Less than halfway through his first term, Obama has compiled a remarkable track record. As president, he has rewritten America's social contract to make health care accessible for all citizens. He has brought 100,000 troops home from war and forged a once-unthinkable consensus around the endgame for the Bush administration's $3 trillion blunder in Iraq. He has secured sweeping financial reforms that elevate the rights of consumers over Wall Street bankers and give regulators powerful new tools to prevent another collapse. And most important of all, he has achieved all of this while moving boldly to ward off another Great Depression and put the country back on a halting path to recovery.
Along the way, Obama delivered record tax cuts to the middle class and slashed nearly $200 billion in corporate welfare — reinvesting that money to make college more accessible and Medicare more solvent. He single-handedly prevented the collapse of the Big Three automakers — saving more than 1 million jobs — and brought Big Tobacco, at last, under the yoke of federal regulation. Even in the face of congressional intransigence on climate change, he has fought to constrain carbon pollution by executive fiat and to invest $200 billion in clean energy — an initiative bigger than John F. Kennedy's moonshot and one that's on track to double America's capacity to generate renewable energy by the end of Obama's first term.
On the social front, he has improved pay parity for women and hate-crime protections for gays and lesbians. He has brought a measure of sanity to the drug war, reducing the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine while granting states wide latitude to experiment with marijuana laws. And he has installed two young, female justices on the Supreme Court, creating what Brinkley calls "an Obama imprint on the court for generations."
What's even more impressive about Obama's accomplishments, historians say, is the fractious political coalition he had to marshal to victory. "He didn't have the majority that LBJ had," says Goodwin. Indeed, Johnson could count on 68 Democratic senators to pass Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act. For his part, Franklin Roosevelt had the backing of 69 Senate Democrats when he passed Social Security in 1935. At its zenith, Obama's governing coalition in the Senate comprised 57 Democrats, a socialist, a Republican turncoat — and Joe Lieberman.
In his quest for progress, Obama has also had to maneuver against an unrelenting head wind from the "Party of No" and its billionaire backers. "Obama is harassed as well as opposed," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "The crazy Republican right is now unfettered. You've got a Senate with no adult leadership. And Obama's up against Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and the rest of the professional right." Compared to the opposition faced by the most transformative Democratic presidents, adds Wilentz, "it's a wholly different scale."
Despite such obstacles, Obama has succeeded in forging a progressive legacy that, anchored by health care reform, puts him "into the same conversation with FDR and LBJ," says Brinkley, "though those two accomplished more." Goodwin, herself a former Johnson aide, likens the thrust of Obama's social agenda to LBJ's historic package of measures known as the Great Society. "What is comparable," she says, "is the idea of using government to expand social and economic justice. That's what the health care bill is about. That's what Obama tried to do with the financial reforms. That's what he's doing with education. The Great Society was about using the collective energies of the nation to make life better for more people — and that's what Obama has tried to do."
The historic progress that Obama has made is evident in eight key areas:
1 | Averting a Depression
Any discussion of Barack Obama's performance as president starts — and frequently ends — with one number: 9.6 percent. That brutal, stagnant unemployment figure cries out "failure."
But contemplate for a moment the abyss that Obama's leadership steered us away from — where we would be today if laissez-faire Republican radicals had succeeded in allowing the economic collapse to take its course. According to a study by economists from Princeton and Moody's, more than 16 million jobs would have been lost without the interventions of TARP, the Recovery Act and the Federal Reserve — double the damage actually suffered. Unemployment would have spiked to 16.5 percent, and next year's federal deficit would have more than doubled, to $2.6 trillion. "With outright deflation in prices and wages," the study concludes, "this dark scenario constitutes a 1930s-like depression."
Obama played a pivotal role in the economic interventions that staved off disaster. He renominated Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve, backing the central bank's use of record-low interest rates to prop up the banking system. He demanded unprecedented transparency of both the Fed and Wall Street in administering "stress tests" that restored the confidence of panicked investors, allowing "zombie banks" to return to the living without resorting to nationalization. Thanks to such stewardship, the Treasury now estimates, the price tag for the TARP bailout has dropped from $700 billion (the equivalent of the Pentagon's annual budget) to $29 billion (about one-fourth the spending on veterans). Above all, the president drove the passage of the Recovery Act, which the Princeton-Moody's study concludes has created nearly 2.7 million jobs.
"The stimulus did what it was supposed to do," says Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody's and a former adviser to John McCain. "It ended the Great Recession and it jump-started a recovery."
Republican critics have blasted the Recovery Act as a failure because it did not hold unemployment below eight percent, as the president's economic advisers had promised. And liberal economists accused Obama of failing to fight hard enough to enact a bigger stimulus that would have saved more jobs. But since the original stimulus squeaked through, the president has won a series of stand-alone measures — including three extensions of unemployment benefits, the Cash for Clunkers program, a second round of aid for states and a package of loans and tax cuts for small businesses — that have infused another $170 billion into the economy. The Recovery Act itself, meanwhile, has grown from $787 billion to $814 billion, thanks to provisions that were smartly pegged to metrics like unemployment.
In fact, should Obama secure passage of two new programs he has proposed — $50 billion in infrastructure spending and $200 billion in tax breaks for investments in new equipment — he will have surpassed the $1 trillion stimulus that many liberal economists believed from the beginning was necessary. "As the need became more obvious to people, we were able to take additional steps to accelerate progress," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod tells Rolling Stone. The president, in effect, has achieved through patience and pragmatism what he was unlikely to have won through open political warfare.
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