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The First Term

[ 120 ] January 21, 2013 |


On the day President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, an exuberant Vice President Biden famously pronounced the reform a “big something deal” — except that he didn’t use the word “something.” And he was right.

In fact, I’d suggest using this phrase to describe the Obama administration as a whole. F.D.R. had his New Deal; well, Mr. Obama has his Big Deal. He hasn’t delivered everything his supporters wanted, and at times the survival of his achievements seemed very much in doubt. But if progressives look at where we are as the second term begins, they’ll find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction.

Consider, in particular, three areas: health care, inequality and financial reform.

We’ve been through this before, but among presidents of the last century only FDR and LBJ have greater records of progressive achievement. There are a couple things one could add to this list — repealing DADT and committing the Democratic coalition to marriage equality, and a stimulus bill that was more far-reaching (and a harder lift) that it’s often given credit for.

As with LBJ and FDR, of course, there are also bad things and disappointments from Obama’s first term. His civil liberties record, of course, and granting that it’s the worst civil liberties record for an American president except for most of the others, it should have been better. He needed to use appropriated money to address the housing crisis more forcefully. One can’t say that the escalation in Afghanistan is a disappointment in that he said he would do it, but (to put it mildly) it’s not clear what it’s accomplishing that could remotely be worth the costs in lives and resources.

Progressives should want more, but we will normally get much less.

…to be fair and balanced, I should note that St. Ralph Nader believes that Obama has not done enough to address the crucial problem of our age, violent video games.

…Noah with more on Obama and inequality.


Comments (120)

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  1. John says:

    There’s a reasonable case to be made for Wilson’s first term accomplishments (Clayton Act, Underwood Tariff, Federal Reserve Act.) The downsides of Wilson are probably worse than the downsides of the others, but that’s a solid record of legislative achievement – especially the legalization of labor unions and the institution of the progressive income tax.

  2. sleepyirv says:

    I was surprised when the “Big Deal” didn’t catch on at the time Biden said it. I suppose the White House didn’t like the emphasis on “big”

  3. Cody says:

    Before this turns into a huge thread about drone warfare and Zero Dark Thirty.

    P.S.: I don’t begrudge Obama at all for the Afghanistan Surge, as that seems to be what his general requested. I would prefer that to him, say, invading Iraq in the first place against his general’s recommendations. Poor decision – probably – but decent intentions and a campaign promise he kept!

    • ploeg says:

      In the end, the President chooses the generals, so what the generals request can’t determine what the President does. (Bush had to change his generals to get the desired answer about Iraq.) But with luck, this President might decline to reinforce continued failure.

      • In the end, presidents have less control over foreign & military policy than what a straight reading of the constitution might imply. There are very well-established institutional forces that restrain and compel presidential action. This is particularly true if the president is a Democrat, Democrats being the party of surrender and weakness since Viet Nam. Probably double that when the president is an African-American with no military service on his resume.

  4. There are a couple things one could add to this list — repealing DADT and committing the Democratic coalition to marriage equality, and a stimulus bill that was more far-reaching (and a harder lift) that it’s often given credit for.

    If I had told you during the 2008 elections that American CO2 emissions at the end of Obama’s first term would be down to 1992 levels, you would have dismissed me as a zombie-eyed O-bot.

    Hell, if you had told me that, I probably would have had the same response. The legacy of the EPA’s rule-making activities in Obama’s first term deserved to be listed right up there with health care and the exit from Iraq.

    • Cody says:

      I’ve seen this stat, and I can hardly believe it. I just assumed it was some kind of crazy numbers game.

      I never see it mentioned anywhere in Obama’s accomplishments. I’ve heard some of this is due to the repressed economy, but maybe it gets less press because it’s not enough to really save us…

      • When the numbers jumped up again in 2010, everyone assumed that the reductions were just an effect of the economy, but then they plummeted again in 2011, and then further in 2012, while the economy was running stronger.

        The largest cause was the replacement of coal plants with gas plants. A lot of that is the result of cheap natural gas, but the EPA’s issuance of rules that fell most heavily on coal, and the expectation that things were only going to get worse in years to come, played an important role as well. As did being the world’s largest investor in alternative energy development (largely the result of the ARRA and the green energy tax credits).

        • Cody says:

          Good point. I have forgotten about coal plants out sized impact on carbon emissions. That makes a lot of sense, and I knew that if I had thought about it!

          I’ll take the lack of media coverage on the hardships of running a coal plant as a good thing. Though I have seen an article or two pop up.

          • Carbon Man says:

            So we shut down some coal plants in the USA.

            Who cares? Can you hear that sound in the distance?

            It’s the sound of China setting up one brand spankin’ new coal fired power plant EVERY SINGLE DAY.

        • Pithlord says:

          Ideological complication: this achievement (and it is a huge one) is because of fracking, which makes Matt Damon cry.

      • malraux says:

        IIRC, vehicle miles driven has dropped as well. Turns out that lots of millennials are choosing to live in cities rather than own cars and commute to far out places they can afford.

        • Cody says:

          Unless my understanding of generations are flawed (likely), aren’t millennials under 13 now?

          Though my generation does seem to prefer living places where we can walk to our groceries/food/hang-outs. Wish I could find a job in a big city instead of Indiana!

          • drkrick says:

            The oldest of the Millenials are in their mid-20’s.

            As I understand it, the cohorts are:

            GI/”Greatest”: born 1906-1925
            Silent: 1926-1945
            Boomers: 1946-65
            Gen X: 1966-85
            Millennial: 1986-2005

            • Scott de B. says:

              I would say Gen X is people born 1975-1985. I first heard it used in the mid-late 80s and it was only used to refer to those under 15 years old.

              • Djur says:

                You’d have to come up with a name for the 66-74 cohort, then, because they are most definitely not Baby Boomers.

                • John says:

                  The 66-75 contingent is the classic Generation X cohort – much more so than people born in the early 80s.

                • John says:

                  Examples: Winona Ryder (b. 1971), Ethan Hawke (b. 1970), Kurt Cobain (b. 1967), the cast of Friends (born 1963-1969), Wes Anderson (b. 1969), etc.

                • S_noe says:

                  Born in 1975, and I and my youngers have always seemed ill-fitting as Gen-Xers. Probably just that the whole thing got defined by the older kids. The term was on the cover of newsweeklies while I was still in high school, and I suppose it makes me a good Gen-Xer to take that as a sign that it was over already.

                  By the way, I identify most as “Born Under Ford.” Rarest presidentially-determined age cohort around, except for those damn Harding babies.

          • Frank says:

            The term “millenials” means people who came of age after the start of the millenium (ie, folks born around 1982 and after), it doesn’t mean people born after 2000. It’s also interchangeable with “Gen Y.”

            • Cody says:

              Ah. I’m a Gen Yer and I just assumed millennials must be after me.

              Alas, my life has been ruined now that I’ve discovered I am a millennial. I should really remember this stuff, as my intro to english composition class was taught by a professor who only did research on generations…

              But that was a while ago.

        • I was very much taken by surprise by the drop in vehicle miles. I didn’t think the demand for gasoline was nearly as elastic as it turned out to be. I though it would take a generation of smart growth before we saw a meaningful change in miles driven.

          • Carbon Man says:

            Meanwhile, CHINA is now the world’s largest vehicle market and INDIA is surging behind…the young people in Asia (all 2 billion of ’em) want big-ass cars with big, carbon-spewing engines and they want them now (Land Rovers and Buicks are especially popular in China!)

            • Indeed.

              Getting China and India on board with preventing climate change is probably the biggest environmental and foreign policy challenge facing this country.

              It’s fortunate that our foreign policy will continue to be directed by someone of Barack Obama’s stature and talent, as opposed to the guy who couldn’t pull off a visit to the Olympics after having run an Olympics.

      • CO2 says:

        The headline #s are for the first quarter of 2012. The EPA estimates that a mild winter played a significant role. emissions rose 3.2% in 09 and 3.9 % in 10 before declining 1.7% in 2011

    • Scott de B. says:

      In per-capita terms, we’re at 1966 levels.

  5. Todd says:

    What I’d really like to see in the 2nd term, since he’s almost sure to get one or two more chances, is for the President to nominate a real flamethrower for the Supreme Court.

  6. Derelict says:

    No matter your feelings about Obama, you have to be happy when you consider what the world would look like with a President McCain/Vice President Palin administration. Or what the world would be looking like four years from now under Romney/Ryan.

    Yes, there are lots of things that can be put on anyone’s wish list for Obama to have to or to do in his next four years. But at least we’re not contemplating how to deal with the aftermath of McCain or Romney implementing their policies and ideas of governance.

  7. c u n d gulag says:

    Warts and all, barring some sort of catastophe in the next 4 eyars, Barack Hussein Obama will go down as one of America’s greatest Presidents.

    FDR, great as he was, had his issues with race. His wife was far, far, more progressive than he was.
    And LBJ, great as he was, got us more deeply mired in Vietnam, and in the end, on top of our own dead and wounded, affected, or ended, the lives of millions in that region.
    And that “war” neatly stopped the nations progress on a whole lot of issues, allowing for right wing backlash – politically, and economically.

    Today, was historic. We reelected our first non-white President, and today, he was inaugurated.

    Obama gave a terrific Inaugural Address, tying Selma to Stonewall, and used the word “Gay” for the first time, in an address. He gave a dig to Romney and Ryan, by mentioning that we’re not a nation of ‘takers.’ And, even ‘Climate Change’ got a shout-out. YAY!

    It was a wonderful ceremony. And I cried from the time the choirs started singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” until the end of the benediction – though, I’d appreciate less ‘battles,’ and less religion.

    We have a lot to be thankful for.
    Romney and Ryan weren’t up there. Barack and Joe were.
    And, if the Republicans ‘fever’ is, to any extent, breaking, as it appears to be, it’s President Barack Hussein Obama who may prove, not only to be the cause, but the cure.

    Maybe, for too many, we are progressing too slowly. I sometimes feel that way, too.
    But, at least this President is helping us move forward.
    As MLK Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…”
    And Barack Hussein Obama is helping it to bend in that direction.

    He, and we, have a lot of work ahead of us.
    Let’s enjoy today.
    Back to working on our future, tomorrow.

  8. witless chum says:

    Krugman’s argument on financial reform being worth something is basically, “look how the hedge funds hate it, so it must be good.” Which is a well-taken, but I’m little skeptical on that one.

    • tonycpsu says:

      +1. I think Obama’s record still looks very good if you give a D-minus on financial reform instead of the C+ Krugman seems to be giving him.

    • If Wall Street’s response to Obama’s financial reform efforts was to swing behind him as decisively as they swung against him, would you still be skeptical?

      At a minimum, we can say that Obama succeeded in getting through a package of financial reforms that was strongly opposed by Wall Street. Setting aside the question of how good the various policies therein may be, that has to count as a major political accomplishment.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Any financial reforms would have been strongly opposed by Wall Street. Hell, they even fought their own bailout.

      • witless chum says:

        I’d probably be sure it was an indication Obama got rolled, so point taken.

        I’m not sure what exactly to make of their swing against Obama, other than to remember the old communist history professor I had at Michigan State who assured us that there were parties in the all the mansions of New York the night FDR died. The financial elite we have got to be the financial elite we have by being functionally delusional, so I don’t have a hard time imagining them kicking their best friend in the teeth.

        I also think their swing of opposition against Obama has to be measured, like everything else, against Romney who was basically promising them rollback of everything Obama did and a pony. Plus, he was one of them. The finance industry might have been the only group in the country, now that I think about it, to have actually been happy with the choice of Mitt Romney as a GOP candidate and honestly excited about the possibility of his election.

        • I also think their swing of opposition against Obama has to be measured, like everything else, against Romney…

          I don’t.

          That’s a perfectly appropriate line of though if we’re talking about how to vote in an election, but not when we’re grading President’s performance.

          • chris says:

            But their swing to opposition to Obama may have been motivated by their contemplation of who was running against him, rather than by anything he did or didn’t do.

            I.e. they prefer a competent centrist to a loony warmonger, but when their own favorite son is on the ballot, the competent centrist doesn’t look so good anymore.

    • JKTHs says:

      It wasn’t a very good argument by Krugman. IMO Dodd-Frank can be good but it’s far too dependent on discretion and Administrations/regulators actually giving a shit. That might be viable for this Administration and maybe the next few Democratic Administrations but you know that’ll go out the window when a Rubio/Paul Administration comes in or we go a few decades without a financial meltdown.

  9. FlipYrWhig says:

    I think that closing fillip, should want more / will normally get less, is hugely important. The wanting is the easy part. The getting is a mite difficult. Let’s all try to keep that in mind when assessing political accomplishments.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      My old Jesuit moral theology prof used to say “90% of human unhappiness comes from confusing ‘want’ with ‘need’, and ‘means’ with ‘ends’.”

  10. Murc says:

    One can’t say that the escalation in Afghanistan is a disappointment in that he said he would do it

    Why the hell not?

    If someone says they’re going to do something that’s a shitty idea, and then they go ahead and do what they said, I can’t be disappointed in them… why now?

  11. bradP says:

    Consider, in particular, three areas: health care, inequality and financial reform.

    Aren’t you gonna need a couple decades at least before you count any of these as successes?

  12. david says:

    The speech today was really quite good, so good I didn’t gripe too much about that awful Battle Hymn of the Republic via Disney on Ice, and Kelly Clarkson goodness gracious the celebrification vortex is powerful.

    What’ll be the next legacy items we get out of this term? I’m very confused about what’s possible, and what they’ll really go for (not, and really never much, on what I want).

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      What’ll be the next legacy items we get out of this term?

      1. The call to expropriate the expropriators.
      2. Ownership by the workers of the commanding heights of the economy.

      Anything less is a sellout. Anything less, I stay home in ’14

      • chris says:

        Anything less, I stay home in ’14

        On the off chance you mean this, I’ll offer the obvious rejoinder: because that worked so great in ’10.

        • mds says:

          “Off chance”? In a post containing “Ownership by the workers of the commanding heights of the economy”? Machina, you need to remember to put in explicit sarcasm tags.

          • chris says:

            Considering what some of the people who actually did stay home in 2010 expected of Obama’s first two years… sarcasm on this point is damn near impossible.

            • mds says:

              Yeah, both of those leftier-than-thou progressives who stayed home in 2010 really made a difference in that confluence of the usual collapse in off-year election participation by Democratic voters with a fired-up movement of deranged teabagging fuckwits.

              That was sarcasm, by the way.

  13. burritoboy says:

    I don’t wish to play devil’s advocate, but I do think there’s too substantive a gap of achievement between FDR and Obama for us to be too self-satisfied. I would say my critique of Obama would focus on very timid and conventional economic reforms, insofar as any actually happened. On the other hand, I don’t think Obama’s economic policies were bad, perse, but too timid and mild. The things he did get done were, in general, reasonably well-thought through and executed. I would also tend to be more sympathetic to a narrative that says that Obama spent too much effort on non-economic things. Admittedly, quite a bit of the diversions were forced on him by various hidden timebombs left by the previous administrations.

    Of course, everyone looks like a midget compared to FDR, so maybe that’s not saying much.

    • EliHawk says:

      FWIW, everyone’s Congressional Majorities look like a midget compared to FDR, too.

      • burritoboy says:

        True, of course, but it’s certainly plausible to assert that FDR had a much more aggressive economic reform platform – and significantly more energetically pursued that platform – than Obama did or does. That is, while it’s reasonable to ascribe a large part of FDR’s economic policy successes to his unique Congressional majorities, those actual policy successes were also originally formulated by FDR’s more “energetic” intentions as well.

        You could run a thought experiment: there was no necessity that our world FDR (let’s abbreviate as “OWFDR”)be elected in 1932 – some Democrat would have been elected over Hoover, and the Congressional majorities of 1932 would have been Democratic (though not necessarily in the same overwhelming majorities). The Alternative World 1932 Democrat President (or “AW32DP”) would have likely pursued some roughly stimulative economic program which the Democratic legislators would more or less vote into law, but much of the internal content of that economic program (especially as FDR/Truman’s team was changed it and implemented it over a their 20 year period in power) was much more OWFDR’s rather than any random AW32DP’s.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      FDR (the real one) looks like a midget next to “FDR” (the one we’ve created since his death…)

  14. Crackity Jones says:

    We need another LBJ. Minus the Vietnam thing. A mean motherfucker who can play Congress like a fiddle.

  15. Crackity Jones says:

    Wilson also had an impressive record, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as LBJ and FDR.

  16. Crackity Jones says:

    Yes Wilson had a dark side just like every other president. He still has one of the top progressive legislative records of any president

  17. Carbon Man says:

    So the Narcissist-in-Chief celebrated himself today.


    Here’s Reagan’s glorious Second Inaugural if you want to see something from a real President, and not the N-I-C.

    And a great text excerpt below:

    The time has come for a new American emancipation–a great national drive to tear down economic barriers and liberate the spirit of enterprise in the most distressed areas of our country. My friends, together we can do this, and do it we must, so help me God.– From new freedom will spring new opportunities for growth, a more productive, fulfilled and united people, and a stronger America–an America that will lead the technological revolution, and also open its mind and heart and soul to the treasures of literature, music, and poetry, and the values of faith, courage, and love.

    Awe-inspiring words from beyond the grave…

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