Let’s get this straight up front: President Obama has had a remarkable first year in office. He came into office with two wars and a serious financial crisis to deal with. He had to start by getting a stimulus bill—which was nowhere on his campaign agenda—past Congress. As flawed as the bill is, simply getting it passed consumed a lot of political capital and is an achievement in itself. For all that it was in many ways a huge giveaway to Wall Street, in the short run it probably prevented us from falling into a substantially worse depression. The same thing can be said about health care. Although the bill before Congress is flawed in many ways, as Nate Silver argues, whatever gets passed should make health care substantially more affordable for low-income families. Simply getting the bill this far along is impressive—no other president has done it—and, as Jacob Weisberg says, if Obama actually gets something passed he will have ensured his legacy in his first year.
The truth is that President Obama has been remarkably effective. A recent study in Congressional Quarterly found that Obama has had more success getting the legislation he backs through Congress than any other president since it began keeping track with Eisenhower. Obama has managed to win more than 96% of the votes on issues where he has taken a clear position—more than even Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of his presidency or than George W. Bush after 9/11. Part of the reason, of course, is that Obama benefits from sizable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Another part is that he has picked his battles carefully. And, of course, it’s also because he has backed a number of compromise bills, like the health care reform bill before Congress. But while that means he hasn’t been able to get everything he wanted, it also means he has gotten a lot done.
Nevertheless, Gallup puts Obama’s approval at under 50%, in part because many of his own supporters are dissatisfied with his performance. The common view seems to be that President Obama hasn’t been able to get much of anything done. In October, Saturday Night Live summed up this view when it mocked Obama for having two major accomplishments: “jack and squat.” As the sketch points out, Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay, gotten troops out of Iraq, improved the situation in Afghanistan, successfully reformed health care, passed a major climate bill, passed immigration reform, gotten rid of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t tell policy, created new limits on executive powers, or prosecuted any of the officials behind President Bush’s torture policy. If the sketch isn’t entirely fair—as Joseph Romm points out, for example, Obama has made real progress on global warming in spite of having failed to implement an emission cap—these are all things Obama said he would do that he hasn’t yet done.
They are all also the top policy priorities of President Obama’s progressive base. So the dissatisfaction with him is not all sour grapes. As I have written before, Obama is not in fact all that liberal. Where he has made compromises to get legislation passed, he has consistently sacrificed parts of his platform that to his supporters on the left were non-negotiable. He certainly owes some of his success to having avoided taking up contentious issues like gay rights, the treatment of detainees, and limits on carbon emissions. But for many on the left these were the most important issues, not bargaining chips to be used to gain other policy objectives. Those who feel that torture is an absolute wrong, or that we that have an absolute right to marry whoever we please, or that the fate of the earth depends on our emissions policy, are not likely to be impressed by Obama’s other policy achievements. That’s why so many liberals feel Obama has sold them out, and why it’s ironic conservatives are so outraged by what Obama has done. As Saturday Night Live put it, “How do you think the left feels? They’re the ones that should be mad.”