Despite a difficult first two years, history may yet be on Barack Obama's side.
By James Fallows
This issue of American Review goes to press before the 2010 US mid-term elections and will appear after they are completed. That timing, potentially awkward, is in fact a valuable reminder of the caution that is always proper in predicting either electoral results or trends in presidential performance and popularity.
The day after an election, newspapers are full of accounts of margins that were 'surprisingly' wide or close. Each 'surprise' is of course evidence for the fluid, subjective, unforeseeable nature of democratic politics. By the end of each presidential administration, analysts can contrast its strengths and weaknesses with the assumptions that prevailed when it began. The gap between expectations and reality is due in part to the purely random—if Lee Harvey Oswald's hand had shaken as he took aim, if John Hinckley's shot at Ronald Reagan had been directed one inch higher, American and world history would have been profoundly changed. But the gap also reflects a systematic bias of the political-analyst class: a tendency to over-project the trend of the moment, and a failure of imagination about reasons for why the trend could change.
A reminder of the uncertainties of the 'long game' is particularly important as Barack Obama begins his third and fourth years in office, since the swing in his perceived status during years one and two was so extreme. On the day he took office in January 2009, his approval rating in the United States was 65 per cent—12 points higher than the share of the vote he had received two months earlier. By the height of the mid-term campaign season in September 2010, Republican candidates were all running against him—as did many Democrats, and very few dared invite him into their districts to campaign on their behalf.
At the time of writing it is impossible to know just how severe the Democratic losses will be when the 112th Congress convenes in 2011. That there will be losses is obvious, since all the big national trends are running the Republicans' way. For instance, persistently high unemployment (always the strongest predictor of loss for incumbents) and disaffection of the Democratic base.
Does this diminished standing necessarily mean that the Obama era can be classified as a disappointment? There are at least three reasons to resist the conclusion that Obama will follow the steady-descent pattern of the president to whom he least welcomes comparisons, Jimmy Carter.
First, when measured by the standard of his real-world predecessors, rather than by his own temporary superhuman status, Obama's situation does not look bad. His predecessor, George W Bush, had approval ratings of nearly 70 per cent after two years in office, but that was because of the singularity of the 9/11 attacks, and it was before making decisions about Iraq, Guantanamo, taxes and spending, the way to use the national unity of the moment that will, in my view, cement his status as one of America's worst leaders.
By the end of his second year, Bill Clinton had, like Obama, achieved one important, narrow legislative victory. In Clinton's case, the one-vote passage of a tax-and-spending measure that put the nation on the path to budget surpluses; in Obama's, the healthcare bill. Unlike Obama, he had suffered a major frontal legislative defeat with his healthcare proposal. His approval ratings as he neared his first mid-terms were no higher than Obama's now.
On the strength of his leadership of the first Gulf War, George H W Bush entered the mid-terms with a popularity rating of nearly 90 per cent, only to lose to Clinton during an economic slowdown two years later.
Because of a recession even worse than the current one, Ronald Reagan entered his first mid-terms with an approval rating in the mid-30s, and then of course went on to an overwhelming re-election and considerable success in placing his mark on policy.
The circumstances vary, but standing at this stage of a presidency has little predictive value for longer-term success.
Second, when measured not on aura but performance, Obama's accomplishments in his first two years in office come closer to matching his campaign promises than many of his predecessors with their platforms.
The failures are obvious: the inability to get a climate deal with China, which in turn followed the failure even to bring a climate bill to a vote in the Senate; the inability to close the detention centre at Guantanamo; the limits of the financial reforms imposed on Wall Street firms in exchange for their being rescued. His economic policy avoided disaster but did not change the long trend towards a polarised society with rising joblessness for the under-educated. No era of comity or reasonableness dawned in Washington or the country at large.
But against those failures, there are significant achievements: passing legislation where Clinton and Carter had failed; averting further worldwide economic catastrophe; containing the American exposure in Iraq and—it seems—preparing to do the same in Afghanistan.
Will it be enough to make him 'meet expectations' by the time he leaves office? As with his predecessors, it depends on what comes next. But it certainly positions him well in the race for re-election. Barring true worldwide disaster, the economic and employment cycle should again be on the way up. As when the Democrats sent Walter Mondale against Reagan in 1984, and the Republicans chose Bob Dole to oppose Clinton in 1996, the opposition party seems unlikely to be able to choose the candidate who could mount the stiffest challenge.
Third is the question forced by any consideration of Obama's rise: whether we are seeing yet another illustration of Obama's success at the 'long game'.
Barack Obama's career on the national stage dates back barely six years. But that has been enough to establish a pattern: often he has been counted out in the early running and then has come back, not so much with a Bill Clinton-like last-minute burst of effort as with the results of what is revealed to have been a long-term strategy all along.
A year before the 2008 presidential election, sophisticated observers in Washington 'knew' for certainty that his campaign had failed to get momentum against Hillary Clinton. Then he won crucial early contests and carried out a sophisticated long-term strategy for gathering delegates. Three months before the 2008 election, the McCain–Palin ticket had shown such energy that it had actually taken the lead. But in the six weeks before the election, Obama's strategy—or luck—of letting them go too far and over-extend themselves paid off with a substantial win.
Through the first year of the healthcare reform debate, his proposal seemed doomed; in the end, he won all the close votes. The 'bailouts' of the banks and auto companies were initially seen as ruinously costly; by late 2010, most of the federal loans were being paid back.
Luck and circumstance played a big role in this pattern. Obama came within one speech—his address on race relations in March 2008, which defused the controversy over the extremist preacher Jeremiah Wright—of being forced out of the race.
Both luck and design—Obama's and others'—will shape the two years ahead. It is still too early to know whether we will in the end be 'disappointed' or 'impressed' by Barack Obama's record as president.