Paul Krugman would never be mistaken for an Obama cheerleader. When President Obama was riding high, enjoying broad support and high poll numbers, it was Krugman who was discouraged, offering substantive criticism and words of caution. In late 2007, the then-senator’s campaign team was so irritated with Krugman that Obama’s aides dropped an oppo document on him.
Six years later, it’s interesting to see how much the roles have reversed. The president’s support has clearly faltered. Much of the country either blames him for tumultuous events, refuses to credit him for national progress, or both. But it’s Krugman who’s come around – much of the American mainstream has turned on Obama, for reasons that may not be entirely rational, but it’s the Nobel laureate offering a spirited defense of the president in a Rolling Stone cover story.
… Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. […]This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.
Krugman’s piece goes into considerable detail – on the economy, on health care, on Wall Street reform, on climate – but the broader takeaway is that the New York Times columnist is saying what much of the country is not: that Obama’s presidency has been a great success. The praise is qualified at times, but it’s nevertheless enthusiastic.
Indeed, Krugman sat down yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, arguing that in his “ranking of consequential presidents, at least in modern history,” he would put FDR on top, followed by LBJ, then Obama, then Reagan.
“Bill Clinton is an incredibly gifted politician,” Krugman added. “Bill Clinton, in a room, and it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room, you think he’s talking to you. But in fact Bill Clinton was not a consequential president. And Obama, although clearly not the natural politician, he is a consequential president.”
Especially when it comes to the economy, Danny Vinik argued that Krugman’s case is compelling.
President Obama has made many economic mistakes during his presidency…. But it’s also true that the U.S. economy is in far better shape than the rest of the developed world. Growth is stronger and unemployment is lower. As Krugman explains in the current issue of Rolling Stone, the U.S. recovery has even slightly outpaced the historical average for a recovery after a severe financial crisis. And this is despite the reckless, destructive behavior of the Republicans.The recovery still has a long way to go, of course. And given Congressional gridlock, Obama has little control over the economy right now. Whether or not American workers finally feel like the recession is over and see their wages rise is in the (capable) hands of the Federal Reserve. But given what Obama can control, his economic policies have done a pretty good job in the aftermath of the Great Recession, even if it’s impossible to convey that in a speech.
Looking ahead, it’s probably worth keeping these big-picture perspectives in mind. Those of us caught up in the day-to-day coverage of current events find it easy to see trees, but forests are more elusive. It’s easy to focus on turmoil and gridlock, and get the sense that Obama’s presidency is a mess.
But the question of whether history will be kind is another matter entirely. For much of the country, consequential presidencies are defined by a handful of landmark events. Years from now, when someone utters the name “Barack Obama,” the thumb-nail sketch may very well be a president who rescued the nation from the Great Recession, overhauled a broken health care system and brought coverage to tens of millions of people, brought some accountability to Wall Street, and started the country on a path towards climate sanity, among other accomplishments.
It may seem odd to think about Obama now as a historical giant, but Krugman probably won’t be the last to see him as among the most “successful presidents in American history.”