This essay is an assessment of the track record of the Obama administration, as judged by a liberal. Your mileage may vary.
Overall, Obama has been an average president, with some excellent accomplishments but some serious disappointments. His record on the environment, which matters most to me, is mixed in a way that is representative of the whole: his environmental achievements are modest to poor, but look much more impressive with the level of hysterical opposition and an atmosphere that treats lightbulb efficiency standards like Kristalnacht. Importantly, heavy pressure from the left and green groups have markedly improved his performance (thus tougher mercury emissions rules for coal plants and the delay/blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline).
- Obama's administration of the Bush bailout of the auto industry was excellently administered. His administration of the bailout of the financial industry was adequately administered. Further, the stimulus act probably saved the economy from another Great Depression, and assessments of its value continue to grow.
- Obama has been the first President to seriously address the horrifying and vicious phenomenon of prisoner rape, issuing an effective and widely-praised set of corrections standards, legally binding for federal prisons and funds-contingent for state prisons. It is an unmitigated example of doing the right thing, despite considerable political risk and virtually no political benefit.
- The Affordable Care Act was a decent, if not great, movement towards healthcare reform. It was passed despite enormous opposition by figures such as DeMint (R-SC), who declared it would be Obama's Waterloo and vowed not to compromise. It eliminated discrimination against pre-existing conditions, implemented exchanges to reduce costs, and allows kids to be on their parents' insurance until they are 25.
- The wars have finally been well-managed and effectively fought, and troops are being drawn down from Afghanistan and withdrawn from Iraq. This is only somewhat to Obama's credit, since it is a practical success (competent management) but ideological failure (since the troop withdrawal is an unwilling one).
- The war in Libya was the best possible intervention America could have brought to a foreign country. Working as part of a coalition, at the behest of their people, enacted flawlessly and at a minimum of risk, and ended as soon as possible: while I oppose wars, this was the best possible war and at a minimum demonstrates enormous competence. Similarly, the war on Al-Quaeda and other Muslim extremists, with the eradication of the upper echelons of their organizations, has been managed extremely effectively. There has been a definite shift in strategy to account for this success; it has not simply been a matter of persistence of old policies. For example, the Obama administration insisted on referring to a war with Al'Queda specifically, not jihadism, radical Islam, or terror (none of which can be the proper target for a conflict).
- Foreign relations with other allies and with adversarial nations have improved, almost without exception.
- Student loans have been reformed to some degree, and are no longer a purposeless subsidy of major banking organizations.
- Funding for renewable energy has increased slightly, although nowhere near the level where it should be now that solar power is almost at parity with new coal power. Other small environmental victories are the rejection of part of the Keystone XL proposed pipeline and tighter standards for coal emissions. A major step forward for the environment is the establishment of long-overdue greenhouse gas standards for power plants. However, it's a hard-fought decision that will have to be defended against madmen, so in this matter he deserves full-voiced support.
- The declaration that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights" is going into the history books, as is the fact that Obama is the first President to support gay marriage equality.
- The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a great bill that was absolutely necessary to help protect a woman's right to equal pay, and helps give the Obama administration a mixed record on women's issues.
- Obama's vocal disapproval helped finish off SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that put surprisingly unreasonable burdens on websites to eliminate copyrighted material.
- In a surprising coup, the administration has managed to cut defense spending by a significant amount. It's easy to raise it, but extremely difficult to lower it. Whether or not this will stick remains to be seen.
- Sotomayor and Kagan are decent justices, albeit not liberal enough to counter the extraordinary level of ideological skewing going on with SCOTUS.
- The federal government has grown by such a small amount, despite the crisis and need for services, that for the first time in forty years the size of the government sector has shrunk. It has decreased by 2% since Obama took office. This is not actually particularly "good" in my view (government should be as large as is required to provide Congress-mandated services) but in the eyes of many conservatives it should garner full-throated praise - and of course serves as a good refutation of any idea of Obama administering "socialism." That is, of course, if 2011's record-setting corporate profits didn't already get in the way of that falsehood
- The administration has filed an amicus brief with SCOTUS taking a stand against racial preferences in college admissions - affirmative action.
- Obama's administration deserves enormous credit in general for its successful administration of a wide variety of less-visible areas, and for getting a great deal of legislation passed despite Republican intransigence. While much is made of a "two year Democratic supermajority," the fact is that such a supermajority existed for only a matter of months, from July 2009 (when Sen. Franken was finally seated) to January 2010 (midterm elections) - and throughout that time, two senators (Kennedy and Byrd) were unable to vote, and the 60th senator was Sen. Lieberman.
- The Obama administration has furthered the overreach of the executive branch and attacks on the civil rights of Americans. The unilateral assassination of American citizens, extension of the USAPATRIOT Act, crackdown on whistleblowers, degradation of free speech, and absolutely appalling prosecution of an entire aerial war without Congressional approval are all perpetuation of a terrible bipartisan trend. This is Obama's greatest failure when viewed through the lens of his campaign promises: once in office, he completely reversed his rhetoric and positions, and seized the power left dangling by his predecessor. Every inch given on liberty is an inch that's almost irreversibly lost.
- More oil has been drilled and produced during Obama's administration than any previous one. To Obama's credit, this has been done through a mildly stricter set of regulations since Deepwater Horizon, but the skyrocketing level of drilling still demonstrates that he is committed to the breakneck consumption of a finite resource. This is also part of a larger failure to commit to the environment, the paramount issue of the day.
- There has been a failure to enact better regulation for the finance sector. This failure can be laid in large part at the feet of Congress, however, with the weak Dodd-Frank being at least some attempt at a solution. Still, the Obama administration has been far too business-friendly; the effective corporate tax rate hit a forty-year low this year, even as corporate profits have hit a sixty-year high.
- The Obama administration has failed to fill vital vacancies on courts and in government bureaus around the country. Blame appears to be about equal between Obama and Congress for this failure, considering the rabid opposition to even the mildest candidates from the GOP, which has not hesitated to use their power to block appointments in staggering numbers. Elizabeth Warren is a good example; she was blocked from her appointment as head of the new Consumer Protection agency despite the indisputable fact that it was her own creation and she is extremely qualified and not at all radical. By the same token, however, Obama has not chosen to persist and lock horns over such appointments.
Pertinent charts and graphs
The dramatic comparison between economies that have taken the GOP's preferred "austerity" route, such as the UK and most of the Eurozone, can be contrasted to the Keynesian-stimulus policy of the U.S. (as well as China, not pictured) to show the strength of Obama's economic leadership - one of his greatest accomplishments.
- Libertarian Andrew Sullivan's assessment
- M.S. at The Economist on foreign policy successes
- James Fallows with a detailed and personal examination of Obama
- Dylan Matthews reviews in detail the nine major studies of the effects of the stimulus
- A detailed account of the debt limit discussions encapsulates a centrist President who is interested in solutions stymied by a crazed opposition.
- A citation-filled list of accomplishments by Obama, only mildly padded.
- An interview of Obama by the editors of the Des Moines Register, initially intended to be off-the-record - and accordingly both frank and insightful about why he deserves a second term.
- Conor Friedersdorf on the lack of transparency or concern for civil rights