Nostalgic about 2008’s canvassing in Pennsylvania, crying on election day, getting drunk with coworkers on Nov. 5th, attending the Obama Pajama party in DC, and finally, standing in the crowds on the Mall on January 20th, 2009.
I have figured out The Problem With America Today. My inspiration was the recent one-year-later cover of Newsweek, which encapsulates the current conventional wisdom about President Obama in a single headline: YES HE CAN (BUT HE SURE HASN’T YET). Or, as Saturday Night Live put it, President Obama’s two biggest accomplishments thus far are “Jack and Squat.” You can find other versions of this perspective from Matt Lauer and David Gregory on NBC, from thousands of obnoxious bloggers, even from the hapless governor of New York.
These days, the argument that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything may be the only example of real bipartisanship in America.
Here’s the conventional wisdom in a single paragraph: Three hundred and sixty-four days after he was elected president, Obama is still stuck in Iraq, hasn’t closed Guantánamo, is getting deeper into Afghanistan, hasn’t accomplished health-care reform or slowed the rise in unemployment. His promises of bipartisanship are a punch line (see above). And there’s still no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What a failure! What a splash of cold water in the face of all our bold hopes!
But the conventional wisdom is insane. Consider the record:
A week before he was sworn in, Obama jammed part two of the bank bailout down the throat of his own party — a $350 billion accomplishment.
Two days after he was sworn in, Obama banned the use of “harsh interrogation” and ordered the closing of Guantánamo.
A day later, Obama reversed George W. Bush’s funding cutoff to overseas family planning organizations — saving millions of lives with the stroke of a pen.
Three days after that, Obama gave a green light to the California car-emissions standards that Bush had been blocking for six years — an important step on the road to cleaner air and a cooler planet.
Two weeks after that, Obama signed the stimulus bill — a $787 billion accomplishment.
Ten days after that, Obama formally announced America’s withdrawal from Iraq.
A week later — we’re in early March now — Obama erased Bush’s decision to restrict federal funding for stem-cell research.
In April and June, Obama forced Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy.
In June, Obama reset the tone of our relations with the entire Arab world with a single speech — an accomplishment that the Bush administration failed to achieve despite a series of desperate PR moves (anyone remember Charlotte Beers?) and a “public diplomacy” budget of $1 billion a year.
Also in June, Obama unveiled the “Cash for Clunkers” program, a “socialist” giveaway that reanimated the corpse of our car industry — leading, for example, to the billion-dollar profit that Ford announced on Monday.
I haven’t even mentioned Sonia Sotomayor, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the order to release the torture memos, Obama’s push for charter schools, his $288 billion tax cut, or the end of Bush’s war on medical marijuana. Or the minor fact that he seems to have — with Bush’s help, it must be said — stopped the financial collapse, revived the credit markets, and nudged the economy toward 3.5 percent growth in the last quarter.
Oh, and one more thing: President Obama is now a month or two from accomplishing the awesome and seemingly impossible task that eluded mighty presidents like FDR, LBJ, and WJC — health-care reform.
Obama’s early returns also include a host of remarkably cautious and prudent national-security decisions that seem, these days, to have been completely forgotten:
Appointing a conservative Bush holdover like Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.
Appointing an establishment centrist like Leon Panetta at CIA.
Appointing a hard-ass like Stanley McChrystal to head up our military forces in Afghanistan, despite McChrystal’s dubious involvement in torture and the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death.
Increasing the number of drone attacks on Al Qaeda — more in the last year than all the Bush years combined.
Reinstating, with tweaks, Bush’s military tribunal system for Guantánamo prisoners.
Fighting, in another unexpected defense of a controversial Bush policy, lawsuits against the “warrantless wiretapping” program — as recently as this weekend with a decision that a leading civil liberties group called “extremely disappointing.”
Sending, way back in February, seventeen thousand more soldiers to Afghanistan. As Fareed Zakaira recently pointed out, this was just three thousand fewer soldiers than Bush sent to Iraq for his famous “surge.”
Noticing a pattern yet? The first half of Obama’s accomplishments above is mostly liberal stuff. The bottom half is all pretty dang conservative. Which brings us to The Problem With America Today: Blame it on the Internet, on partisan politics, on the economic crash, on the legacy of war or Fox News or Michael Moore, but our vital center is getting stiff — and it is starting to stink.
Liberals are upset because Obama didn’t shut down Guantánamo or stop the wiretapping program or end all wars or support gay marriage and kill Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Conservatives are pissed off because they hate health-care reform, family planning, ending any war at all, organic gardening at the White House, and government in general.
What’s worse, both sides are so angry and righteous that they can’t even begin to give credit where it is due. When was the last time you heard a conservative cheer about that $288 billion tax cut? Or credit Obama for the centrism it took to appoint McChrystal, Panetta, and Gates? And how many liberals choose to be understanding about the practical difficulties of shutting down Guantánamo, achieving equal rights for gays, or tapping Al Qaeda’s phones?
And where, on either side, can you find a scrap of humility about the staggeringly complex challenge of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or a scrap of gratitude at having escaped global financial doom?
So the question, a year since we elected him, isn’t how much Obama has accomplished. The question is why we’ve turned so small and mean that we only see half of it — the half we happen to agree with.