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A Critical Presidency

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Ygelsias is correct here:

On November 26, the Obama administration put forward new anti-smog regulations that should prevent thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks every year. About two weeks later, Obama’s appointees at the Federal Reserve implemented new rules curbing reckless borrowing by giant banks that will reduce profits and shareholder earnings but increase the safety of the financial system. Yet both of these were minor stories compared to normalizing relations with Cuba after decades and his sweeping plan to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Somewhere in the meantime, Democrats broke the congressional logjam and got a whole boatload of nominees confirmed.

It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama’s party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats’ overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a “realigning” election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won’t be.

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In an excellent November 26 article, Coral Davenport observed that Obama will likely “leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House” even though “it is very possible that not a single major environmental law will have passed during his two terms in Washington.” The Clean Air Act of 1970 simply turns out to be a very powerful tool crafted by very ambitious legislators, who wanted to make sure future administrations would be able to address not-yet-foreseen environmental problems. He’s used that law to issue a “series of landmark regulations on air pollution, from soot to smog, to mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide.”

In his second term, Obama has also managed to get a record number of judges confirmed thanks to Democrats’ use of the nuclear option to reduce filibustering. When Obama took office, 10 of the 13 appeals courts had Republican majorities — today only four do

As I’ve said before, the only two presidents who can even arguably been said to have presided over a more substantial body of progressive policy-making in the last century are FDR and LBJ, and both did so in significantly more favorable contexts.

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