Jonathan Chait has published a nice little pick-me-up for discouraged Democrats, Obama Promised to Do 4 Big Things As President. Now He’s Done Them All. The four big things are: economic recovery, healthcare reform, climate change, and education reform. Barring the courts interfering with the new power plant regulations, he has done major things on all of these.
Chait rightly points out that one can complain that he didn’t do enough (if you’re on the left) or he did the wrong things (if you’re crazy). But you can’t deny that he has accomplished a lot. The “hapless mediocrity” meme on the right ought to be dead. And I’ll go further than Chait in one way, I think that Obama did all this despite more resistance than any president has ever faced. So yeah, Dodd-Frank is a really weak law and not even close to what we need. But given the Congress that he had, we should be impressed with what we did get.
There’s one thing that I disagree with Chait about, “What’s no longer possible is to imagine that historians will look back at Obama’s presidency and conclude not much got done.” He’s basing that statement on the fact that Obama did what he said he was going to do. But that isn’t how presidents are judged. To be honest, the way historians judge presidents are no less fickle than the way the people judge them. The only difference is that historians have a longer list of presidents to judge.
And how do the people judge presidents? On one thing: how the economy was when they left office. And in that regard, I think that Obama will do okay. But he won’t be remembered like Reagan and Clinton are remembered. They are both remembered well because the economy had been struggling when they came into office and it took off midway through their presidencies. The fact that neither president really deserves any credit for this—that it was was just dumb luck—doesn’t really matter. If the economy continues to improve, Obama will be remembered for that. Otherwise, I don’t think it much matters.
Think about Richard Nixon. I know he’s a special case, but the man did start the EPA. Do normal people even know that? Is he given much credit for it? I know that Obamacare is a big deal, but the way the law was created, it was designed to not seem like a law at all. More people will get Medicaid. Most won’t know whether they would have qualified before or not. The exchanges and the subsidies will just become part of what everyone does and no one will think about it. Healthcare inflation has been reduced? Hooray! That means once Republicans get back into power, they will have more money to waste on tax cuts for the rich and their beloved crony capitalism.
In the end, Obama will be judged on the economy. And there really were things that he could have done to make things a lot better. But to do that, he needed a willing partner in Congress. He didn’t have that, even when Congress was controlled by the Democrats. And I’m not sure Obama himself understood the economic situation correctly. So if the economy continues to improve, history will say he was a pretty good president—maybe even a damned good president. But just like with Reagan and Clinton before him, it won’t actually say anything about him.