Whoever won the election in November was poised for popularity—it was already in the cards. The economy is on a corrective trajectory back to good health, the housing market will probably continue to recover, and in four years time many will look back and find themselves better off than they are now. History would be kind to whoever occupies the office for the next four years, barring some major disaster.
But Obama will and should continue to get credit for many of the hard-fought victories that set the stage for recovery. If he hadn’t been able to pass the $787 billion stimulus bill in 2009 it’s likely that we would have just lived through a second Great Depression… or we could still be in it if you listen to Paul Krugman. And that’s not even mentioning passing health care reform, a goal that remained elusive for at least a generation, as well as taking a major civil rights stand for gay Americans.
It’s a serious track record. And as he takes the oath for the the second time it’s worth noting that every one of those points was won against intense Republican opposition that wanted opposite policies.
Not only that, but early on in his term Republicans declared a strategy of opposing Obama on anything he might propose with the dedicated goal of defeating him after one term. In 2009 Senator Jim DeMint was recorded on a conference explaining the urgency of defeating Obama’s health care proposal: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
That line became a defining part of the narrative of Obama’s first term. The fact that he accomplished what he did without good-faith support from Congress and still won reelection with a margin bigger than both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan is pretty astounding.
The most timely (and most depressing) thing about the movie “Lincoln” was its notion that obstructiveness in government, sometimes for its own sake, is about as old as the U.S. government itself. In that regard there may never have been any such thing as a president having good-faith support from Congress.
To the extent that that’s true, the mark of a “great” president is playing the game to get done what he wants to get done. By that measure, when you factor in all of the above and the 11th-hour tax reform he just passed in the nick of time at New Year, this president will go probably down as a damn great one.