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 Barack 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.
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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 3 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.
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 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.
Contact Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, at Facebook.com/Kristof.