A Common Sense Presidency?

The news media has increasingly portrayed President Obama and his party as having disappointed his most energetic supporters and failed to accomplish much.  It is not uncommon to hear the president’s programs characterized as “stalled initiatives.”

With the midterm elections just a few days away (Tuesday!), now seemed like a good time for me to make a case in support of the president’s performance so far, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile now.  Specifically, from my point of view, the president has accomplished most of what he promised to do in his entire first term, plus quite a lot more.  My recollection is that, during the campaign, President Obama’s main promises were to pass healthcare reform, financial reform, and an economic stimulus package, to withdraw troops from Iraq, and to improve the tone and style of government.

And, in nearly all cases, the president has been true to his word.  Early in his presidency, he passed a major healthcare reform, something that presidents since Nixon have been unable to accomplish despite trying.  Young people benefit very directly from this amazing legislation, in part because they can now remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26.  The legislation also mostly closed the Medicare “donut hole,” meaning that older people will now pay far less for expensive operations.  And no matter a person’s age or walk of life, Americans with pre-existing conditions no longer need to worry about finding exorbitantly expensive or nonexistent coverage.  The president made the politically dangerous move to challenge established health insurance and drug company interests by passing this legislation, which does quite a lot of good besides what I just mentioned.  If successfully standing up for average people even at huge political cost isn’t the bold, transformative leadership that we all wanted, I’m not sure what is.

The huge reforms of President Obama’s Department of Education are not discussed very often. But Race to the Top is something that very much reaches across the aisle and does politics in a completely new and inspiring way – encouraging competition and making states strive for federal grants by improving their school systems from the bottom up.

This president has not continued illegal warrantless wiretapping against Americans or torture of enemy combatants (like the previous administration did).  He also passed major financial reform to help prevent another financial collapse, and a small business initiative. He has followed through on pulling combat troops out of Iraq.  His administration has very significantly increased funding of science and the arts (restoring some of our country’s strongest values).  By most accounts he’s successfully reset relations with Russia and even made a very far-reaching nuclear arms reduction treaty.  And as far as I can tell from the news and from most reasonable reports, the Obama presidency has so far shown levels of honesty and civility almost never seen in a modern presidency.  These accomplishments are enormous and they’re the major aspects of what he campaigned on.  I’m not exactly sure where some people’s disappointment is coming from.

To be fair, President Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is unfortunate.  With no clear idea of military goals, an ever-increasing body count, and astronomical cost, it does nothing to help move America out of its current economic harship.  The president did pass a big stimulus package to improve the economy, like he promised, but one that many economists think should have been much bigger to be effective.  The reason the package was only ~$700 billion was because the president was hoping to gain some bipartisan support from Republicans, but the Republicans were still unwilling to work in a bipartisan way with the White House.

After suffering a huge loss in 2008 and worrying that their party was in danger of disappearing, the Republican leadership made the very cynical decision to oppose the president on nearly everything, using the Senate to block legislation.  If successful, this would have the double advantage of making the Obama presidency less productive and destroying the president’s image as a post-partisan hope for the country.  Amazingly, their destructive plan appears to have been largely effective, at least in tarnishing the president’s reputation. That President Obama managed to get so much accomplished in such little time, despite such unscrupulous opposition, this level of stalling in Congress, and having inherited two intractable wars and the worst economic setting since the Great Depression, is very impressive in my opinion.

By this time in Lincoln’s presidency, the South had seceded and a war the Union should have won easily was going miserably. After a year and a half, both President Clinton’s and President Reagan’s approval ratings were worse than President Obama’s (which actually aren’t that low for this stage of a presidency).  President Kennedy hadn’t done much by this point in his term – he hadn’t even solved the Cuban Missile Crisis yet.  FDR would be president for several more years before the Great Depression ended.

President Obama’s performance so far should earn him the respect of Americans who believe that the government should abide by commonsense policies aimed at improving the lives of all.  Common sense is certainly not a title that belongs exclusively to one political party.  However, I believe that Americans who demand a responsive and thoughtful government must celebrate the rare leader who stands up for them, even if the other branches of government remain backward.

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