Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One-Year Report Card

We aren't grading on the curve--few other Presidents have had the challenges President Obama has faced in his first year. Instead, we are focusing on comparison to "correctness"--perfection--at 100%. A grade of A=91-100; B=81-90; C=71-80; D=61-70; F=60 or less. Two-thirds will be his progress on the issues--ahem, my issues, the 10-Point Program of what I expected from the 2008 Presidential winner, and one-third on the intangibles (or, more accurately, use of the "bully pulpit"), which for Barack Obama are Political Leadership, success as Agent of Change, Leadership through Visible Effort, and Racial Harmony.

The standard should be interpreted as, an A would make him the best President of the last 100 years (FDR gets an A-, for not being aggressive enough). No President in my lifetime would get better than a B. Before we get to the grading, though, let's try to be helpful and show how things can improve.

General Advice

Choose Some Enemies--He can't please everybody, and he will need to run against something or someone this year (as his opponents will run against him). Two obvious choices are the Big Banks (and AIG, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac) and Republican Congressional Obstructionists. Both are totally blameworthy, based on the facts, and also extremely unpopular.

I would suggest a third, the credit rating agencies, whose flawed business model is as responsible as any other factor for the collapse in the mortgage-backed securities which sparked the Great Crater. So far, incredibly, no one has targeted them, because they haven't identified an alternative. I would suggest that the Fed, or whatever regulatory agency will rule finance in the reform, needs to do its own certification of certain financial products and that those will replace the credit rating agencies' monopoly.

A fourth target, the private insurance companies, would be another great target--they are despicable, after all, and it's not really too late--but the problem is that going after them will not produce a single additional Congressional vote for healthcare insurance reform.

Make Some Cuts--Obama is in danger of becoming a "tax-and-spend" caricature, and we can't go back to that 20th-century nonsense. He should cut spending ruthlessly and with a sharp political eye, and promote the cuts as publicly as possible. I suggest military expenditures on new, unnecessary weapons in blue states; ending subsidies for employers sending jobs overseas; and getting his Administration immersed in the detail work of cutting earmarks from all states and districts (no pork policy). He should have a leakproof internal review process to prevent cuts which will reduce private sector jobs. If he's not going to give tax credits to private employers who create new jobs (and commit to keeping them around 24 months), a move I would favor, then he should loudly announce how this money is "being given back to taxpayers". Budget targets given to congress in the State of the Union should be ambitious on the spending side, but realistic on the revenue side (tax receipts are sure to disappoint).

Progress on the Agenda

1. Get control of climate-changing gases. He's made an honest effort, empowering the EPA to regulate under the Clean Air Act and putting his prestige on the line in Copenhagen. I think the side deal with China and three other major countries was as important as anything that could be done by the world panel at large. Progress is coming, and I am skeptical of anyone who knows how much is required (not of the argument that progress is required). Grade--85

2. Preserve our biosphere. This one is more about preservation of disappearing species (besides polar bears, I mean). It hasn't been a priority, but I think the signals are in the right direction. Grade--80

3. Rebuild our relations with the world. Large progress through Obama speech tour and positive signals on a variety of diplomatic fronts. The setback on closing Guantanamo does not appear to be a big hit in this regard; other countries have learned how stubborn Congress, the American people can be. Grade--95

4. Visualize our children’s / grandchildren’s society, and the implications of that vision. This is a tough one. The environmental policies are a positive, but the building up of debt is a negative. Grade--72

5. Reform the UN Charter. Obama's speech to the General Assembly was very positive, but falls far short of this ambitious objective, which is clearly second-term business. Grade--80

6. Get control of armaments. Obama has made the right speech about eliminating nukes, and the change in missile defense strategy earns him significant points. The groundwork has also been laid with Russia for progress. Grade--88

7. Establish clearly the political dimensions of privacy and of permissible government intrusions into it. Hasn't been an important topic thus far, except for the new issue (since the attempted Christmas bombing) of microscanning the full body for airline passengers (this is actually far from the central issue, that of eavesdropping). I see progress in a negative direction. Grade--70

8. Provide health care to our people. I have to say, he put more emphasis on this than he probably should have (given the implications on employment of true healthcare reform and how untimely they would have been). It's not exactly the form I want, but it will help--some--on the level of uninsured. Grade--78

9. Electoral reform. He really hasn't done a thing. 2010 is going to be a disaster from the point of view of an explosion in private sector spending on unhelpful campaign ads, and Obama has not yet given any assistance to the cause of Federal funding for campaigns. Grade--60

10. End the "War on Drugs" (or at least give it some focus on the more harmful ones).
There are some signs of progress, domestically. The eruption of full-scale fighting in Mexico was unavoidable, and he has no choice but to give Mexican President Calderon his full support. The larger improvements I still expect, but only in the second term. Grade--88

Average--79.6--a "solid C+".


Political Leadership--Surprisingly bad, given Obama's 2008 campaign, which was inarguably The Best Electoral Campaign in the History of the World. Where Obama has been forced to get involved, he has not succeeded, and he has been forced too often. Rahm Emmanuel has been targeted because of these failures, but I think somewhat differently: he should be moved directly into an overtly political job (with the mandate, for which he's fully qualified, to "kick ass and take names"). He can find someone else to handle appointments and coordinate staff work. The time to change this is NOW! Grade--72

Agent of Change--He has done about half the job--setting the agenda, giving the right speeches--very well. The hard part--taking on the resistance to change--remains. Grade--75

Visible Effort--No complaints here. Compared to his predecessor, for example, a huge improvement. No one doubts that he's giving his all. Grade--98

Racial Harmony--He has done what he can, when he needs to. The Skip Gates thing was a slight overreach, which he corrected. He does have to worry about losing his incredible levels of support from the Blacks, and the Browns. For the Hispanics, his appointment of Sotomayor was a success for 2009. In 2010, some effort on immigration reform will be required--it will fail, due to Republican Obstructionists, which is something he can include in his litany of complaints against them (but should not be overemphasized, because of its implications for future jobs). Grade--90

The intangibles average score of 86.3 ("solid B") brings up his final grade to 81.85, a low B.

Final Grade: B minus. Solid!

No comments: