Obama vs. expectations

Updated
 
Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination four years ago.
Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination four years ago.
Associated Press

For much of the year, the common debate about President Obama’s job performance has generally broken down into two groups. The first are his detractors who, obviously, believe he’s done a bad job. The second are the president’s defenders, who try to provide context to the challenges Obama has faced – the scope of the crises he inherited; the worst Congress ever; Eurozone, etc.

Jon Chait gives voice to those in an overlooked third category: “I may be the only person in America to think this way, but here goes: I’m not disappointed in Obama at all. His first term has actually exceeded my expectations.”

The relevant standard here is, has Obama accomplished more or less than I expected? … I expected Obama’s legislative record to exceed Clinton’s, but by less than it actually did. The domestic reforms embedded in the stimulus alone – the scope of which is described in Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal – did more to reshape the face of government in areas like education and energy than Clinton managed in eight years.

Then you had health-care reform (which I hoped would pass, but would not have been shocked to be filibustered to death), financial reform (which I expected to fail completely), gays in the military, and so on…. [P]erhaps comparing Obama to Clinton’s record is setting the bar too low. Yet you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson to find a Democratic president who effected as significant change as Obama has, and L.B.J.’s presidency was not exactly an unmitigated blessing.

Voters will certainly reach their own conclusions about whether Obama met, exceeded, or fell short of their hopes from four years ago, and the president’s convention speech will be an important opportunity for the president to make his best case for his own record.

But just as a thought experiment, I sometimes ponder what would happen if I could take a time machine back four years, and deliver a message to Obama voters about what they could expect. “In four years’ time,” I’d say, “the president will have signed a breakthrough health-care reform bill into law; rescued the American auto industry; lowered unemployment and created economic growth, imposed new safeguards on Wall Street, ended the war in Iraq, decimated al Qaeda and killed bin Laden, reformed the student loan system, and ended DADT, all in one term.”

How many voters would have heard that (admittedly truncated) list four years ago and responded, “Meh, that doesn’t sound like much; I’ll be disappointed if that’s all he does”?

Jon thinks he may be “the only person in America” for whom Obama has “exceeded” expectations, but I have a strong hunch Chait isn’t as alone as he suspects. One of the president’s challenges tonight, I suppose, is persuading more of the public to think the same way.

Barack Obama

Obama vs. expectations

Updated