The Case for Obama
The charges are familiar: He’s a compromiser who hasn’t stood up to the GOP or Wall Street. But a look at his record reveals something even more startling — a truly historic presidency
By Tim Dickinson
The following is an article from the October 28, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
Less than halfway through his first term, Obama has compiled a remarkable track record. As president, he has rewritten America’s social contract to make health care accessible for all citizens. He has brought 100,000 troops home from war and forged a once-unthinkable consensus around the endgame for the Bush administration’s $3 trillion blunder in Iraq. He has secured sweeping financial reforms that elevate the rights of consumers over Wall Street bankers and give regulators powerful new tools to prevent another collapse. And most important of all, he has achieved all of this while moving boldly to ward off another Great Depression and put the country back on a halting path to recovery.
Along the way, Obama delivered record tax cuts to the middle class and slashed nearly $200 billion in corporate welfare — reinvesting that money to make college more accessible and Medicare more solvent. He single-handedly prevented the collapse of the Big Three automakers — saving more than 1 million jobs — and brought Big Tobacco, at last, under the yoke of federal regulation. Even in the face of congressional intransigence on climate change, he has fought to constrain carbon pollution by executive fiat and to invest $200 billion in clean energy — an initiative bigger than John F. Kennedy’s moonshot and one that’s on track to double America’s capacity to generate renewable energy by the end of Obama’s first term.
On the social front, he has improved pay parity for women and hate-crime protections for gays and lesbians. He has brought a measure of sanity to the drug war, reducing the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine while granting states wide latitude to experiment with marijuana laws. And he has installed two young, female justices on the Supreme Court, creating what Brinkley calls “an Obama imprint on the court for generations.”
What’s even more impressive about Obama’s accomplishments, historians say, is the fractious political coalition he had to marshal to victory. “He didn’t have the majority that LBJ had,” says Goodwin. Indeed, Johnson could count on 68 Democratic senators to pass Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act. For his part, Franklin Roosevelt had the backing of 69 Senate Democrats when he passed Social Security in 1935. At its zenith, Obama’s governing coalition in the Senate comprised 57 Democrats, a socialist, a Republican turncoat — and Joe Lieberman.
In his quest for progress, Obama has also had to maneuver against an unrelenting head wind from the “Party of No” and its billionaire backers. “Obama is harassed as well as opposed,” says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. “The crazy Republican right is now unfettered. You’ve got a Senate with no adult leadership. And Obama’s up against Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and the rest of the professional right.” Compared to the opposition faced by the most transformative Democratic presidents, adds Wilentz, “it’s a wholly different scale.”
Despite such obstacles, Obama has succeeded in forging a progressive legacy that, anchored by health care reform, puts him “into the same conversation with FDR and LBJ,” says Brinkley, “though those two accomplished more.” Goodwin, herself a former Johnson aide, likens the thrust of Obama’s social agenda to LBJ’s historic package of measures known as the Great Society. “What is comparable,” she says, “is the idea of using government to expand social and economic justice. That’s what the health care bill is about. That’s what Obama tried to do with the financial reforms. That’s what he’s doing with education. The Great Society was about using the collective energies of the nation to make life better for more people — and that’s what Obama has tried to do.”