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No Obama Obituaries, Please

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Having taken the oath of office just one year ago, Barack Obama is a flashing meteor that sputtered out too soon -- or so the national media narrative tells us. According to this story line, the young president is a presumptuous liberal who disappointed his own idealistic followers while irritating everyone else. Media tipsters spoke of a "final judgment" in Massachusetts before the stunning returns came in -- so we may soon hear declarations of a "failed presidency" from Washington's pundit herd.

Yes, after a run of extraordinary luck that helped get him into the White House, Obama today is confronting his share of electoral trouble. He may well encounter more and worse as November's midterm approaches. But he and his critics should remember the last time a Democratic president had to listen to the drafting of his own political obituary.

The premature farewells came early in Bill Clinton's first term.

During those exceptionally difficult years -- including a historic midterm landslide that cost Democrats control of both houses of Congress -- that young president heard members of his own party urging him to step aside rather than run again. Instead, he formulated the strategy and tactics that led to his decisive re-election; a smashing midterm victory in the midst of personal scandal; and a presidency that has come to be regarded by the American people as one of the most successful in the postwar era.

For the moment, Obama enjoys no such reputation. His own starry-eyed supporters, who believed his rhetoric of change, are disillusioned to discover that he is a politician, not a messiah. His opponents, who once pretended to share his bipartisan instincts, are delighted to obstruct his agenda, even though they have no solutions of their own. He seems to be locked in partisan stasis despite the great mandate he won in November 2008 and the overwhelming Democratic majority.

The result is that too many Americans today believe that he has accomplished little and forfeited their trust. They happen to be wrong -- just as they were wrong when they dismissed the Clinton presidency less than halfway into his first term.

If scored strictly by his legislative attainments, Obama is a highly effective president. In fact, the scrupulously nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly rated him the most effective president of the past five decades, as measured by congressional votes on which he took a position, either yea or nay. When he enunciated a clear position in the House and Senate, his success rate was 96.7 percent -- a number that surpassed the previous records held by Lyndon Baines Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower.

If scored by his campaign promises, Obama also wins high marks. That judgment also comes from a respected nonpartisan source, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political website known as Politifact.com.

Tracking in detail the progress of 500 policy pledges made during the 2008 campaign, Politifact has assembled an "Obameter" that rates each promise as kept, broken, compromised or "in the works." Their finding is that he has made good on 91 promises so far and broken only 14; 275 are in the works, meaning that he is seeking to fulfill them, and 87 are stalled, which indicates little progress. For a president who has yet to complete his first year, those are not only decent ratings but a strong indication of good faith.

Still, the president's approval ratings have fallen sharply, and his party seems headed for a midterm spanking. Those declines are partly cyclical and normal, and partly the fallout from economic and military conditions that he inherited after nearly a decade of Republican misrule. But they are also owed in part to his administration's mistakes, in pursuing a stimulus program that was too small and scattered and a health care reform that is too compromised and timid. He also suffers the lagging effect of his legislative successes (including health care, if it finally passes in some form), which voters will not feel until many months from now.

Yet the Clinton experience tells us that it is far too soon to dismiss the Obama presidency -- and that the loud stampede of the journalistic herd is almost always misleading.

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