As Barack Obama nears the first anniversary of his inauguration as president, a faculty friend of mine renders what strikes me as the right assessment: “If he were a student, I’d have to give him an incomplete.”
That’s no surprise, and it is certainly no cause for embarrassment. For all the journalistic focus on the first 100 days of FDR, no president, not even Roosevelt, accomplishes his most significant goals within weeks after being sworn in, and few make their mark in the first year. There’s a good reason that the Founders gave presidents four-year terms. Even when it was a fraction of its current size, the government was relatively immobile. The larger the bureaucracy and the more clotted the political system, the more resistant is Washington to political change.
As the inheritor of two wars and a huge financial crisis, the young man from Illinois, relatively new to town, clearly was under pressure to deliver decisions more quickly than those who have come to office in calmer times. But his first task was to build his own government, and he accomplished that feat with a skill that belied his lack of executive experience.
A year in, his Cabinet has lived up to its early billing as a remarkably talented and harmonious set of men and women. The old pros at Defense and State have adapted well to the needs of the new president, and the Washington newcomers have lost little time in taking charge of their responsibilities.
The broad outlines of an Obama domestic agenda have become clear during this past year. The giant economic stimulus bill that passed with next to no help from the Republicans in the early months has accomplished less in saving jobs than had been hoped. But it averted catastrophe and, with luck, could produce bigger dividends in this second year.
The other issues on which Obama campaigned – health care, climate change, and financial regulation – have struggled in Congress despite the large Democratic majorities. Obama loaded the top of his White House staff with veterans of Capitol Hill, starting with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. They can be faulted at this point for misjudging the capacity of Congress with its current leadership to handle an agenda so large. Some would say the problem has been compounded by an overly deferential White House approach to the Hill.
But there have been few irreparable setbacks, and the potential for more substantial accomplishments – including health care reform – remains.
On the world scene, Obama has been fortunate to collect the dividends from his predecessor’s undervalued policy decisions in Iraq, but he has not been able to achieve any comparable breakthroughs of his own. He has demonstrated his personal effectiveness with most but not all the leaders of key countries. Russia, China, Japan and Israel, among others, have been notably resistant to his charm.
Politically, he is notably weaker than when he began. Not, as some of his critics maintain, because the voters have tuned him out or become indifferent to his well-crafted speeches, but because none of the goals most important to the American people have been achieved. The most consequential of those, and the one with the shortest timetable, is easing the unemployment that has crippled so many families and this year will confront state and local governments with painful budgetary choices.
After running up record debts coping with emergencies, Obama is short of resources with which to reform health care, education or anything else. He badly needs a strong economy soon. Without it, the Republicans, no matter how strident and negative they may be, cannot help but benefit in November.