Obama -- and the Congress's -- impressive first year
I think Jacob Weisberg has this bit of contrarianism mostly right:
About one thing, left and right seem to agree these days: Obama hasn't done anything yet. Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney have found common ground in scoffing at the president's "dithering." Newsweek recently ran a sympathetic cover story titled, "Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet)." […] 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.
The case for Obama's successful freshman year rests above all on the health care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate. Democrats have been trying to pass national health insurance for 60 years. Past presidents who tried to make it happen and failed include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways — weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.
My quibble would be that this isn't really Obama's accomplishment, or his fault. Obama has 60 Democratic seats in the Senate. His recent predecessors haven't enjoyed majorities nearly as large. That's the difference between him and Clinton, or him and Bush. Bush controlled 55 at his peak, and Clinton, who still had Dixiecrats in his caucus, had 57. Obama's ambitions can be greater because his majority is larger. And it's important to be clear about that. One of the most damaging civic delusions is the idea that legislative success and action are properly understood as an expression of the president's skill and performance. It leaves us with the idea that we can solve gridlock by electing newer and better presidents, rather than forcing us to address the gridlock itself.
Photo credit: By Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
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