Up Front

Around the Halls: The Obama Administration’s First Two Years

William A. Galston and Steven Pifer

January 20, 2011 marks the second anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration. On this date, William Galston examines the Obama administration’s performance over its first two years in the area of domestic policy, and Steven Pifer looks at the administration’s efforts to date in the areas of arms control and non-proliferation.

Obama’s Leadership on Domestic Policy
William A. Galston, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

At the mid-point of his term, Barack Obama and his advisors can look back on their first two years with a mixture of satisfaction and regret.  On the one hand, the roster of significant domestic accomplishments is lengthy.  The new administration inherited an economy in free fall and through urgent measures succeeded in averting catastrophe.  While it’s much too early to reach firm conclusions, one suspects that future economic historians will give the administration high marks for decision-making under extreme pressure.  The financial system was stabilized with loans whose net cost will be much lower than the pessimists predicted; taxpayers may even recoup most of the vast sum extended to insurance behemoth AIG.  The financial regulatory reform has begun to restore a measure of balance to a system that had spun out of control. Whatever its flaws, the stimulus package probably helped states and localities avert mass layoffs at the worst possible point in the economic cycle.  Without unprecedented intervention, two U.S. auto makers would have faced disorderly liquidation, with incalculable consequences for the already hard-hit Midwest.  Instead, GM and Chrysler have been given a fighting chance to survive and even prosper.

There were also important steps in the area of social policy.  While we won’t know for many years whether the health reform bill will bend the famous cost curve (and if so, in which direction), it represents a major legislative success achieved against daunting odds.  Education is another success story; the president has unswervingly backed his reform-minded secretary of education and has given him the fiscal tools needed to induce states to make long-overdue changes.

This is not to say that everything has gone right on the policy front.  The administration’s efforts to limit the wave of home foreclosures have been unimaginative and mainly unsuccessful.  The ill-timed and ill-conceived push to enact cap and trade legislation crashed and burned.  Off-again on-again moves on immigration reform predictably produced no result.

The returns have been less satisfactory on the political front.  The president’s inability to offer a consistent and persuasive justification for the massive measures he undertook soon placed his party on the defensive.  The administration’s early failure to assess accurately the pace and extent of economic decline led to optimistic forecasts that events quickly contradicted, undermining the credibility of the overall economic program.  And the mistaken belief that a solid majority of Americans favored a “new New Deal” led to an ideological backlash that helped fuel the rise of the Tea Party movement. 

Well before the November 2010 elections, it was clear that massive Democratic losses were inevitable.  But despite the electorate’s repudiation of Obama’s party, surveys suggested that the president himself continue to enjoy a reservoir of public goodwill.  During the past two months, he has used that asset to strengthen his position—by striking a well-received economic compromise with the Republicans, honoring his promise to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and achieving bipartisan ratification of the New Start treaty.  Today, less than a week before the 2011 State of the Union address, the president’s public standing has recovered significantly. 

Obama’s challenge now is to build on the modest forward momentum his has gained, by offering an agenda that simultaneously appeals to a broad swath of the electorate and that addresses the structural economic and fiscal problems the United States faces.  Stabilizing the economy is only the first step; the challenge now is to craft a new American success story for the 21st century, along with policies that can help turn that story into reality. 

Obama’s Leadership on Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe;

Director, Arms Control Initiative

By any measure, President Obama and the White House had a very good year on arms control and non-proliferation in 2010.  The president filled out big pieces of the arms control framework that he laid down in his April 2009 speech in Prague. 

April 2010 was busy.  On April 6, the administration released its nuclear posture review.  The review stressed the importance of maintaining a robust deterrent, if at lower levels of nuclear forces, while identifying nuclear terrorism and proliferation as the biggest threats facing America.  The report provided the underpinning for a reduced U.S nuclear arsenal and made U.S. nuclear declaratory policy a bit more transparent.

Two days later, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the New START Treaty, which will cut each side’s deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1550 on 700 strategic missiles and bombers.  New START will reinstitute verification measures, including on-site inspections, restoring the transparency and insights into Russian strategic forces that were lost when the START I treaty and its verification regime expired at the end of 2009.

On April 12-13, the president hosted 40 leaders for a nuclear security summit in Washington.  The meeting focused on the nuts-and-bolts questions of securing all worldwide stockpiles of fissile materials, the essential ingredients for nuclear weapons.  The leaders agreed to a four-year road-map for doing so.

April’s momentum carried over to May, when the five-year review conference for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty met in New York.  While Washington did not get everything it wanted at the conference, it got a lot, including endorsement of a tougher international regime for inspecting nuclear activities.  The United States, moreover, was seen as part of the solution, not—as was the case in 2005—as part of the problem. 

In June, U.S. diplomats succeeded in winning UN Security Council approval of a resolution imposing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons program.  The sanctions imposed an embargo on arms sales to Tehran, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.  Western governments subsequently applied additional measures, including sanctions targeting the financial interests of Iran’s ruling elite.

The White House closed out the year with a big win on Capitol Hill, securing Senate consent to ratification of New START.  The outcome appeared in doubt at times, but 13 Republicans joined their Democratic counterparts, and a 71-26 vote approved the treaty.  The Russian Duma is expected to ratify the treaty by the end of January.

These pieces weave together to form a broad, multi-faceted effort to tackle the threat posed by nuclear weapons.  Much work remains to be done.  Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, and North Korea is expanding its small arsenal.  The administration has to ensure follow-up on the road-map to secure nuclear materials.  It also has to consider how to move forward on negotiating a treaty to end the production of fissile materials and whether to seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  And Washington needs to begin planning for a new round of arms talks with Moscow that will include non-strategic nuclear weapons.  So there is a full agenda.  But the United States is again leading the effort to contain the nuclear threat, and the White House has reason for satisfaction with its arms control and non-proliferation record in 2010.