LOS ANGELES -- I doubt that President Obama is about to sit down at the end of this year and tell Oprah Winfrey that he is giving himself a B-plus as he did just a year ago. He may deserve a great deal more credit than voters gave him last November, but you can't brag about being a party leader whose party was clobbered and a commander-in-chief stubbornly pursuing victory in a winless, pointless war.
The presidency is an enormously complicated thing -- the good, the bad and the ugly happen at the same time -- and then history cleans up the mess. By that standard, Obama will probably win higher marks than he is getting these days. You can't rely on the daily press for much guidance on what Americans will think and say in the future about this guy. It makes your head hurt trying to figure out what's going on when the media in 10 days elevates a leader from "life-support" to "comeback kid."
History tends to ignore the politics of spats and bouts between the three branches of government. Presidents are not judged by congressional triumphs, bipartisanship and all that. Presidents are judged by one, two or three big decisions, most of them made in response to events unforeseen. No one remembers Lincoln's agricultural policies. And no one is going to remember Mitch McConnell or Jim DeMint. They are figures in the Brueghel painting that is Washington.
Historically, Afghanistan aside (think Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam), Obama looks pretty good. He is already on the charts simply because of America's racial history. No one will ever forget that, once upon a time, the American people elected an African-American president.
Other things, some quite impressive, may also check a historical box, particularly bringing national health care to the capitalist capital of the world. Is that unpopular now? So were Social Security and Medicare when they were first proposed. As another comeback kid, Harry S Truman, said: "I learned that a great leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and like it."
William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a Clintonian Democrat, wrote recently in a paper titled, "President Obama's First Two Years":
"Most of the Obama agenda turned out to be very unpopular. Of five major policy initiatives undertaken during the first two years, only one -- financial regulatory reform -- enjoyed majority support. In a September 2010 Gallup survey, 52 percent of the people disapproved of the economic stimulus, 56 percent disapproved of both the auto rescue and the health care bill, and an even larger majority -- 61 percent -- rejected the bailout of financial institutions. Democrats' hopes that the people would change their minds about the party's signature issue -- universal health insurance -- after the bill passed were not fulfilled. (It remains to be seen whether sentiment will change in coming years as provisions of the bill are phased in -- that is, if they survive what will no doubt be stiff challenges in both Congress and the states.)"
A lot remains to be seen, of course, including the question of whether any president can be re-elected in continuing bad economic times. No postwar president has ever won re-election when national unemployment is above 8 percent. And these hard times will continue, particularly for middle-aged and older people. There is no doubt that what we have seen over the past three or four years has been more than a cyclical recession. The United States and the rest of the world, too, are going through an economic restructuring. There must be days when Obama feels like a cork bouncing on top of waves of statistics, most of them bad for him.
There's little doubt that the 44th president was dealt a bad hand: the first four cards were economic chaos, even collapse, a widening gap between the rich and everyone else crippling the middle classes, and two mismanaged wars in Asia and the Middle East. It does not get much worse than that. But then, again except in Afghanistan, things may be looking up now. Obama has said he would rather have two good years than eight lousy ones. That may happen: History will decide.