During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s message of a people-first public policy inspired people all over the world. His rhetoric was a breath of fresh air, especially copared to the unilateral approach of his predecessor. Many of us were looking for a return to New Deal-style governance, a truly progressive leader who would improve democracy in America. Noam Chomsky pointed out that, “Obama’s message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ offered a virtual blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes.” Perhaps many of us are guilty of projecting our specific hopes onto Obama’s message of change. But his campaign was more than just vague proclamations about change and hope; he made a number of specific promises–actually, 510 specific promises (more than twice as many as Bush made in the 2000 election). So has he lived up to his promises? What can we say about Obama after his first year-and-a-half? Has “change come to America,” or have we been short-changed? Let’s look at his record.
Let’t start with some highlights:
- Signed Health reform into law this year, with a number of very positive changes (no denial of pre-existing conditions, no lifetime caps, insure everyone, small business tax credits, etc.)
- Set timelines were to withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan
- A new treaty has been signed with Russia that will reduce nuclear weapons by 1/3, step toward a nuclear-free world
- Ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay; although this was initially delayed, plans are now in place to move prisoners to the Thomson Correctional Center, in Thomson, Illinois
- Ordered the DOT to establish higher fuel efficiency standards by 2011
- Reauthorized SCHIP, expanding health care from 7 million children to 11 million
- Passed the stimulus bill, including tax breaks, spending on infrastructure projects, extension of welfare benefits, and education
- Lifted restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research
- Signed a law raising the tobacco tax 62 cents on a pack of cigarettes. The tax is to be “used to finance a major expansion of health insurance for children”, and “help some [smokers] to quit and persuade young people not to start”.
- Nominated Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.
- Reauthorizes and expands the AmeriCorps program
- Signed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009
- Signed the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009
- Signed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, expanding Pell grants, offering direct Federal student loans, which will lessen the deficit by $87 billion over 10 years.
The Bad News
- Health reform did not go far enough—no public option, did not allow importation of prescription drugs, reduced the cap on individual flex spending, etc.
- Expanded the war in Afghanistan (now the longest war in American history), and the chances of hitting critical milestones before the withdraw deadline is not looking good
- Drones have killed about 14 alleged terrorists and 700 civilians—a hit rate of 2% (source)
- Wall Street has not been reeled in; the root problem of the financial crisis has not been fixed
- His administration continues to award military contracts to Blackwater (see this story)
- He has continued the policy of allowing Israel to have nuclear weapons, but then pressures Iran over its alleged weapons programs (however sparse the evidence) with sanctions
- His Interior Secretary did not crack down hard enough on the cozy relationship between big oil and the MMS (from the Bush years), and let to poor oversight of BP’s Gulf drilling
According to PolitiFact.com, in Obama’s first year-and-a-half, he kept (achieved) 115 campaign promises, compromised on 35, broke 19, stalled 82, with 251 still in the works. Barack Obama made 510 promises when he was running for president (Bush made 177 during the 2000 election) (source). In most cases, George Bush did the exact opposite of what he promised during the 2000 election (source). It may be too early to give Obama a fair rating, but it looks like he may be on track to hit many of his promises by the 2012 election.
One of Obama’s biggest challenges is that he has liberals on one side saying that he is continuing too many of the Bush administration policies, and on the other side, he has conservatives calling him a tax-and-spend socialist. His approval rating started around 80%, with people like Jack Welch giving him a A+ grade just months after Obama took office. Although 80% of Democrats still approve of his performance, his overall approval rating is now hovering around 50%:
Many commentators have pointed out that Obama will compromise his positions in an effort to gain bipartisan support, but then the Republicans don’t support anything he does, no matter how much he compromises. So Obama ends up leading key legislation to a place where nobody is happy: It is too watered-down for liberals, and seen as a defeat by conservatives (healthcare is the best example of this). Everyone ends up frustrated. Being able to pose as a Clintonian Centrist just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, one could argue that it never did work. Even Clinton dealt with a highly polarized political climate. Remember when the Federal government was shut down in 1995? Yet, the current political situation is worse than anything President Clinton encountered. The Republican Party votes as a bloc these days. It is now rare for Senators from both sides of the aisle to write legislation together. Clinton never had a congressman yell, “you lie!”, during a join session of congress.
Overall, I still think Obama is a huge improvement over George Bush II; and he is certainly much better than a McCain-Palin administration would have been. There are many executive decisions that Obama has overturned from the Bush years. However, I would like to see him change course in a number of areas: stop shipping arms to Israel, do away with the Monroe Doctrine once and for all by staying out of Latin American affairs, no more sketchy military contractor deals (i.e., Blackwater), call for a nuclear-free Middle-East–say “no nukes” to Israel, and then talk to Iran, tell Israel no more weapons or foreign aid until we see a return to 1967 borders and a Palestinian state, change our policy that economically strangles Cuba for God’s sake, make the world nuke-free (starting in the U.S.); at home, raise taxes to 50% on the ultra rich, (and with the revenues) create a massive (renewable) energy-independence stimulus (thus fixing the economy and our energy needs at the same time–and lessening our need to rely on the military-industrial complex to keep the economy going), pass a comprehensive and stringent bank reform bill and a climate change bill, reduce our 725 foreign military bases by 90%–use the savings to make Social Security sustainable forever. This would be a great start (second term would be even better!). Instead of short change, this would be hopeful change. This is the kind of change we can believe in!