Monday, January 11, 2010

Grading Year 1 of the Obama Administration

The time has come for my rundown of the first year of the Obama Administration. Yes, I realize we are technically still a week short of a year from the Tuesday on which Barack Obama became the 43rd man to assume the Presidency (yes, he is commonly referred to as the "44th President", but that's because Grover Cleveland is counted twice due to his split terms, interesting piece of political trivia for a cocktail party sometime.) But, let's face it, there is very little that is going to change the essential ratings that we will look at. No legislation is going to be passed between now and then as the Senate is not in session (other than a brief Pro Forma session on the 19th). The poll numbers aren't likely to move significantly, unless unemployment miraculously halves o the President denounces his citizenship. The accounting on year 1 is largely in.

We'll look at year 1 from three perspectives:
#1 Political Priorities -- my assessment of the Obama Administration's effectiveness in implementing the key priorities that the President himself laid out for year 1.
#2 Court of Public Opinion -- we'll compare the President's numbers to both an absolute scale and a comparative scale to other Post-World War 2 President's
#3 Presidential Promise-Keeping -- we'll consult with our old friends at to see how closely what the President has done has matched his words from the campaign trail.

So, let's get started.

Political Priorities
The President laid out three clear priorities for year one of his administration, through an early speech to a joint session of congress. Let's grade them.

#1 The Economy -- Stabilize the Financial System, Contain Unemployment and Build a Platform for Economic Growth
My Grade: B
Despite poll numbers that don't yet reflect his success (more on that later), the President has actually done a number of important things towards this end. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was landmark legislation, signed into law early in his administration, the largest investment of public funds in economic recovery since FDR. The early provisions of this bill, which stabilized funding for state governments and provided key tax incentives that have stabilized the auto and home industries, were critical in preventing a deeper depression. The bulk of the spending, which is yet to take place, is of the more traditional infrastructure variety, designed to generate long-term efficiency gains (a better maintained infrastructure is a catalyst to a more efficient economy) as well as provide some job growth along the way.

The administration's actions on the auto industry got off to a slow start, with, unfortunately some more money down the drain in emergency loans early on. But in the end, they got it right, facilitating an orderly bankruptcy and exchanging government debt for a large equity stake that may ultimately pay off for taxpayers. It is unquestionable that without government intervention, GM would have gone down for good. Some thought that for the best -- the weak die in capitalism, after all. But the associated spike in unemployment and collapse of first-tier suppliers would have been devastating for years to come.

On the TARP funds, the government is getting Goldman Sachs, by Bank of America, by Citigroup.

The economy is growing again and unemployment has stopped rising. The financial system didn't collapse. Stocks are way up since the President took office. The President and the Administration deserve some credit, as does Ben Bernake.

The performance was not perfect, to be sure. We are $180 billion into AIG, money we will likely never see all of again, and we got there without adequate controls on pay or policy. The President stupidly said the stimulus bill would contain unemployment at 8%, a gross mis-calculation about the state of the economy. The administration has all but missed a huge opportunity to significantly change how financial services operate in this country and has not done anything to stop the "too big to fail" phenomenon. Not enough home owners have received mortgage relief. There is not enough credit flowing to consumers or small businesses.

But considering the abyss we were staring into, the administration by and large deserves credits for making the right big calls on the economy.

#2 Health Care -- Expand Access to Insurance, Contain Costs
Grade: C-

On the plus side: this President has gotten further with health care reform than any previous President. He has already signed a bill into law that has dramatically expanded access to insurance for poor and lower-middle class children. The bill that might make it out of Congress would expand coverage to millions.

On the minus side: he promised a bill by August, then by year-end and got neither. The big bill is not signed into law. Even if it does get signed, while it is good on the access side, it does nothing serious about cost. There are no provisions to reimport prescription drugs or negotiate for world-pricing. It has no public option to compete with insurance companies or cost regulations with teeth. It fails to address tort reform and the cost of malpractice insurance.

These grade could go way up next year if the President signs a bill into law. But it is fair to say that in year 1, he failed more than he succeeded.

#3 Environment -- Invest in Green Energy, Cap Carbon Emissions
Grade: D+

On the plus side: there were some decent clean energy investments in the stimulus bill, the House passed a Cap and Trade bill. The EPA can regulate Carbon by executive order.

On the minus side: Cap and Trade is stuck in the Senate and there appears to be no will after the bruising and long battle on health care. The administration has presented no clear energy strategy -- how exactly are we going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil?

All in all, nothing substantial has changed in our environmental policy. A very incomplete set of accomplishments.

#4 All Other
Grade: C-

On the plus side: decisive action on Afghanistan (albeit after a LONG wait), a clear exit strategy in Iraq, better relationships with our allies, several very good laws and executive orders (the Fair Pay Act, the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act, just to name a couple)

On the minus side: we are still firing Arabic translators from the military for being gay, the President's bowing and present-giving gaffes have started to get embarrassing, we've done nothing on immigration policy, ambassadorships are still full of patronage, the tone in Washington has gotten worse, not better.

My overall grade: C

The President gets credit on the economy. Everything else, is incomplete at best and failing at worst. Republicans will say that I am far too generous on the role of the administration in stabilizing the economy. But I truly believe that administration acts were critical. Democrats will say my bar is way too high for other issues, considering what other Presidents have done. But I didn't set that bar, the President did, in an early speech in which he promised all of what I graded in his first year, plus a lot of other things that aren't even discussed.

A mediocre start to a Presidency for a man who showed brilliance in the 2008 campaign. Let's hope year one just reflects some inexperience and growing pains, as they did with a young Clinton administration in 1993. The President could learn a thing or two in how Clinton evolved the game.

The Court of Public Opinion
Current Average of Approve Minus Disapprove (Month of January 2010, Jan 1-10): +3.7%

Obviously the wealth of polling data that is now available is not available for all previous administrations. However, the Gallup tracking poll is. So we'll contrast Obama's approve minus disapprove with the historical Gallup information. Here are the other post-World War II Presidents:

1. George W. Bush +77%
2. John F. Kennedy +59%
3. Lyndon Johnson +53%
4. George H.W. Bush +47%
5. Dwight Eisenhower +43%
6. Richard Nixon +23%
7. Jimmy Carter +19%
8. Bill Clinton +9%
Gerald Ford +9%
10. Barack Obama +4%
11. Ronald Reagan +3%
Harry Truman +3%

There have been some in the blogosphere that have stated that President Obama has the lowest approval rating on record. While I don't find that to be quite the case (it all comes down to what polls you pick and what day or range of days you use, if I were to use the low point for the President on the Gallup poll, I would have the same finding), he's close enough to the bottom of the year 1 rung that the court of public opinion weighs unfavorable against him.

On the plus side, a small percentage more people approve than disapprove of his performance. Also, as you can see from the above, first year numbers are not necessarily very instructive as to re-election prospects: numbers 1, 3, 5, 6, 8a, 11 and 11b were re-elected, numbers 4, 7 and 8b were not (John Kennedy obviously did not run.) And the biggest re-election landslides were #6 and #11a. So it isn't like his term is over.

And the circumstances coming in were definitely tough -- a massive economic crisis, tough wars in a war-weary nation and insanely high expectations all fuel the fall-off.

Still, in the court of public opinion, after 1 year, President Obama clearly gets bad marks.

Overall Public Opinion Grade; D

Presidential Promise-Keeping is tracking 507 documented promises that the President made on the campaign trail. Every once in a while they will add a promise if new campaign tape emerges or eliminate a promise if they determine that two they are tracking are redundant. But the rules for politifact are simple, if the President said it when he was running, they attempt to track it.

Of the 507 promises, the President has taken some sort of complete action (kept, broken or compromised) on 134 of them, or 26.4%. Right on track with being 25% of the way through his term. So Obama gets full marks for taking action on the issues that he promised.

Of the 134 he has acted on, 91 have been Kept, 31 have been Compromised on and 12 have been broken. Giving a full point for kept promises, a half point for compromises and no points for broken promises, the President has scored 106.5 promise-keeping points out of possible 134 on these promises, or a score of 79%. On face, this is a fantastic score. I think any reasonable observer would say that if a President does 80% of what he said he would do when he gets to office, that is about as good as it gets. My standard rule of thumb is about 50%.

So what are the key promises kept, compromised and broken? You can go to and see all of them, but here are some highlights:

- Establish a Credit Card Holder's Bill of Rights
- Expand Access to the Children's Health Insurance Program
- Implement plan to end the war in Iraq
- Send two additional brigades to Afghanistan
- Expand AmeriCorps
- Reverse restrictions on stem cell research

- Set a three-month moratorium on foreclosures (a three-month moratorium was not set, but an alternate foreclosure-abatement plan was implemented)
- Increase TSA funding (it increased, but not by as much as he promised)
- No tax increases of any kind of people making less than $250,000 (cigarette taxes were increased by over 200%, although in a conflicting campaign statement, candidate Obama had stated support for such a tax)
- No signing statements to nullify the law congress writes (Obama has used signing statements, but claims they are for clarification only)

- Posting of bills on the internet for 5 days before signing (broken on his first major bill, the stimulus bill and continued from there)
- Health Care negotiations on C-SPAN (that, as we re-learned this week, won't be happening)
- Allow penalty-free hardship withdrawals from IRA's and 401K's in 2008 and 2009 (not done)

The interesting thing is that on SUBSTANCE, the President is near-perfect, every major policy area he has acted on has been in basic agreement with his positions on the campaign trail. Where he has failed has been on the openness and transparency issues...putting bills on the internet before signing, health care negotiations on C-SPAN, lobbyist rules, etc. And it is on this impression that "nothing has changed in Washington" that I think the President is most vulnerable.

Still, in total, whether you like it or not, on policy, you got what he said you were going to get.

Grade on Promise-Keeping: B+

Year 2 and Beyond
So what will the coming year hold? It may or may not hold a health care bill being signed into law (Chris Dodd talked about "hanging by a thread" today and an upset in Massachusetts would be a massive setback for the bill), we likely won't see a cap and trade bill. Congress has another set of budgeting to do, something which will start early to get Congress home in time for what is sure to be a vicious campaign season.

In short, it is likely that policy accomplishments in 2010 will be limited to the first 3 months of the year. If it's big and it isn't done by March, it probably won't get done.

And expect a bloody November, to a greater or lesser extent, for Democrats.

How the President reacts to smaller or non-existant majorities, as President Clinton had to do in 1995, will largely shape the arc of the rest of the Obama Presidency. So will the state of the economy and the success of his Afghanistan strategy. Eleven months ago, we were all asking, "doesn't it seem like the President is taking on too much?" The answer, at least after one year, appears to be "yes, he did." We'll see if the long view proves something different.

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