As The One Year Mark Approaches, There's A Case That Can Be Made For Obama-- And Then There's Afghanistan
And last night Rachel Maddow made it. If you missed her show, you can watch that segment above, which starts with a short, incredulous glimpse at the Fox-Palin sideshow Obama's advisors are hoping is what he gets to run against in 2012. But if watching Sarah Palin stumble incoherently from mindless GOP talking point to mindless GOP talking point makes you sick to your stomach, don't worry; it only lasts a few pained seconds before Rachel makes the case that-- contrary to what we posited Sunday (you know, that the Obama/FDR comparison doesn't hold up), Obama is, indeed, the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt.
She's pushing back against the overarching Republican Party/Fox News talking point of the week, namely that after one year Obama's presidency has been a failure. She then proceeds to explain why it hasn't been-- a hard sell for progressive devotees in her audience. "We didn't have a second Great Depression," she asserts. "We still have a banking system, which wasn't a given a year or so ago." She had to turn to foreign media-- our own being so... well, you know-- to find an analysis that explains the taxpapyers making a profit of $52 billion on the bank bailout.
For all the unpopularity of the bailouts and the scare-the-teapartiers actions of the Fed and the Treasury Department; for all the demagoguing and freaking out about the economy, the numbers look OK. They at least seem to have gotten a lot better under Mr. Obama. He things to have turned things around.
And then she goes on to his legislative accomplishments. She sure makes it sound like he's accomplished a lot and points her viewers to Jacob Weisberg's look back at Obama's first year in Slate: Obama's Brilliant First Year. Weisberg's subtitle is "By January, he will have accomplished more than any first-year president since Franklin Roosevelt."
This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year isn't just premature—it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely [uh... it looks like he'll be lucky-- very lucky-- if he gets a bill in February], Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn't an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record-- how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.
The case for Obama's successful freshman year rests above all on the health care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate. Democrats have been trying to pass national health insurance for 60 years. Past presidents who tried to make it happen and failed include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.
We are so submerged in the details of this debate-- whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox-- that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.
Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February-- combined with the bank bailout package-- prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama's decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain's economic advisers, on this point: "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do-- it is contributing to ending the recession," he said. "In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."
Rachel highlighted this quote:
Her transition is "And speaking of LBJ," which I'll use to go in a somewhat different direction than Rachel wandered off in. Again, you can watch the whole segment above. Please do; you may need it if you're going to be around Fox and Hate Talk Radio repeaters over the course of the next week. But when I think of LBJ, I also think of a deceptive, unjust, futile and failed war in Asia. LBJ's was in East Asia. Obama's is in Central Asia. And last night, when everyone was looking at other bright, shiny objects, A.P. ran a short little-noticed mention that on top of the $708 billion war budget Obama has for next year, he's slipping in another $33 billion, specifically to fight increasingly unpopular occupations of and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The extra $33 billion in 2010 would go mostly toward expansion of the war in Afghanistan. Obama ordered an extra 30,000 troops for that war as part of an overhaul of the war strategy late last year.
The request for that additional funding will be sent to Congress at the same time as the record spending request for next year, making financing the war an especially difficult pill for some of Obama's Democratic allies to swallow.
Is anyone going to stop him? Certainly not the Republicans. They