The Economist is hosting an online debate between David Boaz and Elaine Kamarck on the proposed resolution “is Obama failing.” Today I’m a featured contributor to the debate. I observe that Obama is succeeding in changing many aspects of American public policy. For example, he’s done a lot to change K-12 education:
The Obama administration has also spearheaded a little-noticed but rather dramatic reform of K-12 education through its Race to the Top programme. The way this worked was to create a substantial pool of funds to be given away as part of a competitive grant process to states that cut through interest-group demands and implemented evidence-based reforms. The result of this has been a tide of reform sweeping state legislatures all across the land, with restrictions on test-based assessment of teacher quality and arbitrary caps on charter schools falling by the wayside. What’s more, by pairing these reforms with the timely provision of stopgap funds that have allowed states to weather the recession without mass teacher layoffs, the administration has been able to secure union acquiescence in this reform agenda.
He’s also had a number of small-bore spending initiatives:
The administration has also put $19 billion into upgrading America’s health IT infrastructure, $70 billion into clean-energy programmes, $1 billion into better understanding which health treatments actually work and $7 billion to expand access to broadband internet.
And that was all in one law—the stimulus bill! Then there’s this other stuff:
[T]he administration has secured legal authority for the FDA to regulate tobacco, provided health insurance to millions of children, given victims of on-the-job-gender discrimination effective legal rights, confirmed a Supreme Court justice and vastly improved America’s image in the world. Mr Obama has also systematically reformed and reinvigorated America’s regulatory apparatus.
If this agenda had simply been spaced out as one small-to-medium sized achievement per month, and Obama had never attempted systematic reform of the health care system, then his administration would look like a stunning series of policy successes. And with his job approval rating at 51 percent you’d say he was doing fine politically as well. The fact that he accomplished most of the small-to-medium sized stuff in a single giant leap doesn’t mean it didn’t happen nor does the fact that his ambitious health reform drive may not work invalidate everything else that’s happened. In America, it’s hard to pass laws. If you’re passing some, and staying more popular than the other political party, then you’re doing pretty well. The greatest presidents, of course, exceed that standard. But “he’s not getting as much done as Lincoln” is a long way from “he’s a failure and needs to ditch the core of his team.”