Mike Berman’s Washington Watch

January 14, 2017 11:59 AM

President Obama: A Retrospective

The time was 9:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, July 27, 2004. The place was the podium of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. (I was the manager of the schedule for that convention.) The Kerry campaign had selected a 2004 U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama to make the “keynote” speech of the convention.

None of the three largest national TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, chose to air the convention or Obama’s speech that night. He was covered by PBS, CNN, FOX and MSNBC. The audience was estimated to be just over 9 million viewers.

Obama wrote the speech himself and it was then passed through the Kerry speech team with modest changes.

I recall thinking that he was quite an orator and that it was too bad that the major networks had not carried the speech.

Nearly thirteen years later, at 9:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday January 10, 2017, Obama gave another speech, now as President. This speech was given in Chicago at McCormick Place with an audience of 20,000 staff, colleagues, friends and supporters. The words were his, including a few that were not included in the circulated version.

This time, all of the major networks and a few transmission networks that didn’t exist in 2004 carried what was billed as Obama’s “farewell” speech. It was a great speech capped by his expression of adoration for his wife Michelle and his family and his admiration for Vice President Joe Biden.

At the end of the first week in January 2017, President Obama had an approval rating of 56% in Gallup. The range of his approval ratings in Gallup has gone from a high of 67% on January 25, 2009 to a low of a 40% in September 2011, January 2014 and February 2014.

Compared to the last elected Presidents who completed their full terms, he ranks in Gallup behind Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and is tied with GHW Bush.

  Approve/Disapprove Date
Lyndon Johnson 49/37% 1/10/1969
Jimmy Carter 34/55% 12/8/1980
Ronald Reagan 63/29% 12/29/1988
GHW Bush 56/37% 1/11/1993
Bill Clinton 66/29% 1/14/2001
GW Bush 34/61% 1/11/2009
Barack Obama 56/42% 1/6/2017

Who was Barack Obama as President?

He was the first African American president, demonstrating that the country was ready for someone other than a white male as its leader.

He and his family and their interactions and time with each other set an example for every family in the country.

His tenure in office was marked by no scandals. It is hard to remember a president who was not investigated for something.

He was a role model as a statesman, president, father and friend.

In public settings he was an orator of note.

In February of 2009, just after he took office, Barack Obama was thought of positively by 68% while 19% thought of him negatively. By August of 2016, in his 6th year as President, he hit a low point with 40% thinking of him negatively while 47% thought of him positively. Now as Obama approaches the end of his second term in office, 52% think of him positively while 36% think of him negatively. [NBC/WSJ, 12/15/16]

The following are some positive changes that have occurred in the country between when President Obama was inaugurated and now.

  Jan 2009 Now
Unemployment 7.8% 4.7%
Dow Jones Industrial Avg 7949 19170
GDP -5.4 +3.2
Consumer confidence 37.4 107.1
Med Household Income 54,988 56,516
American Living Below Poverty Line 43.6 million 43.1 million
Americans Without Health Insurance 49 million 29.8 million
U.S. Troops in Iraq 139,500 5,200
U.S. Troops in Afghanistan 34,400 9,800
[NBC/WSJ, 12/6/16]

A greater number of Americans view the Obama administration as having more accomplishments than failures. He ranks ahead of George W. Bush and behind the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

  Obama GW Bush Clinton
Accomplishments will outweigh failures 49 24 60
Failures will outweigh accomplishments 44 64 27
[PEW, 12/14/16]

46% of Americans say Obama will be judged as an Outstanding/Above Average president while 27% say he will be judged as Below Average/Poor.

  Outstanding/above average Below Average/poor
Barack Obama 46% 27%
George W Bush 11 58
Bill Clinton 44 21
George H.W Bush 36 12
Ronald Reagan 59 14
[PEW, 12/14/16]

Over time, Obama did not spend a lot of time with members of Congress—hail-fellow-well-met is not a part of who he is—at least when it comes to members of Congress. Last week, Obama met with a joint caucus of House and Senate Democrats. Few can remember the last time he met with all the congressional Democrats.

On the substantive front, Obama will be remembered for the fiscal stimulus that saved the economy early in his tenure, the Iran deal and his actions on climate change. He also led the way toward the acceptance of gay marriage.

But if there is any one thing that President Obama has come to be known for as president, and will be known for in the years to follow, it will be the Affordable Care Act.

It is one of the few major examples in which the President successfully worked with the Democrats in Congress, led by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In fact, as leaders of Houses controlled by Democrats, Reid and Pelosi directly led the effort as if they were the members who had introduced a bill. Along the way, the legislation was filled with a number of sections necessary to collect the required votes. The legislation passed without a single Republican vote.

Since its’ passage, it has been a Republican goal to repeal the Act. It became a centerpiece of the Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and for Republicans efforts to protect their majorities in the Senate and House. And now that the Republicans have control of both Houses and the White House, repeal of the Affordable Care Act seems to be their top priority.

What ultimately will happen remains to be seen but whatever the result, the bottom line is that the Affordable Care Act has made it possible for 19.2 million people to have health insurance that they did not have before the Act.

If there was a particular failing of the president and his administration it is that they failed to communicate to those who were positively affected either by the fiscal stimulus or the Affordable Care Act and explain to them that it was the president who had led the way and fought for them. Listening to and reading various news reports about whether people know how either the job they have was saved or the insurance they got was made possible, always surprises me.

The following are some less than positive aspects of President Obama’s record as President.

  Jan 2009 Now
Federal Public Debt 10.6 trillion 19.9 trillion
Dems in U.S. House 256 193
Dems in U.S. Senate 58 46
Dem Governs 28 16
[NBC News, 12/6/16]

The president’s performance as relates to foreign policy is often challenged by those who spend their time on relevant issues. It could well be that he did not want the United States to engage in further substantial foreign military activity given his work reducing our military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others argue that he has weakened the world position of the United States.

Looking at the president’s tenure from a perspective of his record as the head of the Democratic party, his record is not so great.

During Obama’s time in office the Democrats lost 66 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 12 seats in the U.S. Senate and 10 Governors.

In addition, during his tenure Democrats lost a net 958 state legislative seats. This number is greater than the number of legislative seats lost during the tenure of each of the following two term presidents.

President Seats Lost
Obama 958
GW Bush 324
Bill Clinton 524
Nixon/Ford 800
Kennedy/Johnson 437
Eisenhower 843
Roosevelt/Truman 191

Ronald Reagan is the only president in the last 67 years who actually saw his party pickup legislative seats during his tenure (+ 6 seats).

Here is what President Obama had to say about Democratic losses last Sunday to George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week”.

"I take some responsibility on that. I -- I think that some of it was circumstances. If you look at -- what happened, I came in in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression…. I think we did a really good job in saving this economy and putting us back on the track of growth. But what that meant is in 2010 there were a lot of folks who were still out of work…. And the, you know, whoever is president at that point is gonna get hit and his party's gonna get hit….So -- so some of this was circumstances. But what I think that, what is also true is that partly because my docket was really full here, so I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States. We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level."

Stan Greenberg & Anna Greenberg wrote an op-ed that appeared in the NYTimes on December 23, 2016. It is entitled, “Was Barack Obama Bad for Democrats.” The following is an excerpt from that article.

“President Obama will be remembered as a thoughtful and dignified president who led a scrupulously honest administration that achieved major changes. People argue over whether his impatience with politicians and Republican intransigence denied him bigger accomplishments, but that argument is beside the point: He rescued an economy in crisis and passed the recovery program, pulled America back from its military overreach, passed the Affordable Care Act and committed the nation to addressing climate change. To be truly transformative in the way he wanted, however, his success had to translate into electoral gains for those who shared his vision and wanted to reform government. On that count, Mr. Obama failed. His legacy regrettably includes the more than 1,000 Democrats who lost their elections during his two terms. Republicans now have total control in half of America’s states.”

The following are excerpts from a recent column in the New York Times by J.D.Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy”. I think it is fair to say that Vance does not share President Obama’s political views but respects him nonetheless.

“It is one of the great failures of recent political history that the Republican Party was too often unable to disconnect legitimate political disagreements from the fact that the president himself is an admirable man. Part of this opposition comes from this uniquely polarized moment in our politics, part of it comes from Mr. Obama’s leadership style – more disconnected and cerebral than personal and emotive – and part of it (though a smaller amount than many on the left suppose) comes from the color of his skin.”

“On January 20, the political side of my brain will breathe a sigh of relief at Mr. Obama’s departure. I will hope for better policy from the new administration….”

“But the child who so desperately wanted an American dream, with a happy family at its core will feel something different. For at a pivotal time in my life, Barack Obama gave me hope that a boy who grew up like me could still achieve the most important of my dreams. For that, I’ll miss him, and the example he set.”

Michelle Obama

[The quotes in the material below, except for the excerpts from her final speech, are from an article by Jodie Kantor published in the New York Times, 1/7/17. The quotes from her final speech are from the Washington Post, 1/7/17.]

Michelle Obama was an extraordinary First Lady. When her husband was elected president, she gave up her owning blossoming career as he pursued his. She gave up her own public voice on the issues that had previously consumed her attention.

She is remembered by her friends as “an incisive social critic, a lawyer who can drive home an argument, a source of fresh observations and pointed commentary…Long before she arrived at the White House, she had formed her own worldview, based on a life full of dramatic changes and contrasts.”

“In the White House she focused first on their children and she took on issues that were vital but hard to disagree with: she was pro-veteran, anti-child obesity.”

“The themes of the hour – unfairness, opportunity, whether to have even a shred of faith in the system – are ones she has thought about her entire adult life. Being in the White House has given her eight years’ worth of insights she has barely shared. She may be the most powerful black woman in the country a position that begs to be used.”

The following is an excerpt from the last public speech Michelle Obama will make before leaving the White House. She spoke at an event celebrating school counselors. The report is that she was quite emotional.

“It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division…that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard and believe in ourselves then we can be whatever we dream regardless of the limitations that others would place on us.

That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us, politicians, parents, preachers, need to be providing for our kids, because that is what moves this country forward – our hope for the future.”

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