As Barack Obama ends his first year in office, there is much talk about disillusionment with the president among progressives. The litany of complaints is obvious: unemployment still at 10 percent, economic policies unduly favorable to Wall Street, the surge in Afghanistan, compromises on health care, the failure to close down Guantánamo, and a general inability to bring about the transformative change that Obama spoke of during his campaign.
Policy has certainly not moved as fast or as far as many of us would like. But perhaps because I never shared the political fantasies about Obama in the first place, I don't feel let down, and I don't think other liberals should. No president was about to turn the country around on a dime -- the structure of our government doesn't allow it. And anyone who paid attention to what Obama said as a candidate about specific matters of policy would have realized he wasn't the lefty some imagined and others feared.
It is a myth, as the historian David Greenberg argues in the January issue of The Atlantic, that great presidents always leave their mark in the first year. Abraham Lincoln had an inglorious debut; John F. Kennedy's first year was a failure. Even Franklin Roosevelt, who is the model for whirlwind transformation because of the bold initiatives of his first 100 days, got off to a false start with the National Recovery Administration. It took another two years to pass Social Security and the Wagner Act, and it was not until the war that necessity drove FDR to adopt Keynesian policies sufficient to end the Depression.
A year ago, as the nation spiraled into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, many were comparing Obama to Roosevelt or at least to an image they had of FDR. Obama may never meet that standard, but if we measure where we are today against the threat to the economy as 2009 began, he has done well enough. The financial system is no longer near collapse, the hated bailout is being repaid faster than expected, and the evidence is that the stimulus plan is working -- though it isn't big enough, and more needs doing. The president has a thorough grasp of the fiscal imperatives, short- and long-term, as he showed in a reply to a question from my colleague Bob Kuttner at the jobs summit in early December. Action has been too slow on financial regulation, but it is too early to pronounce that a lost cause.
Obama has placed his biggest bet in domestic policy on health reform, setting it as his top priority but leaving the specifics to Congress -- and that strategy seems to be working. If Congress enacts a bill that extends insurance to some 30 million Americans and puts health-care finance on a new foundation, albeit with many compromises, it will be a signal triumph for the president -- and the single biggest measure on behalf of low-income Americans in more than 40 years.
On Afghanistan/Pakistan, it's impossible to know whether Obama's strategy will work. But I am persuaded (as I was in the aftermath of September 11) that the United States has cause to be in Afghanistan. Because Obama made it clear as a candidate that was his view, no one who voted for him should be surprised by his decision. I take some confidence from the fact that he gave the policy an intensive and skeptical review, immersed himself in analysis and intelligence, and heard out competing views espoused by top members of his administration, including the vice president. His speech at West Point was crisp and, on the general logic of his approach, convincing.
In the first few months of his presidency, commentators were accusing Obama of trying to do too much. Now people are deriding him for getting nowhere. He was right to take on a wide range of tough problems, and no one should be shocked at the obstacles in his path. His party's congressional majority is no guarantee of action since the Democrats are more ideologically diverse than the Republicans. That is the reason they are in the majority -- and the reason they cannot take full advantage of it. As a result of the now-routine use of the filibuster, nothing but the budget can get through the Senate with fewer than 60 votes, and those 60 include Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson.
Of course, Obama will be even more constrained if Democrats suffer major losses this coming November because of discouragement among the party's progressive base. To mobilize voters in the fall, he has to be inspiring; to get things done before then, he has to be patient and analytical. Fortunately, Obama combines those qualities better than anyone else in politics today.