Richard Reeves

A Revisionist Take on President Obama

LOS ANGELES -- "Democrats Worry Obama Is Helping Their Rivals" was the headline over an article last Friday in the Los Angeles Times. I think that was the one thousandth piece I have read in the last couple of months saying that the president has low approval ratings and will hurt Democratic candidates in November's Senate and House elections.

Maybe. But I also notice that a certain early revisionism is popping up about the difficult presidency of Barack Obama. Majority opinion, at least as expressed in this year's press and polls, seems to be that he is an overly rational, aloof and out-of-touch leader who is not reacting quickly enough to the crises of the day, a professorial fellow presiding over an incompetent monster called the government. It seems that it is his fault that the Secret Service is letting mental cases climb over White House fences to try to kill him and his family, that he is responsible for a pandemic killing Africans, and for a medieval Muslim movement killing other Muslims and the occasional Westerner in the Middle East.

Dare I say that I consider him a good president, not without flaws, governing in an exceptionally difficult time: at home, in a politically polarized America -- where half the nation seems ever ready to cast the other as wrong, evil or both -- and abroad, in a time of chaos that the United States, with all its wealth and power, cannot control and might be better off trying to avoid. After all, with the exception of our triumph on the tiny island of Grenada 30 years ago, all the president's men have not been able to prevail in one undeclared war after another.

And, it seems, I am not alone. In no particular order, Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, a lefty no doubt, is on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, writing "In Defense of Obama" with the subhead, "The Nobel Prize-winning economist, once one of the president's most notable critics, on why Obama is a historic success."

Says Krugman (and Reeves): "Polls -- or even elections -- are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn't be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes."

Krugman adds: "Obamacare means a huge improvement in the quality of life for tens of millions of Americans." And: An overwhelming consensus among economists says that Obama's stimulus plan helped to revive the economy.

Timothy Garton Ash, the perceptive professor and writer based at Oxford University in Britain, is a critic of Obama's foreign policy -- most European intellectuals are, even as their countries look to the United States to run the world for them -- but offers facts that writers of history will consider:

"It's important to recall that no president since 1945 has been dealt such a difficult hand -- the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, the legacy of George W. Bush's disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq, a dysfunctional political system that snarls around a gerrymandered, polarized and money-dominated Congress and a millennial shift in the global balance of power."

In The New Yorker last week, legal pundit Jeffrey Toobin praises legal scholar Obama with incrementally moving an essentially conservative Supreme Court in directions some of us consider in the context of common sense. At the same time he has managed, with real opposition from conservative ideologues, to make appointments of new judges, bringing some needed balance and diversity into the lower levels of the federal courts.

There is no doubt that there is a sour mood in the United States these days, but history is what sorts out things like that. President Obama may look bad after these midterm elections, but long after anyone remembers Mitch McConnell and his ilk, Barack Obama will be remembered as a significant president who reminded us of the best in our history.

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