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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Chait: Obama’s First Term Exceeded Expectations

In his New York magazine column, “Obama’s Non-Disappointing Presidency,” Jonathan Chait takes on a common complaint of many progressives that President Obama’s first term failed to meet their lofty expectations, and finds his liberal critics awash in political myopia. Chait begins by conceding the part of their argument that is correct:

…Plenty of things have gone wrong. Most of them are outside Obama’s control: a worldwide economic collapse, a brilliantly executed Republican strategy to withhold cooperation for everything, and a series of self-defeating bungles by the Democratic Congress (which has somehow escaped the endless orgy of liberal self-recrimination.) What’s more, Obama has screwed up plenty of things himself, most notably his doomed strategy of trying to secure a deficit agreement in 2011, his failure to keep pressing on financial reform, and his broad acceptance of the Bush administration’s civil liberties rollback.

Comparing Obama’s first term accomplishments to president Clinton’s much-trumpeted achievements, however, Chait explains:

I expected Obama’s legislative record to exceed Clinton’s, but by less than it actually did. The domestic reforms embedded in the stimulus alone — the scope of which is described in Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal — did more to reshape the face of government in areas like education and energy than Clinton managed in eight years. Then you had health-care reform (which I hoped would pass, but would not have been shocked to be filibustered to death), financial reform (which I expected to fail completely), gays in the military, and so on. It is true that, as stimulus, Obama’s economic recovery bill was not nearly large enough to restore full employment. But for some perspective on its scale, recall that Clinton (facing a sluggish recovery from a far milder recession) proposed a $19.5 billion stimulus as his first major legislative measure, negotiated it down to $15.4 billion, and finally saw the whole thing collapse. In that light, Obama’s $787 billion bill looks like a fairly impressive political achievement.
Now, perhaps comparing Obama to Clinton’s record is setting the bar too low. Yet you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson to find a Democratic president who effected as significant change as Obama has, and L.B.J.’s presidency was not exactly an unmitigated blessing.

Chait then notes the shortcomings, as well as the major achievements, of every Democratic president of the post-World War II period, including some of the unsavory compromises they had to make. Regarding the sainted JFK, Chait adds:

…After his assassination, Americans came to look back on Kennedy’s presidency through a golden-hued nostalgia, which is what allows writers…to present Kennedy as a glamorous poet-king who represented something larger than the pedestrian struggles that actually consumed his presidency…That feeling, more than a legislative record, is the missing quality so many people long for in Obama — the sense of a presidency filled with glamour and purpose, not tedious negotiations with the Senate Finance Committee…The Kennedy myth perfectly embodies the amnesiac quality of that longing. Kennedy’s presidency was experienced as a frustrating series of half-measures and moral compromises.

More the sober realist than the Democratic myth-polisher, Chait explains, “There can be fleeting moments of inspiration, but the lived reality of politics can never feel inspiring…I’m not disappointed in Obama at all. His first term has actually exceeded my expectations.”
It’s another eye-opening column by Chait. I would only add that in this context, the Affordable Care Act, its significant shortcomings notwithstanding, is an historic accomplishment that provides more health security for millions of Americans. If Democrats will now rally behind the president and lengthen his coattails, it can be amended and made even better.

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