In politics as in finance, markets overshoot. Traders and voters swoon over stocks or politicians one week, and then rage at them the next.
That’s why I’m feeling a bit sorry for President Obama as we approach a midterm election in which he is poised to be cast off like an old sock. The infatuation with Mr. Obama was overdone in 2008, and so is the rejection of him today.
So here’s my message: Give him a chance.
The sourness toward Mr. Obama reminds me of the crankiness toward Al Gore in 2000. We in the news media were tough on Mr. Gore, magnifying his weaknesses, and that fed into a general disdain. So some liberals voted for Ralph Nader, and George W. Bush moved into the White House.
Like others, I have my disappointments with Mr. Obama, including his tripling of forces in Afghanistan. Yet the central problem isn’t that Mr. Obama has been a weak communicator as president or squandered his political capital — although both are true — but that we’re mired in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.[...]
Bill Clinton, who was as good a president as we’ve had in modern times, captured Mr. Obama’s challenge: “I’d like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds,” Mr. Clinton told a crowd in Washington State, according to a Washington Post account.
Mr. Clinton also noted that the midterm elections are not a referendum. “Let’s make this a referendum on everything that’s bothering you about life right now,” he paraphrased the Republicans as saying, before adding: “It is not a referendum. It. Is. A. Choice. A choice between two different sets of ideas.”
The criticisms of Mr. Obama from the left often ring true to me, but I also think we elide the political difficulties of getting better legislation past obstructionists in Congress. A “public option” would have improved the health care package in my judgment, but it might also have killed it.
The economic crisis has also distracted from authentic accomplishments. Presidents since Harry Truman have been pushing for health care reform, and it was Mr. Obama who finally achieved it. The economy seemed at risk of another Great Depression when he took office, and that was downgraded to a recession from which we have officially emerged — even though the pain is still biting.
Mr. Obama has also helped engineer a successful auto bailout, a big push for clean energy, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to reduce sex discrimination, tighter tobacco regulations aimed at the 1,000 Americans under age 18 who become smokers each day, and tighter financial regulation including reform of credit card rules.
Above all, Mr. Obama has been stellar in one area crucial to our country’s future: education. Democrats historically have been AWOL on school reform because they are beholden to teacher unions, but Mr. Obama has reframed the debate and made it safe to talk about teaching standards and “bad teachers.” Until Mr. Obama, Democrats barely acknowledged that it was possible for a teacher to be bad.
Mr. Obama used stimulus money to keep teachers from being laid off and to nudge states to reform education so as to benefit children for years to come. His “Race to the Top” focused states on education reform as never before.
He has also revamped and expanded student loans and bolstered support for community colleges, opening a new path to higher education for working-class Americans. Millions more Americans may end up in college.
Presidents in both parties have talked for years about the importance of education, but until now it has been lip service. Improving America’s inner-city schools will be a long slog, but Mr. Obama has done far more than any other president in this area — arguably our single greatest national challenge. In my view, it’s his greatest achievement, and it has been largely ignored.
So, sure, go ahead and hold Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire. He deserves to be held accountable. But let’s not allow economic malaise to cloud our judgment and magnify America’s problems in ways that become self-fulfilling.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Please give the President a break
Over in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof makes a great case for giving President Barack Obama a break.