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Commentary: Obama's record: Yes, he could

by on June 17, 2014 10:20 AM

Several times in recent weeks I’ve found myself in conversations with liberals who shake their heads sadly and express their disappointment with President Barack Obama. Why? I suspect that they’re being influenced, often without realizing it, by the prevailing media narrative.

The truth is that these days much of the commentary you see on the Obama administration — and a lot of the reporting, too — emphasizes the negative: the contrast between the extravagant hopes of 2008 and the prosaic realities of political trench warfare, the troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the mess in Iraq, and so on. The accepted thing, it seems, is to portray Obama as floundering, his presidency as troubled if not failed.

But this is all wrong. You should judge leaders by their achievements, not their press, and in terms of policy substance Obama is having a seriously good year. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2014 will go down in the record books as one of those years when America took a major turn in the right direction.

First, health reform is now a reality — and despite a shambolic start, it’s looking like a big success story. Remember how nobody was going to sign up? First-year enrollments came in above projections. Remember how people who signed up weren’t actually going to pay their premiums? The vast majority have.

We don’t yet have a full picture of the impact of reform on the previously uninsured, but all the information we do have indicates major progress. Surveys, like the monthly survey by Gallup, show a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans reporting themselves as uninsured. States that expanded Medicaid and actively promoted the new exchanges have done especially well — for example, a new survey of Minnesota shows a 40 percent drop in the number of uninsured residents.

And there’s every reason to expect a lot of additional progress next year. Notably, additional insurance companies are entering the exchanges, which is both an indication that insurers believe things are going well and a reason to expect more competition and outreach next year.

Then there’s climate policy. The Obama administration’s new rules on power plants won’t be enough in themselves to save the planet, but they’re a real start — and are by far the most important environmental initiative since the Clean Air Act. I’d add that this is an issue on which Obama is showing some real passion.

Oh, and financial reform, although it’s much weaker than it should have been, is real — just ask all those Wall Street types who, enraged by the new limits on their wheeling and dealing, have turned their backs on the Democrats.

Put it all together, and Obama is looking like a very consequential president indeed. There were huge missed opportunities early in his administration — inadequate stimulus, the failure to offer significant relief to distressed homeowners. Also, he wasted years in pursuit of a Grand Bargain on the budget that, aside from turning out to be impossible, would have moved America in the wrong direction. But in his second term he is making good on the promise of real change for the better. So why all the bad press?

Part of the answer may be Obama’s relatively low approval rating. But this mainly reflects political polarization — strong approval from Democrats but universal opposition from Republicans — which is more a sign of the times than a problem with the president. Anyway, you’re supposed to judge presidents by what they do, not by fickle public opinion.

A larger answer, I’d guess, is Simpson-Bowles syndrome — the belief that good things must come in bipartisan packages, and that fiscal probity is the overriding issue of our times. This syndrome persists among many self-proclaimed centrists even though it’s overwhelmingly clear to anyone who has been paying attention that (a) today’s Republicans simply will not compromise with a Democratic president, and (b) the alleged fiscal crisis was vastly overblown.

The result of the syndrome’s continuing grip is that Obama’s big achievements don’t register with much of the Washington establishment: He was supposed to save the budget, not the planet, and somehow he was supposed to bring Republicans along.

But who cares what centrists think? Health reform is a very big deal; if you care about the future, action on climate is a lot more important than raising the retirement age. And if these achievements were made without Republican support, so what?

There are, I suppose, some people who are disappointed that Obama didn’t manage to make our politics less bitter and polarized. But that was never likely. The real question was whether he (with help from Nancy Pelosi and others) could make real progress on important issues. And the answer, I’m happy to say, is yes, he could.



Paul Krugman writes a column for the New York Times.
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