WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Barack Obama campaigned for president, the first-term senator from Illinois set a high bar for himself. Making history as the first African-American to occupy the Oval Office almost seemed beside the point. In Reaganesque fashion, he wanted to transform America.
Then the financial markets collapsed. The economy teetered on the edge. By the time Mr. Obama was elected, almost one year ago, an anxious nation was ready for answers. Could Washington stave off a full-fledged depression? Though Obama would not take office for 2-1/2 months, Americans hung on his words as if he were already president.
Fast-forward to today, and President Obama faces debate about what exactly he has achieved since taking office. “Saturday Night Live” lampooned him as having checked no boxes on his “to do” list. The surprise announcement a week later that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, an award he himself said he did not deserve, only enhanced the notion that Obama was more about hope and hype than substance.
Some academics defend him.
“He’s had a good first year,” says Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “Two of his biggest accomplishments are easy to overlook, but they were both important. He kept the financial crisis from becoming worse. And he vastly improved the way the rest of the world thinks about America.”
There’s no doubt that Obama got off to a fast start with Congress, passing a $787 billion stimulus package and expanded healthcare benefits for children. But on the most important issue, jobs and the economy, debate rages over whether the stimulus has been a success or a failure.
Healthcare reform and Afghanistan policy also hang in the balance. The resolution of both will say a lot about how Obama operates as president – and whether his first year is perceived as successful or not.
“A decent-seeming [health reform] would redound to Obama’s advantage and reduce the buzz over whether he is ‘tough enough’ and perhaps lead to a spike in public approval,” says Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Viewed through the prism of how “Obama so far” stacks up against past presidents, the issue of high expectations sits front and center. Twice since Obama’s election, Time magazine has run cover stories on what he can learn from Franklin Roosevelt, the last president to tackle both economic crisis and war. On one, Obama’s face is Photoshopped onto a famously jaunty picture of FDR. Obama himself has wrapped his image in the mantle of Abraham Lincoln.
Obama also set the bar high by imposing deadlines. On his first full day in office, he ordered the Guantánamo Bay prison camp closed in one year. In May, Obama was outmaneuvered in a congressional vote that bars the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the US, hindering his ability to place them in other countries as well. The closure deadline is likely to be missed.
Obama also gave Congress an early August deadline on healthcare reform, which it missed by a mile. “No one’s afraid of Obama,” the charge went. Obama says he issued that deadline to keep Congress focused, but missing it opened him to charges of ineffectiveness.
David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, has allowed that the push for passage of healthcare by summer might have been too ambitious. “I might rethink that if we were to start over again,” he said Oct. 20 at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The real test will come by year’s end, when Obama needs to have something to show for all his effort before the midterm election season kicks into high gear.
Obama’s election itself raised expectations, says Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “There was a miracle at the ballot box, and people expect those miracles to continue later,” he says. “But [Obama officials] don’t help themselves by setting deadlines early on that they then don’t meet.”
Obama’s immediate predecessors can all claim some victories in their first nine months in office. George W. Bush cut taxes, passed the No Child Left Behind education reform, and pulled the nation together after 9/11. Bill Clinton passed a major stimulus and deficit-reduction program, was on his way to passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, and presided over a historic Arab-Israeli handshake.
George H.W. Bush’s term, in many ways Ronald Reagan’s “third term,” got credit for his successful stewardship of the end of the cold war. President Reagan launched his “revolution” by enacting the largest tax cuts in history.
It is the start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency that serves as Obama’s cautionary tale. Mr. Carter, like Obama, came in with an ambitious agenda – but in Carter’s case, it fell flat but for passage of the Panama Canal Treaties. His inner circle accompanied him from Georgia and did not mesh well with the barons of Capitol Hill, even though all were Democrats. Obama, in contrast, has peppered his administration with Clinton veterans, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Early failures don’t always portend a failed presidency.
“A president whom we all admire like John F. Kennedy had to get through the Bay of Pigs before he moved on to his record of accomplishment,” says Mr. Widmer of Brown University.
At least, he adds, Obama has not endured disaster, even if he has yet to pull off a signature piece of legislation in the vein of what Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson achieved early. In the first 100 days alone, Roosevelt pushed through 15 major bills, a record that matched the extraordinary circumstances. By August 1965, less than seven months after winning the presidency in his own right, Johnson had launched Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.
Prevention of an economic collapse may be Obama’s greatest achievement to date. But at a Democratic Party fundraiser on Oct. 20, Obama expressed chagrin at “collective amnesia on the part of some folks” over where the economy stood nine months before. “We were seeing an economic crisis unlike any that we had seen in generations,” he said. The stimulus, he added, has “made a difference in the lives of families across America.”
Some historians are dubious that Obama deserves all the kudos for saving the economy.
“If he gets credit for that, you also have to give credit to [then-Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson and Bush for rescuing the financial system in the fall,” says Alvin Felzenberg, author of a book on presidential ratings, “The Leaders We Deserved.”