Elizabeth Hasselbeck had an impolite question for President Obama on Monday when he visited with the ladies of The View: "How do you grade yourself, honestly, in terms of how you’ve done in terms of economics for this country?" When a more congenial interviewer asked him the same thing in 2009, Obama awarded himself "a good, solid, B-plus." But here, too, Obama has evolved. Responding to Hasselbeck, he said, "I won’t give us a letter grade. I think it’s still incomplete."
Obama’s answer is technically correct: His current term has eight months and two days left to run (and let us mark every day). But he is wrong to suggest that it is too soon to grade his presidency. No serious legislative business will be conducted before Election Day. The outcome of that election will decide the fate of current tax rates, the next increase in the debt ceiling, and the looming sequester. Obama’s freedom of action has been restricted since Republicans gained a 41st Senator in 2010 and control of the House in 2011. His term effectively has been over for months. Its last gasp was the fight over the Budget Control Act in 2011. One reason the president has poured so much energy into scaring client groups for his reelection campaign is that he has nothing else, really, to do. We can therefore award him the grade he deserves: D Plus.
One arrives at such a low mark only after a thorough—and scientific—examination of the president’s record of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Obama has been more than happy to play into the contemporary prejudice that our president’s first duty is not to uphold and defend the Constitution and execute the laws of Congress but to "solve" every problem or crisis that the media and public set before him. And there are so many problems to solve. In his fatuous 2008 Berlin speech—the one where he promised the oceans would no longer rise—the future president declared that "this is the moment" when we would "defeat terror," "rout" terrorists in Afghanistan and "traffickers who sell drugs on your streets," pursue "a world without nuclear weapons," "reject the Cold War mindset of the past," "share" the market’s "benefits more equitably," send "a direct message to Iran that it must abandon its nuclear ambitions," "come together to save this planet," and "give hope to those left behind in a globalized world."
By the time of his 2009 Inaugural Address, the financial crisis and Lesser Depression had broadened and deepened Obama’s challenge and forced him to add to his list of goals. "Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered," he said. "Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen and threaten our planet." The perilous economic situation also contributed to a collapse in tax revenues and an increase in spending that soon made the extent of America’s debt addiction nightmarishly clear. But that did not quiet our president’s ambition. A few months into his term, Obama delivered a speech at Georgetown University in which he pledged nothing less than to "lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity—a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."
Here is the collapsed foundation on which we stand today: The economy is stagnant. The unemployment rate has fallen only because participation in the labor force is at its lowest level since the 1980s. Osama bid Laden is dead, but the movement he inspired lives on, continuing to kill innocents in Europe, Africa, the Greater Middle East, and doing its best to hit targets in the United States. It is America that is rushing for the exits in Afghanistan, not the Taliban or the Pakistani intelligence services, who are now the objects of diplomatic entreaty. Drugs are still for sale.
The world is full of nuclear weapons and, indeed, more countries are likely to pursue them if Iran gets nukes. The "strong message" Obama sent to the mullahs on that topic was returned to sender. The Cold War mindset of the past may have been rejected in the Oval Office and in some parts of Capitol Hill, but it is very much alive in the Kremlin, where the Russian dictator bullies his neighbors when he is not occupying them outright, crushes democracy activists, and allows his generals to threaten NATO with preemptive strikes. Some people still have more money than others. The planet has not, from what I can tell, been "saved."
The housing collapse has not ended. Health care costs are rising. Public schools fail to educate children in the habits of mind and heart of democratic citizenry. Green energy accounts for a pittance of total energy consumption. The debt grows larger with each passing second. Nothing has been done to change Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to make them solvent. Democrats don’t even have a budget.
One cannot even say that this presidency has been a success from a left-wing point of view. The Bush tax rates are in force. Guantánamo Bay is open. There have been no trials of Bush officials and in most instances—preventive detention, drones, Special Forces—Obama has retained or expanded his predecessor’s war-making powers. We are still at war in Afghanistan. Cap and trade did not make it past the Senate. The health bill included a giveaway to private insurance companies in the form of the individual mandate, but lacked a public option. Obama finally may have announced his support for same-sex marriage, but is he doing anything to promote or enshrine it into federal law? If one looks at the world through progressive eyes—bear with me, it will only take a moment—then one must give credit to Obama for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and for withdrawing Americans from Iraq.
Obama’s single achievement is something he scarcely intended and likely will lament for the rest of his days: the reinvigoration and reorientation of the right to first principles in the aftermath of the Bush presidency. Prior to Obama’s ascendance, the right was riven between big-government conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, interventionists, activists, and intellectuals. The right was more interested in its divisions than its commonalities. Years of power had made us sloppy and complacent and sometimes corrupt.
Obama illustrated, boldly and shockingly, the power and drive of a resurgent progressivism. His grandiose designs forced conservatives into rethinking their attitude toward public policy in light of American exceptionalism and the American Founding. Suddenly finding themselves unwilling passengers on Obama’s progress train, conservatives remembered those they had left behind: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and Lincoln. Only in reversing course, in returning to the supposedly outmoded and old-fashioned ideas of natural rights and constitutionalism, would conservatives begin to prepare the ground for a renewed America. That is why Obama’s grade is a D Plus rather than outright failure. Who says conservatives don’t believe in grade inflation?
Barack Obama, future historians will remember, gave new life to something thought dead. Maybe he is a miracle worker after all.