Obama Presidency: Will It Be A Bullseye Or A Bust?

Despite the spreading economic meltdown - described by one source as a crisis "almost Roman in proportion" -- the Democratic activist community is extraordinarily optimistic about the prospects of the new Obama administration. They are joined in their sanguinity by many political scientists, economists and historians, most of whom were personally supportive of the Obama campaign.

A survey by the Huffington Post of roughly 65 men and women who follow politics closely produced an unusually high 50 responses. This story explores the views and comments of those respondents who are best described as liberal centrists. A sidebar examines the responses of conservatives and liberals who were far more programmatic in setting yardsticks directly for policy options they wanted to see enacted or rejected.

The three-part questionnaire sent out by the Huffington Post went as follows:

"If the Obama presidency turns out to be a success, what areas and policies are likely to produce achievements?

"Conversely, if it is a bust, what is likely to be the cause of failure?

"Finally, on a scale of 1 (disaster) to 10 (Hail to the Chief), where do you think Obama will be in two years, four years, and eight years?"

Paul Begala, a lead strategist in Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, shared the widely held view that progress on the economy will make or break the Obama presidency, warning that

it's going to take time. So, policy aside, one of his most difficult and important challenges is to help the American people lift their sights to match his vision....President-elect Obama's ability to move a sound-bite culture to commit to the long-term will be critical....So that's my test: will we the people hang in there with this new President and his policies? I honestly do not know the answer. I saw folks lose faith in the Democrats in 1994.

A number of Democratic operatives contended that Obama may benefit from a willingness by the public to give his administration some leeway.

Carter Eskew, chief strategist in the Al Gore 2000 campaign, said:

While the economic crisis and the spectre of terrorism loom largest and will most obviously frame his success or failure, there are some intangibles about Obama that could undergird his presidency and make him successful through the inevitable downs and ups. He projects confidence, rationality and humanity, and the country is desperate for these qualities. He is coming along at the right time; not unlike Reagan who seemed to represent the sunny opposite of Carter. These characteristics, more than anything, lead me to believe he will be a success--perhaps even--and maybe this is just a pre-inaugural glow--a great president.

Democratic Internet and voter mobilization expert Zack Exley was significantly more cautious:

Obama's in a tougher spot that FDR was at his inauguration. Our depression could turn out as large as the one FDR faced. But FDR's was already full-blown when he took office. Therefore he had a mandate for a degree of fundamental change that Obama does not have. Even so, it took WWII to finally give FDR the power to force a reboot of America's industry. So Obama has two challenges that FDR was spared: he will have to organize a mandate for truly fundamental change to the economy, and he will actually have to mobilize Americans to reboot the industrial economy the way FDR finally did in WWII. Hopefully WWIII will not be necessary! This is where Obama's grassroots wing, 'Organizing for America,' comes in. It could wind up playing an incredibly important role in history.

James W. Wetzler, New York commissioner of taxation and finance during the Mario Cuomo administration and former deputy chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, warned that:

in light of the extraordinary problems President Obama is inheriting and the equally high expectations for his presidency, success will be difficult. The economic stimulus plan needs to produce a meaningful recovery by 2010 or else Americans will look elsewhere for economic leadership. However, a successful presidency means more than merely cleaning up the problems created by one's predecessor. The Administration will need to deliver on at least one major achievement for middle-income Americans. The two leading candidates appear to be health care and energy. Expansion of health insurance is a more plausible candidate for success than energy. Government is already so heavily involved in health care that significant expansions of health insurance can be achieved through modifications of existing policies; however, reducing reliance on foreign energy and expanding 'green' energy require fighting market forces as long as oil prices remain low.

While some see the economy as a formidable hurdle, others see it as an unparalleled opportunity for the new president. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is optimistic -- with some guardedness:

Obama starts with the greatest potential to end up as a great president as any in our lifetimes. He has the skills, the foresight, the team, the ability to motivate, and the conditions (namely, economic crisis and war) that are required to achieve greatness. He also won in a landslide, had coattails, and starts with an incredibly high level of public approval and enthusiasm. But he confronts difficult problems with no easy substantive solutions, and a continuing dysfunctional political process. So many things can go wrong, including many outside the power of the president, that predictions are folly.

Along similar lines, the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato told the Huffington Post:

Obama has a well above-average chance to achieve significant success. Why? First, a crisis allows presidents to do big things, and Obama's got a giant one in the economic meltdown. Americans (and Congress) are going to follow his lead; the country's desperate. The stimulus package alone will be so big and have so many parts that Obama will have put into motion more policy changes and giant initiatives right from the beginning than arguably any but a handful of other presidents (TR, FDR, Truman, LBJ, and Reagan). That's just the beginning--Obama might get health care reform, entitlement reform, and/or some other biggies. Obama has developed a deep reservoir of public support. Some of it always burns off as the honeymoon fades, but the citizenry has gotten a real sense of Obama's character, and they like what they see.

MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III said:

The most successful presidencies in American history have seen themselves responding to a crisis they inherited --- Washington (legitimacy), Lincoln (Civil War), FDR (depression). Most of the others that get on the "best presidents lists" (Jefferson, Jackson, TR) were politically bold and controversial leaders whose battles with the status quo defined them from the outset. And, obviously enough, the critical issue right now is the economy.

Pollster John Zogby argued that:

FDR left us with a welfare state and a New Deal coalition, Obama as a success will likely leave us with both an international system for both regulation and governance on issues that relate to the economy, energy, and the environment. In the process he will have restored US leadership in the world and found a new place for that leadership as a partner with other powers. His electoral coalition of young voters, minorities, liberals, and the middle class, will be enhanced by his 'global coalition' of citizens worldwide.

A large number of respondents contended that the Democratic Congress poses a larger threat to the success of the Obama presidency than the Republican Party.

Keith Poole, a University of California-San Diego political scientist, said that Obama "can only succeed if he governs from the Center-Left [but] he has to be in charge. If he lets Pelosi and Reid roll him, he will fail."

University of St. Louis historian Don Critchlow was more explicit:

Obama's greatest threat, much like Carter's, will come from the Congressional Democrats, not from Republicans, whom the electorate has made largely irrelevant. Already the House Democrats are pushing Obama to places he does not want to go--pushing for ending the Bush tax cuts, launching investigations of torture in the Bush administration, and so on.

Lynn Vavreck, political scientist at UCLA, has this take on Obama's potential strengths and weaknesses:

There is a dimension of his election that promises to renew America's reputation abroad. If his presidency can do that, it would be an important transformation." The question for Vavreck in evaluating Obama's prospects both at home and abroad is the uncertainty of his talent for governance: "We have yet to learn whether Barack Obama is skilled at bargaining and compromise.

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz makes the point that Obama's intelligence and the intelligence of those whom he has appointed will prove to be his weapon of victory -- or the weakness that produces defeat: "

Obama will have good ratings in two years because he will be perceived as having put really smart people in charge and having tried very hard. If he fails it will be because smarts are not always the same as good judgment (remember the best and brightest) and because expectations were too high.

A significant number of analysts argued that voters will give Obama a limited period of time to deal with the economy, and very soon after that he will have to demonstrate improvement or the public may defect.

Charles Franklin, co-developer of Pollster.com and a University of Wisconsin political scientist, argues that Obama has just over two years to get the economy back in gear:

Success rides on the economy of 2011 and 2012. Two-thousand and nine and 2010 can be bad, but there must be an upward trajectory by early 2011." Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina similarly contends that "If the economy begins to recover by the third year of his presidency, Obama is reelected, and [if] the economy continues to improve, then his presidency will be judged a success.

Darren Davis, Notre Dame political scientist, adds, "American citizens will be patient, but Obama will not have long to do something about it." Davis argues that the public now expects Obama to deliver on health care reform, and, if he does not, they will hold it against him.

Harvard government professor Ken Shepsle is largely in agreement with this assessment, declaring:

If, underscore the subjunctive, his administration is a success it must revolve around coming to terms with the economy. And he probably will have to show some results in the first two years or risk losing congressional support in the 2010 election. He doesn't 'own' the economic problem...yet... so he may not be blamed for failing to resolve it entirely. But some progress must occur or it will be his undoing. I think there are two risks -- one, that he will not live up to expectations in dealing with something unexpected and, two, that members of his administration will begin to show that they are ordinary humans, not supermen. In the first case there will be disappointment and dashed expectations. In the second there will be an undermining of the high marks Obama gets for judgment.

Taking a different approach, Columbia political scientist Andrew Gelman argued that

from purely electoral considerations, Obama might want to 'do a Reagan' and have the economy decline for two years and then pick up in the next two. Then, like Reagan, he might take his lumps in the midterm elections and come back with renewed popularity in his reelection campaign.

Columbia economist Massimo Morelli contended that the pressure on a Obama to make gains on the economy should not be a problem because "the crisis is expected to be over by end of 2010, so by 2012 we should be in a boom if the stimulus is well done." Morelli has his own take on the economy.

I do not think that the financial crisis was the 'source' of the problems. The real economy problems come from lack of innovation and new productive ideas on which to invest. From 2000 to mid 2008 investors moved money out of productive but mature investments like high-tech industry and put money mostly into real estate and speculative activities, and these things have no spillover on growth at all. The financial deregulation helped the economy to stay up a bit longer, and then determined the sudden collapse, but had the financial sector been 'well regulated,' then the real economy would have gone through a slower decline but would have started it's decline earlier, perhaps with negative growth starting more than one year ago or earlier. It is for this reason that I believe the key measure of Obama's success will be the success of his infrastructure and innovation packages, much more than the things they will do for the financial sector.

Cornell economist Robert Frank said plans to spend as much as $2 trillion should pull the economy out of the current slump, but the

Hard part will be raising the extra tax revenue to pay for the big ongoing commitments that also need to be honored/made--universal health care, green energy investment, infrastructure building/renewal, etc. We can't pay for these things with borrowed money in the long run. The trick to getting the budget into balance will be to enact new taxes right now with a promise that no one will have to pay them until economic growth again resumes in earnest--as defined, say, by when the unemployment rate again falls below 6 percent. The new taxes should be levied exclusively on activities that we currently have too much of. In general, I have in mind taxes on activities that generate negative externalities--such as carbon taxes, gasoline taxes, congestion fees, and steeply progressive consumption taxes.

Columbia political scientist David Weiman believes the Obama presidency is likely to be successful, but worries that Obama

will act too timidly. At this stage I see the Senate Republicans' filibuster threat as the equivalent of the Supreme Court verdict in the early New Deal. Roosevelt did not capitulate to a Court determined to maintain the status quo, no matter how discredited. If Republicans stand in the way, Obama should do the same.

Adding caveats to the near universal view that the success or failure of the Obama presidency will be determined by the economy was David Oshinsky, the Pulitzer prize-winning historian who teaches at NYU and Texas:

I think Obama's stated policy of engagement vis-a-vis Iran is an obvious and overdue recognition of Tehran's central role in any Middle East settlement, whether it be Israel-Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Shia-Sunni struggle in Iraq. Like it or not, this odious regime is already in the game--indeed, it may hold the key to Middle East peace-- so ignoring it will only lessen America's influence in the region. Furthermore, Obama-Biden-Clinton do not strike me as a team that would make dangerous concessions to get the ball rolling. Thus, I see the possibility for incremental progress here. And that would be quite an achievement. In domestic affairs, I'm more pessimistic. I think the bad economic times will be with us for several years, and that Obama's powers are far more limited in this sphere, since the recession is global in scope. He can immediately make a difference in areas like the environment, infrastructure, and job creation, but the bad times will linger. I think his greatest success may well come in changing the way many Americans look at their government. Gridlock, corruption, and astonishingly poor decision-making have taken an enormous toll. Obama has a unique opportunity here: the public is looking to him to show that government truly can be an instrument to make their lives better. It's an opportunity that arises once or twice in a century. He'd better not squander it. And here is where my doubts creep in. I'm disappointed by some of the choices Obama has made thus far. Bill Richardson? What, in the name of God, was he thinking? Eric Holder and Timothy Geithner? Why must Obama make the public choose between 'competency' and 'decency?' It was painful to hear him describe the repeated failure of a cabinet-designee to pay his full share of taxes as an 'honest mistake.' If this sort of baggage continues to accumulate, Obama may soon be viewed as just another politician, thereby squandering his most valuable personal asset.

Despite these concerns, Oshinsky predicts a highly successful Obama presidency, unlike James Galbraith, a University of Texas economist who declined to anticipate future outcomes, declaring, instead, "I make no predictions: I have high hopes, low expectations."

A number of observers made the case that Obama's personal strengths will be as important as his policy moves.

"Obama will be judged largely on the his perceived stewardship of economy--even if a large part of it is beyond his control," says Johns Hopkins Medical School clinical professor of psychiatry John Gartner, author of In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography. "In tough times you need convincingly optimistic leaders." Gartner also makes the case that

immigrants epitomize the 'audacity of hope'. Only people who believe, 'yes I can', bother to immigrate at all. Obama radiates confidence and I can't help thinking that some of that comes from being the son of an immigrant--the first in his Kenyan region to come to America for an education. Barack Obama, Sr., [father of the president] got a graduate degree in economics at Harvard. . . . It is that son-of-an-immigrant confidence that may help America have the positive attitude needed to come out of the tailspin.

John Del Cecato, who has been a partner of Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod, believes that the public understands the depth of the economic crisis and will not demand immediate improvements:

They don't expect the new president to wave a magic wand. If President Obama is known to be honest, open to new ideas, and genuinely committed to engaging Americans in the act of tackling these challenges together, he'll have demonstrated the kind of leadership people are so hungry for.

Bill Galston of Brookings shares that view, noting:

I suspect that the people are prepared to be more patient than usual. It'll be something like late 1982: Reagan's policies hadn't begun to bear fruit, but he and his party didn't pay a big price, in part because the other guys were discredited and out of ideas.

In four years, however, Galston thinks that "things are very likely to have improved noticeably by 2012, and I'd expect Obama to be reelected."

Columbia political scientist Greg Wawro also believes that Obama is likely to be successful dealing with the economy, but warns that if the Obama presidency is a bust, I think it will be due to the economic crisis being deeper than anyone imagines at this point. If the stimulus doesn't work and there is deeper structural damage to the economy, the American public will eventually run out of patience."

The following chart shows the predictions --- (1 terrible--10 great) of Obama's standings 2, 4, and 8 years from now --- by 22 of those who responded to the Huffington Post inquiry: