Monday, November 30, 2009

The First Year

If you accept the conventional wisdom — as measured by people like Maureen Dowd and Saturday Night Live — Barack Obama hasn’t done bupkus since he was sworn in as president. We’re still in Iraq, we’re about to escalate in Afghanistan, Gitmo is still in business, gays are still being kicked out of the military, unemployment is over 10%, the auto industry is running on fumes, healthcare reform hangs on the razor-thin balance of falling off the rails because of one vote in the Senate, and reality TV shows and their wannabe stars are still trying to get attention. We might as well have elected John McCain, right?

Jacob Weisberg at Slate begs to differ.

This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.


We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a “public option,” limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it’s easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government’s role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain’s economic advisers, on this point: “The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do—it is contributing to ending the recession,” he said. “In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent.”

You can’t run a country solely on saying how terrible things might have been, especially when things aren’t as well as you’d like them to be. It’s like a doctor in the E.R. saying, after reviving a patient with a defibrillator, “Hey, at least they’re not dead.” Yes, it beats the alternative, but we still have problems.

It is in the best interest of the Republicans to say that President Obama has accomplished very little. After all, any concession to his stewardship would mean they have to acknowledge how rotten things were to begin with. So they are trotting out all the canards about spending us into abysmal debt and government take-over along with the usual finger-pointing about finger-pointing: you Democrats stop blaming everything on Bush! (As if they never did that with previous administrations, all which happen to be Democrats; it’s as if Ronald Reagan’s administration was in a parallel universe.) So it’s no surprise that when Ross Douthat talks about the ineffective stimulus and flailing Democrats, let’s remember a couple of things: for one thing, Democrats are not known for being lock-step and doctrinaire. That’s the GOP shtick, or at least it used to be; given the tea-bagger lunacy and vacuum of leadership from the RNC, hearing a conservative complain about “flailing” is a study in irony, if not hypocrisy. (Besides, the last Democratic president flailed his way into a budget surplus.) So when you hear a conservative dismiss the success of President Obama — or any Democrat — they’re mustering damage control: the last thing they want is someone else to succeed. On the up side, President Obama hasn’t taken away all our guns, he hasn’t reinstated the Fairness Doctrine, he hasn’t turned the West Wing into a mosque, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not sitting on the Supreme Court, William Ayers is not running the Department of Peace, and Kum By Yah hasn’t replaced the Star-Spangled Banner.

I think it’s way too early to pronounce anything about the Obama administration’s first year. The economy is still wheezing, but at least it’s sitting up and taking nourishment. The healthcare bill could still crater; close to passing does not count. Afghanistan is giving me flashbacks to 1967, and not in a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band kind of way. It is still possible that the Democrats could lose what’s left of their nerve and thereby their majority next fall, which would be an unvarnished disaster for the president. Unlike the GOP, who have the ability to market chicken shit as chicken salad, a loss for the Democrats is truly a loss.