I’m sure my Republican readers will wince at that headline – or mock it. The news narrative of the summer is the floundering of the president in any number of ginned-up stories: he “lost” the Middle East (as if that’s a bad thing); he’s created a crisis in illegal immigration (even though the bulk of the blame goes to a Bush-era law); he’s responsible for total gridlock (as if Ted Cruz did not exist); he’s been snookered by Putin; he’s been humiliated by Netanyahu; he’s the “worst president since World War II”, and on and on.
But let’s revisit last fall when Obama was in his first second term swoon. At that point, with the implosion of healthcare.gov, the very survival of the ACA, his signature domestic achievement, was in serious doubt. In the wake of Obama’s sudden bait-and-switch in Syria, when he threatened a strike and then accepted a Putin-brokered deal with Assad on WMDs, his foreign policy skills were about to get systematically downgraded by the American public. The economy was still sluggish, with no guarantee of a robust revival. Here’s Gallup’s picture of the president’s stark reversal of polling fortune, almost rectified before Iraq exploded a month or so ago:
In April of last year, his approval ratings were exactly the inverse of what they are today. And with every passing day in his second term, his ability to leverage his power attenuates.
But let’s return to last year’s crises. Less than a year after the ACA was regarded as near-dead, the implementation has exceeded most expectations. Today’s Commonwealth Fund report tallies the results:
The uninsured rate for people ages 19 to 64 declined from 20 percent in the July-to-September 2013 period to 15 percent in the April-to-June 2014 period. An estimated 9.5 million fewer adults were uninsured. Young men and women drove a large part of the decline: the uninsured rate for 19-to-34-year-olds declined from 28 percent to 18 percent, with an estimated 5.7 million fewer young adults uninsured. By June, 60 percent of adults with new coverage through the marketplaces or Medicaid reported they had visited a doctor or hospital or filled a prescription; of these, 62 percent said they could not have accessed or afforded this care previously.
And the rate of increase in per capita healthcare costs has moderated substantially since the Bush administration. Perspective is everything, of course, and politically, the ACA is still (on balance) a loser, especially among the older, whiter Medicare recipients who are over-represented in mid-term elections. But still: isn’t this by the measure of last fall a pretty stunning comeback? And the purist “repeal!” chorus has dimmed to a faint version of replace or fix.
So turn your gaze to Syria, where the entire foreign policy establishment moaned in concert at Obama’s fecklessness last September. We were all told that it was unbelievably naive to think that Assad would ever fully cooperate and relinquish his stockpile of WMDs as a reward for not getting bombed. It was a pipe-dream to think Putin was serious about being constructive as well. Well: a couple weeks back, the last shipment of WMDs was removed from the country, with very limited use in the intervening period, and is now undergoing destruction. I don’t know of any similar achievement in non-proliferation since Libya’s renunciation of WMDs under Bush. No, we didn’t resolve the sectarian civil war in Syria/Iraq, but we did remove by far the biggest threat to the West and to the world in the middle of it. Why is that not regarded as an epic triumph of American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force?
Now look at the economy where Obama has been stymied by the GOP for a very long time – both federally and in the states where local government austerity put an unprecedented drag on the recovery. Well: again, we have an unemployment rate back to where it was before the Great Recession hit. If the momentum continues, we could have an unemployment rate below 6 percent before too long. It’s taken for ever – but the hit was deep and the debt overhang large. And speaking of debt, we also have this data to chew on:
No, there hasn’t been any progress in reducing our long-term debt or our unfunded liabilities in entitlements. But when the GOP refuses to countenance any new revenues, I can’t blame the president. And to have reduced a budget deficit from 10 percent of GDP to just over 2 percent in the wake of a massive recession is something a Republican president would be bragging incessantly about.
There’s still a lot in play. The critical negotiations with Iran remain as tricky as ever – but that we have a chance of controlling Iran’s nuclear program without war is already a remarkable fact. Again: a function of skilled, relentless diplomacy backed by serious sanctions. The menace of Putin has not gone away – even though a very good case can be made that in that head-to-head, Putin is now licking his wounds a little, after Ukraine has signed that trade deal with the EU, and Ukraine’s military is regrouping. Immigration reform is in limbo. But I’d argue that on the wider political plain, Obama has been winning the strategic war with the GOP. The last twelve months have been an unmitigated disaster for Republican outreach to Hispanics; the Republicans have hurt themselves with many more women on the question of contraception, than they have helped themselves with orthodox Christians; the Palin impeachment chorus is poison to the middle of the country; and the Democrats have a clear and female front-runner against a divided and small-bore GOP bench in 2016. If Clinton were to win, it would be as decisive a strategic advance as when George H W Bush cemented Reagan’s legacy.
I’m applying the criteria that Obama has applied to himself. Is his long game bearing fruit? So far, it seems to me, the question answers itself.
(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House July 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama was scheduled to travel to Denver, Colorado. By Win McNamee/Getty Images.)