coherent Obama-driven plan would have looked like, I’m happy he assumed this risk. But it does not speak well for him that he did.
From my perspective, Obama has been able to do less damage domestically, but more in the realm of foreign policy, than I feared he would at this time last year.

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