Mr. Kristof has “Obama’s First-Term Report Card.” He says considering that we were sliding toward a Great Depression before President Obama took office, of course, we’re better off now. Ms. Collins, in “Bill, Barack and Us,” says the Democratic convention was treated to many, many, many words of wisdom from the Talker in Chief. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
On a backpacking trip once, I slipped on a steep ice sheet and began sliding uncontrollably toward the edge of a cliff overhanging an icy river.
Luckily, my son pulled me to safety with his trekking pole. Am I better off now than I was when I was sliding toward the abyss? Duh!
That’s a useful starting point in any assessment of President Obama. In many ways, his first term has been disappointing: the economy remains weak, housing is a mess and, for a man with a silver tongue, he has been a wretched communicator. Then again, we’re incomparably better off than when we were tumbling toward another Great Depression.
With that in mind, let me offer a first-term report card for Obama.
ECONOMY: B In January 2009, the month Obama took office, America lost 818,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the biggest monthly loss in six decades, and many feared a complete banking collapse.
Obama rescued the banking and auto sectors. Independent estimates suggest his stimulus may have saved or created more than three million jobs, and an anemic recovery began. The Economist magazine, conservative by nature, assessed: “His handling of the crisis and recession were impressive.”
However, the administration blew it with overoptimistic comments that shredded its credibility. It was also too generous to banks in negotiating their rescues, and it often seemed oblivious to resentment of crony capitalism, and to broader issues of economic inequality.
Worst of all, Obama dropped the ball on housing, betraying struggling homeowners. Far fewer mortgages have been modified or refinanced under administration programs than expected, and some Americans have lost their homes as a result, exacerbating inequality. Underwater mortgages have been a drag on the entire economy.
EDUCATION: A- Democrats traditionally favored every antipoverty program except the one that might be most effective: reform of inner-city schools. Finally, that has changed under Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan.
They have pilfered Republican ideas and repositioned the Democratic Party to make school reform a top priority. They are willing to offend teachers’ unions but recognize the practical need to work closely with them. Obama’s Race to the Top initiative bribed states to devise their own school reforms, a cost-effective way to achieve nationwide change.
Obama has pushed Pell grants to make college more affordable and has promoted investments in community colleges. (Unfortunately, he hasn’t done quite as well on early childhood education, which should be every bit as much a priority as tertiary education.)
OTHER DOMESTIC ISSUES: B+ Obama gets credit for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in our armed forces. He took a step toward immigration reform by allowing certain young immigrants to obtain work permits. Above all, he achieved health care reform — a goal of presidents for more than half-a-century.
FOREIGN POLICY: B+ Obama brought troops home from Iraq and took out Osama bin Laden. He was superb in providing bold leadership in Libya, at a time when so many American experts were saying that the intervention wouldn’t work. His unusual move in picking Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state has paid off brilliantly, and it’s great to see the State Department pursuing a 21st-century agenda that includes girls’ education as well as, say, arms control.
Then again, Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan has accomplished little except a huge increase in blood and treasure spilled there. In Pakistan, a more important country than either Iraq or Afghanistan, Obama has stumbled.
Obama’s peace effort in the Middle East collapsed, partly because of administration infighting and ineptitude, and he often seemed behind the curve during the Arab Spring. He has been purely reactive in Syria and hypocritical in the case of brutal repression by our ally Bahrain.
A bright spot is Obama’s international coalition to squeeze Iran, while restraining jingoists in Israel from dragging us into a war there. One way or another, I fear that we may well end up at war with Iran in the next four years, but my sense is that that is less likely in an Obama administration than in a Romney administration.
COMMUNICATION: F A president’s central job is not policy wonk but national team captain. There Obama failed us. He has not made the case for his policies, nor has he comforted the nation as Franklin Roosevelt did in his fireside chats. Presidents always campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but the prose doesn’t have to be chilly Latin!
In short, we have a mixed picture, not as triumphant as the Democrats in Charlotte, N.C., claim, but still much better than many Americans give Obama credit for. A pithy summary comes from Vice President Joe Biden: Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive. That’s not a bad re-election bumper sticker.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
On Wednesday, the Democrats got to the point.
That was thanks to Bill Clinton, Beloved Democrat, a man who got negative ratings from only 27 percent of Americans in one recent national poll. There are pictures of kittens that get worse grades.
Everyone at the convention was eager to hear what Clinton had to say, particularly Barack Obama’s aides who had been pacing around all day waiting to get a look at the transcript.
A lot! Clinton ran overtime — surprise! — talking for nearly 50 minutes about a President Obama who had saved the auto industry, passed a stimulus that totally worked, improved the environment, reduced student loan costs, passed a transformative health care law, offered a reasonable and workable plan for debt reduction and helped create millions of private-sector jobs. If there was still stuff left undone, it was because “no president — not me, not any of my predecessors — could fully have repaired the damage he found in just four years.”
He also said cooperation is better than conflict and a broken clock is right twice a day. He supports our men and women overseas. It’s not like every word was golden.
But, really, it was some endorsement from a guy who’d been consigned to the Alpha Doghouse for trash-talking Obama during the 2008 primaries. Remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about there being no second acts in American lives? So wrong, Scott. Let me introduce you to Mr. Act Twelve.
The Democrats had been waiting for Clinton’s speech for two days, during which they diverted themselves with a couple of brief platform fights, one about inserting a mention of God, who had inadvertently been cut out of the platform’s 40 pages. (The Republicans left Tampa, Fla., wondering who had invited Clint Eastwood. The Democrats are now wondering who disinvited God.)
There was, of course, a lot of talk about rising from humble roots. The Republicans played that card hard, too. But Ann Romney’s story about eating off an ironing board in college couldn’t match Michelle Obama’s saga of riding in a car “so rusted out I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side-door.”
When she mentioned that, I remembered that when my husband and I were in graduate school, he had a car with exactly the same problem. I wonder if the president had to park in out-of-the-way places to conceal the fact that the safety sticker on the windshield was four years out of date. If so, perhaps it’s just as well not to go into it.
Michelle was a wow, but there’s something kind of ironic about a woman wearing the best dress in the history of political conventions, one that offers a particularly flattering view of the best upper arms in the history of the female gender, giving a speech in which she earnestly explains how she is just like us.
The first lady had a lot to say about the burden of student loans, but in her eagerness to press a mom-centric theme, never mentioned her work life after Harvard Law. One of the unremarked-upon factoids in recent political history is that the last two Democratic presidents both had their careers underwritten by lawyer spouses who served as the chief family wage-earners.
That brings us back to Bill Clinton, the first Democratic president to be the target of the wild-eyed hatred of a new far right that seemed incapable of accepting the fact that more people had voted for him than their alternative. In 1993, he got his party to raise taxes to get the soaring national deficits under control. It was a huge lift, and politically disastrous. The Democrats lost Congress in 1994. A freshman House member from Pennsylvania, who reluctantly cast the deciding “yes” vote, was politically ruined forever. (Chelsea is now married to her son. Really, you cannot make these Clinton stories up.)
The country got the reward. By the time Clinton left office, trailed by yet another scandal involving presidential pardons, the unemployment rate was 4 percent. Then he handed the country over to George W. Bush, who was pressured to cut taxes by the right wing that is now running the Republican show.
We’re saddled with monster deficits, and the Republicans refuse to let this president do the brave thing Bill Clinton did, and get us more revenue.
So, we’re almost done, convention-wise. We’ve learned that both parties like God and moms, particularly moms with humble roots. They both have faith that people who work hard and play by the rules can overcome exposure to secondhand furniture while they’re in college. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of whether you want to raise taxes and balance the budget like Clinton, or cut taxes and plunge us into a hopeless sea of debt like Bush. Let the fight begin.