Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Obama Accomplishments Update

This blog gets a lot of hits from people searching for a list of the Obama administration's accomplishments, due to one of my least original posts, one I did last fall that merely copied a list prepared by Professor Robert Watson of 90 accomplishments of the Obama administration to date.  I imagine that people are searching for such lists to add fuel to arguments between Obama supporters and detractors.  I doubt that such lists ever resolve such arguments, however, since Obama's critics can always carp about the significance of many of the accomplishments on the list, or can argue that these accomplishments are actually harmful.

At this point, however, the argument about whether the Obama administration has in fact accomplished anything important should be over.  A couple of months ago that might have been debatable, but it has become increasingly obvious that the Obama presidency has already made major changes. The high water mark for critics who were anxious to label the whole Obama program a failure probably occurred right after the election of Scott Brown, when it looked like health insurance reform might not pass.  Now that the landmark health insurance bill has passed, and as major financial regulation  is also about to pass, some major planks of Obama's legacy are already in place.  What has also become clear is that even without a 60 vote majority in the Senate, there is sufficient popular support for the administration's programs that the administration has the clout to get the legislation it sponsors through the Congress.  The Republicans are hoping this will change in November, but thus far the Republican leadership's obstructionist tactics have not prevented the enactment of landmark bills in a number of areas.  People can criticize those accomplishments, as they have from all directions, but they cannot deny the importance this record.  The New York Times  has now made this point official by declaring this week that "Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition."  This record may not yet match FDR's, but certainly compares favorably with Johnson's or Reagan's in its potentially transformative nature.

What makes the Obama program transformative?  First, the stimulus bill: instead of focusing on tax reduction, it focused on massive public works programs, which will create infrastructure for the future, and produce greater short term and long term economic benefits than would have obtained with just another tax cut.  Although the public has not yet seen all of the benefits of this stimulus spending, as these benefits become apparent, this new direction will do a lot to reverse the decades-old assumption that only by shrinking government can we expand the economy.  Second, the health care bill: representing the first time the government has attempted to get a handle on everyone's health insurance, as opposed to targeted programs for the elderly, the poor, or the military.  For the first time in history we have established the principle that everyone is entitled to affordable health insurance.  We still have a long ways to go to implement that ideal effectively, but the principle has been established.  Third, financial regulation:  The bill wending its way through Congress represents the most important set of new regulations since the New Deal, repudiating the idea of the past several decades that banks and other financial institutions should be left to their own devices.

What remains on the agenda is a more comprehensive approach to solving energy and environmental problems.  And perhaps a new approach to immigration.  And on the foreign policy agenda, a more cooperative and less confrontational approach to solving international problems.

We should not be surprised at the vehemence of the reaction to these changes, as they challenge conventional wisdom going back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  What we should do is move on from the debate about whether the Obama administration has accomplished anything, and make greater efforts to work together, instead of fighting one another, to solve common problems.  Because the change in the nature of our politics that the Obama campaign promised still has a long way to go before it approaches anything like reality.

(Photo montage from New York Times article, crediting Associated Press; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Luke Sharrett/The New York Times; George Tames/The New York Times)


  1. Joe,

    One point of disagreement. The healthcare reform achieves more than just establishing an important principle. It will work a fundamental change in the delivery of healthcare in this country, primarily by eliminating the role of medical underwriting and ensuring that everyone has access to affordable medical coverage regardless of illness and pre-existing conditions. The importance of this reform appears to have been lost under criticism from uninformed commentators on the left who dismissed it as "pathetic" and "watered down." More remains to be done, but this reform already represents a major substantive achivement.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Tom. We don't disagree at all. In addition to the things you mention, the bill also provides billions of dollars in subsidies that will enable millions of people to obtain health insurance who could not afford it before. Substantively, it does a lot. My point is directed at people who are complaining that the bill does not do enough. And they are right that it doesn't do enough to control costs, and that it should have included at least a public option. Since those critics are carping about the substance of the bill not being strong enough, I think it might be helpful to remind people that establishing the principle that affordable health insurance is now a right that the government has an obligation to guarantee is also a pretty major accomplishment.

  3. Terrific editorial commentary Joe...thank you!

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Susan. Your website really looks great!