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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

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 7:05 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Its safe to say that any frustration Republicans or Democrats have about legislation not passing, issues not being addressed, et al is because of the existence of the Senate, and even worse its arcane rules which are meant to subvert the will of the people and make the Senate into the place legislation goes to die.

However, thats not nearly as provocative and exciting as writing that any given president isnt working hard enough, isnt popular enough, or doesnt care enough about a particular issue and thus almost by fiat doesnt have his scepter and command it to be done, which is how much of the TV reporting of Washington politics works. Its hysterical, and one of the many reasons I dont watch cable news anymore.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 1, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

president obama deserves olive branches and pear trees this christmas....and absolutely no charcoal in his stocking.
he has been an entirely virtuous president this year.

just like the mockery from the left and right, when president obama won the nobel peace is an armchair game to disparage president obama's efforts and triumphs as being too small, undeserved or not good enough.
as i wrote in an earlier post, about paul krugman's unrelenting and sanctimonious criticisms of the obama administration's economic policies, it reminds me of offering criticism and advice to a new mother, from the sidelines...while she is the one standing there, holding the crying baby at two in the morning.
president obama is constantly being mocked and criticized for "half-measures," instead of bold action.
we had plenty of bold action, and were shocked and awed enough by the last administration.
as though accomplishing anything in a brontosaurus-like government and a country this fractured and polarized, is going to be a cinch.
i believe that barack obama has dealt with every crisis and decision with as much care and deliberation as he possibly could. there has been an inclusiveness of dialogue and a patience with the whole political process that has been quite amazing....but he is just scoffed at and treated with disdain for including everyone in the process with dignity.
he has found room in the tent of ideas for almost everyone.
we should be grateful.
he is not a miracle worker.
years of neglect and misguided policies...and a rapidly changing world of reality, resources and circumstance have led us to this place.

you cant run faster than your angel can fly.

one of our best christmas presents this year, is having barack obama for our president.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

"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."

But it also cuts kind of heavily against Weisberg's point too. Should a president with such a large, ideologically coherent (relative to the recent past) majority really have to struggle so hard to get basic things like agency staffing done? And isn't it a little mind-boggling that the only substantive law that majority has produced so far basically amounts to "Giving Away Free Money to Avert Economic Catastrophe"? I mean talk about low-hanging fruit.

I agree with you that this is not necessarily a reflection of Obama (although I think he is capable of more pressure than most progressive bloggers are willing to acknowledge), but it does indicate some deep problems with our political system. It is becoming increasingly likely that 2008-2010 will be the highwater mark of progressive reform for decades -- our generation's version of the New Deal or Great Society -- but so far the BEST it will have produced is a tepid health bill that helps Wellpoint far more than it helps the average American.

And the sad thing is that, yeah, I DO think that's the best Obama could get out of our current Congress. But that's kind of mind-bogglingly depressing.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 1, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Ugh, I guess "mind-boggling" is my "unprecedented"...

Posted by: NS12345 | December 1, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Also I am getting supremely annoyed at the argument that Obama made "it" (meaning health reform) happen, unlike his Democratic predecessors. The fact is that while the current reform produces near-universal coverage, it does so by basically departing from the core principles of those prior Democratic leaders. Even Clinton proposed a more progressive reform than this one.

I mean this is an ok first step on a very, very long road. It's NOT the kind of fundamental transformation Truman, Carter, etc... were proposing. Medicare -- passed by a Democratic president at a time when much of his party was on the edge of revolt over race and war -- was a far more radical and consequential achievement than Obama's far more stable Democratic majority can accomplish today.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 1, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

isn't it ironic that President Obama won the peace prize and tonight will escalate a war that many in his party disagree with as well as many independents that will further weaken the Democrats footing in 2010 as everyone expects the dissillusioned Democratic base to not impact the 2010 elections.

Also ironic that Ezra notes the year as impressive when healthcare isn't done yet and may not be if a public option is dropped in favor of a trigger and liberals bail on it in the House. I wonder if Ezra will reconsider the success he's called it. Even if it succeeds healthcare has been shown by the CBO report to only increase access and not "bend the cost curve" which Obama said was a main reason he was doing it in the first place. Yet another campaign promise unfulfilled. I guess beauty and successful Presidents are in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 1, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

"isn't it ironic that President Obama won the peace prize and tonight will escalate a war that many in his party disagree with as well as many independents that will further weaken the Democrats footing in 2010 as everyone expects the dissillusioned Democratic base to not impact the 2010 elections."

no. i dont find it ironic at all.
it appears that president obama has arrived at his decision after extremely lengthy and inclusive deliberations.
i think the president did not arrive at this decision blithely, and i think he has chosen this course, not out of hubris...and knowing full well that for many of his supporters, it will not be a very unpopular decision.
i dont believe that anyone expected barack obama to engage in nothing more than civil disobedience while being president, and i dont think that there is anything contradictory in having awarded him a prize for peace, and having him pursue this course in afghanistan.

i think he is deeply aware of the sacrifices and consequences of his actions this evening.
this has to be an agonizing decision for him. i dont believe he would have arrived at this decision, if he didnt think it was the best alternative, based on the information he has received.
i hope he is right.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Clinton had Dixiecrats. Obama has Lieberman, Bayh, Landrieu, Nelson, and Lincoln. Call it a wash.

Posted by: redwards95 | December 1, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

sorry, in above post, i meant to say that the president already knows that the decision to send these additional troops, will be highly unpopular with many of his supporters.
i think he has already deeply considered the outcries on christmas morning, when we hear of young americans being killed there on foreign land and not returning home ever again.
i think this had to be an anguishing decision for him...not based on any ulterior personal motives.
i wish we were not committing any troops there. and i think that president obama wishes that he didnt have to endanger one american life there. but i believe that he must have compelling grounds for this decision. i trust his motives, instincts and intelligence.
again, i hope that he will be right.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse


while I admire your never ending loyalty towards our President I wonder if you'd say the same thing had President Bush been in office still or had McCain won and done the same thing? I don't know about you but many liberal Democrats would be blasting a Republican President for continuing an "unholy war" and they are absolutely right (IMO).

Or is it just the fact that you believe he deliberates and anguishes over sending our children to their death for a war that the British and Russians has proven is unwinnable in the recent past. What's that they say about history? Those that ignore it are doomed to repeat it. I hope and pray I'm wrong but I fear that I'm not because all I have to go on is the past.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 1, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

"while I admire your never ending loyalty towards our President I wonder if you'd say the same thing had President Bush been in office still or had McCain won and done the same thing?"

i have a little knowledge also of the history of failed military conquests in afghanistan.
i dont believe that bush had the depth of reasoning or capacity of intelligence to be president, and i believe that cheney is a diabolical person, whose motives and humanity i completely distrust.
i also dont trust the motives, intellligence or objective reasoning of john mccain, and sarah palin terrifies me.
i am grateful that biden is our vice president. and i deeply appreciate his input to the president.
but i do trust the intelligence, reasoning, humanity and objectivity of barack obama. i do believe he seeks out the truth, and is not afraid to listen and actually "hear" the opinions of others. i dont believe he has too much hubris to turn back on an error of judgement, if he makes one....nor do i think that his ego and sense of manhood or patriotism is built on blasting other nations with destruction and firepower.
so no, if george bush or mccain/palin had arrived at this decision, i would not feel that the same sense of patience or trust as i feel with barack obama.
i am extremely sad that more troops are going off to afghanistan. but i think that barack obama is also....and i dont believe he would do this, if he didnt feel there was a compelling reason for it.
he is human. maybe this will be a fatal error in judgement. for sure, it will result in tragic, fatal sentences for some of the lives of young people there, and for their families. but i pray that he knows what he is doing.
i think he is a compassionate and deliberate commander in chief. i think that based on all the information, he is trying to do the right thing.
i hope and pray so.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Isn't the explanation of a 60 versus 57 majority in Congress a bit simplistic, especially with respect to health care reform? Not that it is not a factor ... but Clinton's failure to gain ground on the issue cannot be wholly attributable to this measure alone. It's fairly well accepted that the earlier WH's top-down approach of dropping a fully formed bill into the laps of Congress was a strategic error. And Moynihan's failure to vote the bill out of the Finance Committee does not seem directly attributable to the wider majorities in the Senate (though it may explain a lack of political will). Let's give the Obama administration at least a little credit for playing the game better, even if the result is a weaker bill. And as they say of dissertations, the best bill is a done bill.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | December 1, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

In my sentient lifetime, going back to the election of Jimmy Carter, no President has ever disappointed me so quickly as Barack Obama. He wrapped himself in liberal iconography to get elected, but in truth he is a decidedly cold corporate technocrat. He is way out of his depth in AfPak, having chosen an unnecessary escalation with our nation deeply divided and arguably the fiercest people on Earth prepared to die for their homeland. It is an impressive feat only in the sense of how such a smart man could be so ill-equipped for the challenges he must face. Kirk to the bridge. There's something wrong with Mr. Spock.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

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