You hear it everywhere. Democrats are disappointed in the president. Independents have soured even more. Republicans have worked themselves up into an apocalyptic fervor. And, yes, this is not exactly unusual.
A president in the last year of his first term will always get attacked mercilessly by his partisan opponents, and also, often, by the feistier members of his base. And when unemployment is at remarkably high levels, and with the national debt setting records, the criticism will—and should be—even fiercer. But this time, with this president, something different has happened. It’s not that I don’t understand the critiques of Barack Obama from the enraged right and the demoralized left. It’s that I don’t even recognize their description of Obama’s first term in any way. The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong.
You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition. His spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama. Again: imagine Bush had been a Democrat and Obama a Republican. You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor—except, of course, that Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.
The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them. It needs improvement in many ways, but the administration is open to further reform and has agreed to allow states to experiment in different ways to achieve the same result. It is not, as Romney insists, a one-model, top-down prescription. Like Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment. Embedded in it are also a slew of cost-reduction pilot schemes to slow health-care spending. Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle—but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.
On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement. Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest—but most ambitious—plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further. If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.