Up Front

The Status Report: Assessing Obama’s Leadership

Darrell M. West

One year ago, Brookings experts wrote a series of 12 memos to the incoming president on the most pressing policy issues facing the country. Now they assess the administration’s progress on those issues in The Status Report, a daily series of commentary and video to be featured in POLITICO’s Arena.

Lead With Confidence: B+

Three days after Barack Obama won the historic election last fall, I 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. I further recommended that he temper expectations. His chances of success would be greatest, I wrote, if he stayed focused and recognized from the outset what could be realistically accomplished in four years.

I offered these suggestions because Obama entered the White House with unrealistically elevated expectations and a sky-high 78 percent job approval rating. Like a political Superman, he took off with a bold and ambitious agenda for economic recovery, health care reform, addressing climate change and regulating financial markets.

One year later, has Superman become Clark Kent? Critics chastise him for seeking to do too much. His approval ratings have dropped 30 points. Even with large majorities, Democrats in Congress have struggled to pass the president’s program. With Republicans threatening filibusters at every turn, it has been difficult to meet the 60 vote threshold for Senate action.

Obama earned his high grade for leadership, in part, 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.

He has delivered on his promise to employ technology as a public-sector game changer.  He has set up Recovery.gov, pushed new standards for transparency and accountability and placed more government data online than any other president.  With these and other innovations, he is on course to become America’s first truly digital president.

The chief executive faces difficult tasks over the next three years: double-digit unemployment and a trillion-dollar budget deficit that can not go unchecked.  Climate change and financial regulation have passed the House, but not the Senate.  There are serious trouble spots all around the globe from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Middle East, Iran and North Korea.  We continue to fight two major wars.

With the poor economy, it is no surprise that President Obama’s approval ratings have dropped. However, his numbers actually compare favorably with other presidents in office during bad economies. If you look at Gallup job approval ratings during recessions: Richard Nixon had a 27 percent rating in November 1973; Jimmy Carter at 29 percent in October 1979; George Herbert Walker Bush with 29 percent in July 1992, and George W. Bush, also at 29 percent, in August 2008.

President Obama continues to inspire greater confidence than other contemporary leaders.  A recent ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 49 percent of Americans said they had a lot of confidence in the president making the right decisions for the country’s future. Only 19 percent felt that way about congressional Republicans; 34 percent were confident about congressional Democrats.

Americans view Obama far more positively than they do the opposition Republicans. Yet all politicians suffer in the public’s mind as promising policy initiatives so often get lost in the congressional quagmire.  In the Senate, we’ve witnessed a de facto shift from majority to super-majority rule.  If 51 votes could pass Senate bills, commentators would be comparing Obama to high-achieving presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson.

Sixty votes to stop filibusters have proved a formidable hurdle, especially with the procedural delay tactic on the rise.  In the 1960s, the Senate averaged seven filibusters a year, with usage limited to questions of moral conscience or high principle; the last Congress invoked a record 137 filibusters. Until we enact common-sense filibuster reform, only a superhuman president can effectively govern the super-majority.

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