The Scouting Report Web Chat: Assessing the Obama Administration

Three days after Barack Obama won the historic election last fall, Darrell West urged him in a memo to make sure that his party’s control of the Senate and House of Representatives did not encourage complacency within his new administration. West further recommended that he temper expectations. His chances of success would be greatest, wrote West, if he stayed focused and recognized from the outset what could be realistically accomplished in four years.

On Wednesday January 6, at 12:30 p.m., Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies, and Politico’s Fred Barbash participated in an an online chat about President Obama’s performance in his first year in office.  The transcript of this chat follows.

12:28 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Darrell M. West is the vice president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings. His studies include campaigns and elections, political advertising, mass media, public opinion, technology policy and electronic government.

Darrell’s with us today to answer questions on how well the President has achieved those goals.

Welcome Darrell. Welcome readers. Let’s go.

12:29 Darrell West: I gave President Obama a reasonable grade for leadership because he’s nearing an achievement sought by every president over the last 45 years: comprehensive health care reform. The country has invested billions in health information technology, education, energy efficiency, state and local governments and broadband technology. He has set a new tone for American foreign policy and repaired shattered relationships. And despite GOP criticisms that he is a “tax and spend liberal,” one-third of his economic stimulus package went for tax cuts.

12:29 [Comment From Rebecca: ] Has Obama tried to tackle too many problems in his first year?

12:30 Darrell West: He has tackled a lot, but he had little choice. There was the economic crisis, two wars, and concern about education, health care and energy. There were things the country needed to do in each of these areas to position America for long-term growth.

12:30 [Comment From Susan:]
What do you make of the fact that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped 30 points?

What do you make of the fact that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped 30 points?

12:32 Darrell West: Obama came in with sky-high approval ratings so it is no surprise that in the midst of a recession his numbers dropped. But if you look at past presidents who governed in the middle of a recession, a number of them ended up with a 29 percent approval rating. His current number of around 50 percent is respectable given double-digit unemployment. His number actually could be a lot worse given the bad economy.

12:32 [Comment From Adrianna : ] What do you think about the dynamic between Obama and Congress?

12:33 Darrell West: The dynamic with Congress has been difficult. Republicans have opposed everything he proposed and even with super-majorities in the House and Senate, it has been challenging keeping Democratic legislators together. Democrats were able to do that on health care, but so far in the Senate, not taken advantage of their numbers to pass climate change or financial regulation bills.

12:34 [Comment From Glenn : ] It has been a year since Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. So what can his first year in office tell us about the next three?

12:35 Darrell West:
The next three years are likely to be different from his first year. In 2009, he had big majorities and was able to get some big things passed. Legislation will be much tougher in 2010 and after the midterm elections. The number of Democrats in the House and Senate will be considerably less, and it will be challenging to get members to make “hard” votes on his behalf.

12:36 [Comment From Glenn: ] As we all know, Obama has signed a ma mammoth $787 billion economic stimulus package. He’d also like to begin overhauling the healthcare system to the tune of $600 billion. Do you think these would have any positive effect on the recovery of the economy?

12:37 Darrell West: Economists say that the economic stimulus package shaved at least 1-2 points off our national unemployment rate. In my mind, that makes it a success. Imagine what the situation would be today if the unemployment rate was 12 percent as opposed to 10. The whole political situation would be a lot worse, Obama’s poll numbers would be far lower. And people would be drawing comparisons to Jimmy Carter!

12:38 [Comment From Matt: ] Do you see Obama attempting a push for filibuster reform in the Senate?

12:39 Darrell West: Filibuster usage is completely out of hand. If you go back to the 1960s, there was an average of seven filibusters a year. Last session, there were 137 filibusters. We effectively have moved from a majority to super-majority requirement in the Senate because of the need for 60 votes to cut off debate. No one can govern effectively with a super-majority requirement.

12:39 [Comment From terry: ] historically there seems to be a change in power during mid-term elections – do you think that is one of the reasons that the president has tried to pass so many large initiatives in his first year?

12:40 Darrell West: The president certainly will be weaker after 2010 than he is now. There is no way that health care reform would have passed in 2010, 2011, or 2012. So if you think America needs to cover the uninsured and make comprehensive changes, it had to take place in 2009 or it never would have happened.

12:41 [Comment From Bill (VA): ] Gallup shows Obama’s approval at around 50% and the storyline is that it’s the second lowest of any president since they started tracking (second to Reagan!). In today’s hyper-partisan environment, should Team Obama and supporters be concerned?

12:42 Darrell West: Obama should be concerned not with his poll numbers but with the unemployment rate (plus other economic indicators). That is what drives his political standing and likely re-election prospects. If he can make progress on the economy, his poll numbers will do fine.

12:42 [Comment From Bill (VA): ] I’ve been reading a bio of FDR and the parallels between 2009 and 1933 are striking–in terms of the political shifts and the sour economy. Going into 1934, it looked like Democrats would lose a lot of seats in the midterms; but they GAINED in both chambers. What is Obama’s party’s outlook for 2010 based on where he is today?

12:44 Darrell West: I think the current parallel is 1982, not 1934. Republicans lost substantially in 1982 under Reagan. But the economy came back and Reagan was re-elected in 1984. Nobody expects Democrats to gain seats in 2010 the way they did in 1934. The goal of Democrats is to 1) keep their majority status and 2) keep their seat losses as low as possible. It matters a lot whether Democrats end up with 52 or 55 Senate seats after 2010.

12:44 [Comment From Bates: ] What is your opinion of Obama’s economic team and their prescriptions, which have come under criticism from a number of quarters?

12:47 Darrell West: No one is happy with a 10 percent unemployment level. But his economic team has had to deal with lots of different economic problems: stimulating demand, getting the banks to lend more, restoring public confidence in financial institutions. It wasn’t like there was only one problem and his economic team could focus on solving that problem. They have been forced to be active on a variety of fronts. The ultimate report card is the recession is over and economic growth is anticipated to be 3 percent in 2010. We need to do better than that, but his team has performed well given the hand they were dealt.

12:47 [Comment From Rebecca Buckner: ] Sarah Palin’s resignation from the Alaska governorship doesn’t seem so bad now does it?

12:48 Darrell West: It never is fun to govern when the economy is bad and politics is polarized. Perhaps she realized it would be hard to get things done and got out of the governorship to focus on her book. She probably made the right choice for herself. The book has sold well and she has kept in the news despite no longer being in office.

12:49 [Comment From Gbenga Adesanya (Nigeria): ] What would you consider doing to get all nations to agree on a global climate change management framework?

12:50 Darrell West: Praying would be the best strategy at this point. As we saw in Copenhagen, it was impossible to get all the countries to agree on emissions limits. China did not want to be bound by a formal agreement. Climate change obviously is complicated because of its multi-dimensional element. It has political, economic, and geographic cleavage points. Multi-dimensional games are hard to play. Try 3-dimensional chess sometime!

12:51 [Comment From Joe Guggenheim: ] What have the terrorist groups stated as their reasons for attacking us? Are we seeking to reduce the real causes of terrorism that motivates bombers to kill themselves along with innocent people?

12:54 Darrell West: Terrorists are unhappy with many things about the West. This is inequality, secularism, religious differences, and a different role for women. We often think of terrorists as the uneducated, impoverished individual with no future who blows himself up. I get more concerned when we see terrorists coming from privileged backgrounds attempting to commit acts of terror. When people who have a future choose to blow themselves up, it means we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of those individuals.

12:54 [Comment From terry: ] why do you think the president reneged on his promise to be transparent regarding the health care debate, specifically why he didn’t insist on C-Span coverage

12:56 Darrell West: I don’t think the president reneged because we have had a very open debate on health care reform for a year now. All of us are aware of what the policy discussions have been and what the divisions are between different parties. We don’t all agree on what should be done, but I don’t think there has been a paucity of news coverage or general political information on health care legislation.

12:56 [Comment From Matt: ] Almost completely off topic, here. An article on Salon named the WIll.I.Am “Yes we can” video number one on a list of viral videos of the last decade. What do you think?

12:58 Darrell West: The “Yes We Can” video has legs, as they say. Obama clearly tapped into a lot of public interest both in the United States and around the world. People like his optimistic message that we can deal with our problems. He has a compelling personal story that people like. I think the reason his current job approval rating is around 50 percent as opposed to the 29 percent you might expect with 10 percent unemployment is that people basically like him. They may disagree with his policies and the choices he has made. But people think he is smart and hard-working.

12:58 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Darrell: On the retirements of Sens. Dodd and Dorgan: Do you think this–and other departures that we know about, and some we don’t yet–will prompt Democrats to double-down on their agenda while they still have some clout in the Senate…or to ease off on that agenda a bit to protect their incumbents?

1:01 Darrell West: The retirements of these leading Democrats will be a huge complicating factor for Obama. It weakens his political situation because it increases the odds of Republicans getting some seats back (especially North Dakota), but it probably will undermine the interest of other Democrats to take hard votes on Obama’s behalf. My sense is Democrats will shift towards a jobs message in 2010 in order to focus on the issue that is centermost for voters and to attempt to minimize their political losses. They probably will lead to an “easing off” strategy that pushes hard votes down the road. The result will be that not too much will move on the legislative agenda after health care reform.

1:01 [Comment From Bates: ] Given a likely 2010 midterm result, what to you think will be Obama’s legislative agenda for the second half of his first term?

1:03 Darrell West: I think Obama will focus on economics for 2010. There will be a jobs-oriented State of the Union address (with credit-claiming on health care). There will be a small economic stimulus package that will seek to improve bank lending for small businesses. And the president will continue to push his financial regulation legislation because the banks remain a popular target for a Democratic president.

1:03 [Comment From Glenn: ] Obama’s administration continues to bla me Bush. This is now Obama’s mess. He created this deficit. He CHOSE to bail out wall street and the auto industry. White House motors? Fail. Nationalized health care? Fail. Everyone needs to realize where this country is heading. And I don’t think the White House has fully prepared for the situation they encountered.

1:06 Darrell West: Didn’t Bush bail out Wall Street through the TARP legislation in Fall, 2008? Democrats will seek to remind people of Bush/Cheney in 2010. But you are right that the honeymoon is over and voters now hold the president responsible for what happens in domestic and foreign policy. The White House expected the economy to be better now than it is. That is the reason the president is pivoting to a jobs message for the next six months. Jobs will be a big focus in the upcoming State of the Union address.

1:06 [Comment From Suzie: ] How do you think Obama administration has done in guiding the health care debate in Congress? It seems like they had some trouble corralling all the votes needed from Democrats.

1:08 Darrell West: It obviously took longer to get the House and Senate to approved health care than what was originally envisioned. But the bill now has passed each chamber and President Obama should have the final legislation on his desk in a few weeks. Nobody said health care was going to be easy. That is the reason no president in the last 45 years has been successful in enacting comprehensive health care reform. Despite all the partisan bickering, it still will be a historic achievement when Obama signs the bill. Then we will spend years arguing over its implementation and impact!

1:09 [Comment From Matt: ] I’ve heard some rumors that Rahm Emmanuel will be resigning soon. Have you heard anything? Would that help or hurt Obama’s leadership?

1:10 Darrell West: I don’t think Rahm Emmanuel is going to be resigning. He has done exactly what the president wants him to do. He is knowledgeable about Congress and what it takes to get bills through the House and Senate. His leaving would be a real loss for the president, which is the reason why I don’t expect it to happen.

1:10 [Comment From Glenn: ] How would you personally rate President Obama so far? Is he doing the right things to stimulate the economy? And is he paying attention to the other issues that you care about?

1:12 Darrell West: Personally, I think Obama has done a good job given the situation he has faced. No one could have come in and solved the economy, dealt with Iraq and Afghanistan, and made necessary changes in education and health care. Democrats have made some changes that will pay off down the road for the country. That is the ultimate test of political leadership.

1:12 [Comment From Kenneth: ] Do you think Obama bit off more than he could chew? I mean announcing the troop increase to Afghanistan and tackling health care at the same time? I think that hurt the health care debate a bit.

1:14 Darrell West: He has had an ambitious agenda, but I am not sure he would have been better off if he had not done health care reform or addressed foreign policy issues. People expect the president of the United States to do a lot. The thing Obama needs to do is remind voters WHY he did the things he did. For example, people have forgotten that one-third of his economic stimulus package went for tax cuts. The president needs to remind people of that fact and what he was trying to do with his various initiatives.

1:15 [Comment From Gregg ] At the top, Fred mentioned that you research e-government. Has the president done a lot to make government more technologically savvy?

1:17 Darrell West: The president has been a leader in technology. His team has emphasized greater transparency and ways to use technology to make the public sector more efficient and effective. More than two-thirds of Americans file taxes online. Many renew drivers licenses through their state websites. The technology revolution has is the hidden revolution in the public sector. The government is starting to use technology to improve public sector performance.

1:17 [Comment From Jake: ] Do you know if there has been any research in to how popular ARRA has been? I’ve seen the signs on lots of projects, but I don’t think people associate with Obama.

1:19 Darrell West: Republicans are trying to associate ARRA with Obama because they think it isn’t that popular. But I don’t think people will evaluate Obama based on ARRA, but on what ARRA leads to. If the economy gets better, people will think Obama did many of the right things. But if unemployment remains high, there will continue to be differences of opinion over whether Obama did the right thing. We will still be arguing over those things in 2012 when the president comes up for re-election.

1:19 [Comment From Justin: ] Has Obama been too pragmatic? I mean just getting bills passed isn’t actually going to solve problems. Sometimes you have to fight for what you really believe in!

1:20 Darrell West: President Obama has governed as a pragmatist. Despite GOP claims that the guy is a socialist, many of his decisions have been remarkably centrist. Obama may have liberal instincts, but the need for 60 votes in the Senate and to hold his House majority together forced him to pragmatic compromises on health care, the economic stimulus package, and foreign policy.

1:20 [Comment From Kenneth: ] Do you think the Afghanistan announcement has helped or hurt Obama’s global leadership?

1:22 Darrell West: The jury still is out on Afghanistan. Ultimately, voters will judge Obama’s decision based on the results in that part of the world. We all will look at American fatalities, levels of violence within the country, and progress on water, electricity, and infrastructure. People will have a bottom-line orientation as to whether the president made the right decision.

1:22 [Comment From Justin: ] How has Michelle Obama helped in the Obama administration? Is she doing a good job as first lady?

1:24 Darrell West: The First Lady has done a terrific job. If you look at national polls, she is very popular. She has avoided political missteps and identified several issues of her own. She is a strong asset for the President. That is one area where the president’s team has functioned well.

1:24 [Comment From Justin: ] And how about Bo? Has he been a good dog for the administration 😉

1:24 Darrell West: Don’t ask me that question. I am a cat guy!

1:25 [Comment From Kathleen: ] Obama made climate change legislation one of his top priorities, yet Sen. Bingaman said yesterday that its fate is uncertain. Do you think Congress will pass climate change legislation in 2010? And how do you think environmentalists who worked hard for Obama’s election will react if it does not pass Congress?

1:26 Darrell West: I am not sure about climate change right now. Copenhagen was disappointing. It is a tough issue for Democrats because you have political differences between coal-producing and non-producing states. Given how hard health care was, I am not terribly optimistic the Senate will pass climate change legislation in 2010. Environmentalists will be disappointed at this result but they need to understand the institutional barriers to policy action these days in Washington. They should talk about the need for filibuster reform!

1:27 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Thanks Darrell for your time..and your wisdom. Thanks readers for participating. Next week. Same time. Same place.