Obama: Pass or Fail? When a President Runs for a Second Term, the Election Is Usually about the Job He's Done So Far. What Grade Will Voters Give President Obama?

By Sanger, David E. | New York Times Upfront, January 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Obama: Pass or Fail? When a President Runs for a Second Term, the Election Is Usually about the Job He's Done So Far. What Grade Will Voters Give President Obama?


Sanger, David E., New York Times Upfront


It seems hard to remember now that election night a little more than three years ago, when tens of thousands of people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park to hear President-elect Barack Obama declare that "change has come to America."

The excitement that the 2008 election would lead to a new era in which lawmakers would heed Obama's call for bipartisan compromise and tackle the country's biggest problems has largely evaporated. Today, the White House, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans seem more divided than ever, unable to agree on what should be done to revive the economy or to cut the country's huge debt. And President Obama's approval rating has fallen to 44 percent, which, history tells us, is in the danger zone for an incumbent seeking re-election.

That's not to say President Obama can't win a second term in November. So far, very little about the Obama presidency has followed the usual political rules. When he announced his candidacy in 2007, it seemed unlikely the United States was about to elect its first black president, much less a senator from Illinois with just two years in office.

But Obama's historic 2008 campaign captured the imagination of millions of Americans, and young people in particular, who turned out in record numbers and helped propel him to the White House. The conditions facing the country were equally historic when he took office in January 2009: The U.S. was reeling from the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, not to mention fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Expectations were so high; emotions were so high," says Lee Edwards, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has been among Obama's biggest critics. "Once the honeymoon was over and we got down to living together, that's proved to be a whole different thing."

Despite the widespread frustration, the president has actually chalked up a number of accomplishments. Obama took a huge gamble on trying to rescue the U.S. auto industry--loaning billions to General Motors and Chrysler--and it seems to have paid off. Thousands of jobs were saved, especially in states like Michigan and Ohio, and some automakers are hiring again. He eventually pushed health care reform through Congress, and his foreign policy record probably deserves an A-. It was on Obama's watch that American commandos found and killed Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, and he brought U.S. troops home from Iraq.

'It's the Economy, Stupid!'

But overshadowing all of these accomplishments is the president's inability to get the economy back on track. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, at 8.6 percent. For young people, many of whom are graduating from college with record levels of student-loan debt and having a hard time finding jobs, the picture is even worse: The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is 18 percent.

As the 2012 elections approach, the Republicans vying for their party's nomination--including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry--are arguing that Obama has failed at his No. 1 job: putting Americans back to work.

Railing about a broken economy has always been a powerful way for challengers to defeat incumbent presidents (see "Re-election Challenges," p. 15). In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran against President Jimmy Carter as inflation was crippling the U.S. economy, he famously asked voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In 1992, during another recession, "It's the economy, stupid!" became the catchphrase of Bill Clinton's successful campaign against President George H.W. Bush (the father of George W. Bush, President Obama's predecessor).

In addition to the economy, Obama's problem now is that many of the initiatives he campaigned on in 2008 are dead in the water.

Bringing down the national debt? Republicans and Democrats can't agree on how to do it: Republicans want budget cuts only, while Democrats insist on also raising taxes on the rich. …

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