The Long Game

By Sullivan, Andrew | Newsweek, January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Long Game


Sullivan, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Sullivan

The right calls him a socialist, the left says he sucks up to Wall Street, and independents think he's a wimp. Andrew Sullivan on how the president may just end up outsmarting them all.

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.

A caveat: I write this as an unabashed supporter of Obama from early 2007 on. I did so not as a liberal, but as a conservative-minded independent appalled by the Bush administration's record of war, debt, spending, and torture. I did not expect, or want, a messiah. I have one already, thank you very much. And there have been many times when I have disagreed with decisions Obama has made--to drop the Bowles-Simpson debt commission, to ignore the war crimes of the recent past, and to launch a war in Libya without Congress's sanction, to cite three. But given the enormity of what he inherited, and given what he explicitly promised, it remains simply a fact that Obama has delivered in a way that the unhinged right and purist left have yet to understand or absorb. Their short-term outbursts have missed Obama's long game--and why his reelection remains, in my view, as essential for this country's future as his original election in 2008.

The right's core case is that Obama has governed as a radical leftist attempting a "fundamental transformation" of the American way of life. Mitt Romney accuses the president of making the recession worse, of wanting to turn America into a European welfare state, of not believing in opportunity or free enterprise, of having no understanding of the real economy, and of apologizing for America and appeasing our enemies. According to Romney, Obama is a mortal threat to "the soul" of America and an empty suit who couldn't run a business, let alone a country.

Leave aside the internal incoherence--how could such an incompetent be a threat to anyone? None of this is even faintly connected to reality--and the record proves it. On the economy, the facts are these. When Obama took office, the United States was losing around 750,000 jobs a month. The last quarter of 2008 saw an annualized drop in growth approaching 9 percent. This was the most serious downturn since the 1930s, there was a real chance of a systemic collapse of the entire global financial system, and unemployment and debt--lagging indicators--were about to soar even further. No fair person can blame Obama for the wreckage of the next 12 months, as the financial crisis cut a swath through employment. Economies take time to shift course.

But Obama did several things at once: he continued the bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, he initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and he worked to pass a huge stimulus package of $787 billion.

All these decisions deserve scrutiny. And in retrospect, they were far more successful than anyone has yet fully given Obama the credit for. The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. Since then, the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That's not enough, but it's far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration. …

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