Obama’s Successful Failed Presidency

Pay for Performance is a wonderful thing – those who are good at their jobs get big raises, year after year, and stick around and do even better work, because they know something will come of it. At least that’s the idea. In the current economy these folks don’t ever get raises, but they’re the ones that get to keep their jobs, and that’s more than most employees can expect, even if their work doubles and triples as those whose work is merely adequate are shown the door. Keeping your job is your reward for excellence. Those who are good at their jobs will get promoted too – even if it’s a “dry promotion” with no change in pay. The idea is the pay will catch up, one day, and in the meantime there’s the status of the new title, and usually power over others, the losers stuck below.

That’ll do, and more promotions will follow, until these sharp folks end up at a level where they don’t have any idea what they’re doing, or should be doing – but that’s okay, because no one knows that either. Senior management is far removed from the real work being done down in the trenches, where you have to know your stuff and keep up on everything, but senior management is working on strategic direction and growing markets and such things. They don’t need to know the details, because they think big thoughts, and those who are particularly adept at big thoughts become CEOs – far removed from everything below, and perhaps far removed from everything.

No one really knows what those folks do, or how to evaluate their performance. Things may fall apart because of a shift in exchange rates in the currency markets, caused by some fools halfway around the world going to war again. Whose fault is that? The CEO is safe, and even a CEO who actually runs a corporation into the ground will often be picked up by some other corporation, often in an unrelated industry, and be paid hundreds of millions a year to “lead” – whatever that means – but then a disgruntled board of directors can show them the door too. There’s no yearly formal performance evaluation of their work, as with those down below, but their performance is evaluated.

Everyone is judged in our economic system. Some succeed. Some fail. Sort them out. There are objective measures of success, and failure is pretty obvious. It’s not all that hard. Reward success. Dump the failures. Anything else is socialism or communism or something, where profits don’t matter, or it’s kind of French. It’s almost impossible to fire an employee in France, but here it’s pay for performance, which is what makes America great. We sort out the losers. We make them go away.

This is fine system, and it doesn’t work with teachers. For a decade or more we’ve been talking about how to fix our woeful public schools. Pay for performance often comes up – reward the good teachers and dump the bad teachers – but that’s easier said than done, and it’s not just the teachers’ unions protecting their members. There’s the problem of deciding on objective measures of success in teaching. Are the kids inspired to learn? Everyone says that’s important, but there’s no way to measure that – that may be a function of the kid’s home environment, the attitude and habits of the parents, or it may be a function of the kid’s innate personality, or the kid’s diet, or the family’s religion or heritage. No teacher is part of that, but you can ask another question. Did a whole bunch of kids end the school year as dumb as they were when the school year started? The problem might be the raw material too, not the teacher. Did the kids learn and grow and thrive in a particular teacher’s classroom? They might have done the same with a crappy teacher – or not – it’s hard to tell.

It’s impossible to tell, and the current effort to evaluate teachers – to sort out the good from the bad through the aggregate results of endless standardized tests the kids take again and again – doesn’t measure much about the teacher, other than he or she is pretty good at getting the kids to memorize this and that, and getting them to understand how the test is constructed, so they know the odds when they choose B, not A or C or D, after B has been the right answer too many times. They may understand little else, and none of it is very good preparation for life. Few careers call for memorizing stuff you don’t understand and then beating the immediate system in place.

No one is happy with this – but everyone knows a good teacher when they see one, or when they’ve had one, and everyone certainly has stories of awful teachers who should have been fired long ago. That’s obvious, but the problem is those are subjective judgments. Ask for objective measures that show either success or failure and you’ll get a blank stare. There are some things you just know? You only pretend you’re being objective about it. You’re just sensing something. That leads nowhere. Much is life isn’t like the business world with its endless performance evaluations, tied to verifiable productivity and profit. We only pretend it is, and as Obama nears the beginning of his last two years in office, the “performance evaluations” are popping up all over. This has to do with the upcoming mid-term elections, where the “failed presidency” of Barack Obama can be used to tar all Democrats. It’s a weapon, but the thought is out there:

In another sign of President Obama’s deteriorating public support, more than half of Americans now say that he is failing as president, the latest IBD/TIPP poll finds. The poll, which ended Friday, found that 53% characterize Obama’s presidency as a failure vs. 41% who rate it a success. Just 6% say that they aren’t sure.

Obama’s standing among independents is even worse with 58% calling his presidency is a failure. Half of those who live in states that voted for Obama say that his presidency is failing.

People “sense” this as Charles Krauthammer notes:

They have a sense of things falling apart. You look around and just the basic competence, just the delivery of health care and the V.A., just the Secret Service, the one agency people would idolize in the past. And then you look abroad of how America is no longer really respected. Our enemies have contempt for us. ISIS will proudly and gloriously behead two Americans and distribute it to the world on a video as a way to show how much it discounts, how much it disdains America. In that sense of America diminished, America in decline, I think even though it’s not an explicit issue, it weighs very heavily on the presidency and by association it weighs on the Democrats running for office…

All this just feels bad, but Robert Tracinski at Federalist has a kind of performance evaluation with a list of Obama’s failures:

1. He didn’t heal our racial divisions.

2. The stimulus didn’t stimulate.

3. Financial reform didn’t reform.

4. ObamaCare is a boondoggle.

5. Obama failed to reform immigration.

6. He withdrew prematurely from Iraq.

7. He blew the Arab Spring.

8. Obama ignored the threat of a resurgent Russian dictatorship.

9. He didn’t shut down Guantanamo, keep the NSA from spying, or rein in the drones.

10. He has made America irrelevant.

If you read all the details that Tracinski provides you’ll see these are the usual Republican talking points, except for that first one. Obama was supposed heal our racial divisions? Even Jesus couldn’t do that, and the Jesus that the Christian right in America imagines would never stand for it. The ninth item on the list is odd too – every time Obama proposed to shut down Guantanamo the Republicans blocked him, because we couldn’t house those people stateside in any of our maximum security prisons. They have magical powers. They’d walk right through the walls, grab a taxi and then recruit a hundred million Americans to their cause, and then take over America. They’re far too dangerous. They know the Jedi Mind Trick. Those Republicans really know their base, which wants those guys far away lest they too would somehow end up turning off that Rush Limbaugh show and joining the new al-Qaeda in America, or something. Oh, and who failed to reform immigration? Tracinski gets very tricky here. You might say he’s lying, but then he believes it all. That only means he lives in alternative universe.

The economist Paul Krugman makes the opposite case, that Obama has been amazingly successful:

Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.

And I wasn’t wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP’s unwillingness to make even token concessions.

But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

The rest is details, from a Nobel Prize economist and not light reading, but there’s this that sums up how Krugman is thinking about objective measures of success:

There’s a theme running through each of the areas of domestic policy I’ve covered. In each case, Obama delivered less than his supporters wanted, less than the country arguably deserved, but more than his current detractors acknowledge. The extent of his partial success ranges from the pretty good to the not-so-bad to the ugly. …

Am I damning with faint praise? Not at all. This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.

Andrew Sullivan agrees, and he frames things this way:

The current indiscriminate pile-on about a “failed presidency” is just bandwagon bullshit. Unlike Krugman, I’ve long had confidence in Obama’s long game, even as I have had several conniptions in his term of office (his early prevarication on gay rights, and that phoned-in first debate in 2012, his negligence with healthcare.gov, his caving into hysteria over ISIS). And I see little reason to question its broad thrust now.

Just a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend as the healthcare website was crashing. All that mattered, we agreed, was if, this time next year, the healthcare reform is working and the economy is doing better. Well, both of those things have happened – Obamacare is actually a big success so far; the growth and unemployment rates are the envy of much of the Western world – and yet we are now told that he’s a failure. WTF? The architects of the Iraq War – like, yes, Clinton and McCain – somehow believe they have a better grasp of foreign affairs in the twenty-first century than he does. And the party that bankrupted this country in eight short years now has the gall to ignore the fastest reduction in the deficit ever, and a slow-down in healthcare costs that may well be the most important fiscal achievement of a generation.

Add to this the two massive social shifts that Obama has coaxed, helped or gotten out the way: marriage equality and the legalization of cannabis. These are not minor cultural shifts. They are sane reforms, change we can absolutely believe in and have accomplished on his watch. Jihadist terrorism? It has murdered an infinitesimal number of Americans in the past six years, compared with almost any other threat. Yes, Americans are still capable of PTSD-driven panic and hysteria over it, and Obama has failed to counter that more aggressively, but to be where we are in 2014 is something few expected after 9/11.

Robert Tracinski is also wrong to argue that we lost Iraq because Obama wouldn’t force Malaki to tear up the agreement he had made with Bush and accept us keeping ten thousand troops there on our terms, not his:

The idea that he has “lost Iraq” is preposterous. We “lost” Iraq the minute we unseated the Sunnis, disbanded the Baathist army and unleashed the dogs of sectarian warfare.

The only sane response to continuing unrest there is to cut our losses, act as an off-shore balancing power, and protect ourselves. And one reason we have this capability is that Obama managed to pivot nimbly last fall to ensure the destruction of Assad’s WMDs. The Panettas and McCains and usual suspects still seem to believe that it would have been better to have bombed Assad, let him keep his WMDs, and … what exactly? Can you imagine ISIS with its hands on those weapons in a failed state with a deposed leader? Think Libya today with poison gas. Who prevented this? Obama. And he is still pilloried for it.

And there are those other bad guys over there:

And over six long years, Obama has made it possible – still possible – to put Iran’s nuclear program in a safe box, and avoid another polarizing war in the region. If Obama ends his two terms having rid the Middle East of the threat of nuclear and chemical and biological warfare, he will have advanced our security almost as significantly as Bush and Cheney degraded it. Yes, he failed on Israel. But he has no real power over that. That tail has been madly wagging the dog for a long time now – and in some ways, Obama tried to restrain it more than any president since the first Bush. As long as fundamentalist Christians and even liberal Jews continue to support the ethnic cleansing and de facto apartheid on the West Bank, and do so with a fervor that reaches apoplectic proportions, no president will be able to establish a sane foreign policy with respect to the Jewish state.

The problem might be the raw material too, not Obama, and so consider this:

Financial reform? Well, if even Krugman says it’s working better than he expected, chalk another one up. Torture? He has acted with more restraint than I would have and deferred far too much to the CIA, but the end-game has yet to be played. It is not unreasonable to believe that we will have established, by the end of his term, a clear and definitive account of the war crimes the last administration perpetrated. That is something. Maybe about as much as a democracy can handle in the time since the atrocities were committed.

Forget the media-click-bait pile-on. Just watch the economic data after the worst depression in many decades (and look at Europe or Japan for comparison). Follow the progress in universal health insurance (itself a huge positive change in American life). Measure the greater security from WMDs. And observe the tectonic cultural shifts.

Krugman and Sullivan, then, have their own objective measure of success. Charles Krauthammer has how all of this feels, and there is what those who were polled feel, and Tracinski has his dubious list what he imagines Obama should have done. Choose what Obama should have done, and how you feel about that, or choose what Obama actually did do, and write your own performance evaluation.

It may not matter, if the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is right about this:

What polarization is in the process of doing – and I’ve had this conversation with Democratic and Republican pollsters – is redefining how we look at the traditional success markers of any president. Sixty percent-plus approval ratings – unless they come at the very start of a presidency or in the wake of a national disaster or tragedy – are things of the past for as long as the current partisanship gripping the country holds on. Given how vast the gap is between how the two parties view the right next steps for the country – not to mention how negatively they view the other side – it’s impossible to imagine a president enjoying any sort of broad (or even narrow) bipartisan support for any extended period of his or her presidency.

Increasingly, there are two political countries in the United States. One, a liberal one, is governed by Barack Obama. The other lacks a clear leader but views itself as at war with Obama’s America. And, there’s no reason to think that if, say, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio gets elected president in 2016, things will be any different. Rubio will be president of a conservative America. The liberal America will see itself in diametric opposition to that America.

That screws up the performance evaluation:

Krugman chooses to call Obama successful because of the Affordable Care Act, his work to preserve the social safety net and his policies on the environment – among other things. Of course, to conservative America those are the pillars of Obama’s failure as president.

Cillizza is arguing that we can never have another “successful” president ever again, or at least not in any America he can imagine, because there are now two fixed and entrenched Americas. They used entirely different ways of measuring success. So Obama has had a quite successful failed presidency, or an utterly failed presidency that was remarkably successful. And we probably have great teachers out there, who are total failures, or awful teachers who are doing a fine job – but we have built an edifice of accountability, which has served our economy well, unless no one is ever sure what people are being held accountable for, or why. Perhaps we should just stop talking about success and failure. Things got done. Other things didn’t get done. We move on.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Obama’s Successful Failed Presidency

  1. Rick says:

    (Yeah, I know, this has been pretty much covered, so maybe I’m just piling on. Still…)

    The trouble with Robert Tracinski’s list (and yes, I realize you only include the “headings” here, not the full text found at the original article — but that’s okay) is that almost all of the blame, when there is fault to find at all, is misplaced onto Obama, instead of Republicans.

    To begin with, blaming Obama for continued racism in America is obviously a bit too much like blaming the victim to warrant much discussion. I, for one, did not see “healing racial divisions” as Obama’s “signature issue” (a conservative straw-man if there ever was one), and never expected that when he took office, he would be able to wave some magic wand, healing the hearts of all the bigots in this country — almost all of whom, it must be remembered, are conservatives. If conservatives like Tracinski are really looking for a way to see racism gone, they shouldn’t blame Obama — they need to look within themselves for that solution.

    And this needs to be stressed, especially to all these disingenuous conservatives like Tracinski, who still pretend otherwise:

    Obama’s inauguration wasn’t “historic” because racism would now be abolished, it was “historic” because so many had thought the country was just too racist to ever even elect a black president in the first place, and it signaled that maybe things here were not really as bad as so many thought. It was a sign of hope, that things really could get better.

    As for “2. The stimulus didn’t stimulate”, these guys who persist in thinking this apparently haven’t been paying attention to what the experts — that is, “economists” — say. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, a 2014 survey asked economists, from both the right and the left:

    “Because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [a.k.a. ‘the Stimulus’], the U.S. unemployment rate was lower at the end of 2010 than it would have been without the stimulus bill.

    The results: 82% either “agreed” or “strongly agreed”, 0% were “uncertain”, 2% “disagreed”, and 0% “strongly disagreed”.

    The survey also asked if the benefits of the Stimulus would exceed the costs, and the results showed 56% either “agreed” or “strongly agreed”, 23% were “uncertain”, 5% “disagreed”, and 0% “strongly disagreed”.

    To the extent that the Stimulus didn’t do enough, it’s probably because it wasn’t big enough (according to Paul Krugman, who predicted the problem right away, back in 2009, they eventually realized they had underestimated the problem); nor did they come back later to ask Congress for more stimulus, which probably would have helped the recovery even more than just letting it stand.

    And while we’re on the economy, remember that the Europeans, who have throughout the recession relied much more heavily than we have on “austerity”, reducing the deficit and cutting spending — a.k.a., The “Republican” way — and ended up doing much worse than we did, might have lately been having second thoughts about their approach. It certainly can be argued that the extent to which our recovery is stronger than those of other countries can be credited to the extent to which Barack Obama has been able hold the line against Republican attempts to destroy our economy, maybe just to make him look bad. (Okay, yes, much of it might also be a result of their own failed attempts to do so, thanks in part to the obstructionism of their extremist base.)

    And about the Arab Spring and the resurgence of Putin, these are things that inevitably happen in history. No other president could have stopped them from happening, nor would have handled them better. It’s like blaming Obama for not anticipating, and somehow mishandling, last night’s heavy rainfall. You do what you can with stuff that happens, when it happens.

    As for certain other items on his list, such as immigration reform and shutting down Guantanamo — once again, if conservatives really want these things done, they need only stop keeping them from happening. And as for withdrawing prematurely from Iraq, you’d think they would be embarrassed to bring this up, since everyone who isn’t a conservative knows that the main problem with Iraq was not our “prematurely” withdrawing from it, it was our invading the country, for absolutely no good reason, in the first place!

    And if America is now “irrelevant” and they blame Obama for this, they have to be willfully overlooking Bush making this happen when he pretty much ignored the United Nations, put together a rag-tag “Coalition of the Willing” (that, if anyone cared to notice, was greatly outnumbered by the remaining “Coalition of the Un-willing”), sloppily invading and occupying a sovereign nation, and justifying it by faulty intelligence that, had they been more astute, would have known was incomplete — which only helped clue the whole world into the fact that our intelligence is nowhere near as unassailable as we’d like everyone to think it is.

    And to that as inevitable as it is ridiculous argument — that, “Here it is, six years into his administration, and Obama is still trying to blame it all on his predecessors!” — I say, “Here it is, six years after Bush left the country in a complete shambles, and Republicans are still trying to blame it all on his successor!”


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