[The ACA] is, to quote Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, “a century-defining accomplishment in the last industrial democracy to resist using national government to ensure access to health coverage for most citizens.” FDR failed, Truman failed, Nixon failed, Carter failed, Clinton failed — and Obama succeeded. He filled in the one big remaining gap in the American welfare state when all his forerunners couldn’t.
But Obama’s domestic achievements were not just limited to health care.
The Affordable Care Act was hardly Obama’s only accomplishment. He passed a stimulus bill that included major reforms to the nation’s education system, big spending on clean energy, and significant expansions of antipoverty programs. He shepherded through the Dodd-Frank Act, the first significant crackdown on Wall Street’s power in a generation, which has been far more successful than commonly acknowledged.
He used executive action to enact bold regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and to protect nearly 6 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. He ended the ban on gay and lesbian service in the military, made it easier for women and minorities to fight wage discrimination, cut out wasteful private sector involvement in student loans, and hiked the top income tax rate. He reprofessionalized the Department of Justice and refashioned the National Labor Relations Board and the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department into highly effective forces for workers’ rights.
His presidency holds massive symbolic value as proof that the reign of white men over American government can be halted and America as a whole can be represented. And while he was too slow in announcing support for same-sex marriage, he appointed two of the justices behind the Supreme Court’s historic decision that legalized it nationwide, and enlisted his Justice Department on the side of the plaintiffs.
There are obviously places Obama fell short. I think he didn’t take monetary policy nearly seriously enough, that he’s fallen short on combating HIV/AIDS and other public health scourges abroad, that his early push to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants was indefensible, and that perpetrators of torture and other war crimes from the Bush administration should have been criminally prosecuted. But while Obama could have accomplished more, it could never be said that he accomplished little.
“When you add the ACA to the reforms in the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and his various climate initiatives,” Pierson says, “I don’t think there is any doubt: On domestic issues Obama is the most consequential and successful Democratic president since LBJ. It isn’t close.”
And on foreign issues, Obama’s record is perhaps the most successful of any Democratic president since Truman. He has reestablished productive diplomacy as the central task of a progressive foreign policy, and as a viable alternative approach to dealing with countries the GOP foreign policy establishment would rather bomb.
You can generally divide American presidents into two camps: the mildly good or bad but ultimately forgettable (Clinton, Carter, Taft, Harrison), and the hugely consequential for good or ill (FDR, Lincoln, Nixon, Andrew Johnson). Whether you love or hate his record, there’s no question Obama’s domestic and foreign achievements place him firmly in the latter camp.
This, of course, isn’t just about Obama — where the statutory achievements are concerned, it’s about Reid and Pelosi as well, just as the large Democratic majorities and moderate/liberal Republican allies were crucial to the New Deal and Great Society. But it’s true that there have been a handful of American presidencies under which there were major shifts in American policy in a clearly progressive direction — Lincoln, FDR, LBJ — and Obama is the fourth. (You can argue for Wilson, but Obama’s record even in historical context is much more consistently progressive.) It’s true that the major achievements under Obama are all flawed, but as Erik said recently the New Deal in particular was very heavily compromised — sometimes by the need for segregationist votes, sometimes because FDR himself had bad ideas. The high-veto-point institutional structure of American politics doesn’t lend itself to unambiguous wins for the left; it’s just that it’s easier to forget the compromises of the past than those of the present. The idea that has graced so many Harper’s cover stories (and, apparently, Tom Frank’s new book) that the Obama presidency was a minor blip signifying the further drift of the Democratic Party to the right is absurd now and will look even more absurd in 20 years. Among other issues, it’s just a massively ahistorical argument.