Obama's report card: must try harder to communicate
The US president has had many successes but is a wretched communicator, writes NICHOLAD D KRISTOF
ONCE, ON a backpacking trip, I slipped on a steep ice sheet and began sliding uncontrollably towards the edge of a cliff overhanging an icy river.
Luckily, my son pulled me to safety with his trekking pole. Am I better off now than I was when I was sliding toward the abyss? Duh!
That’s a useful starting point in any assessment of US president Barack Obama. In many ways, his first term has been disappointing: the economy remains weak, housing is a mess and, for a man with a silver tongue, he has been a wretched communicator. Then again, we’re incomparably better off than when we were tumbling toward another Great Depression.
With that in mind, let me offer a first-term report card for Obama.
In January 2009, the month Obama took office, America lost 818,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. That was the biggest monthly loss in six decades, and many feared a complete banking collapse.
Obama rescued the banking and auto sectors. Independent estimates suggest his stimulus may have saved or created more than three million jobs, and an anaemic recovery began. The Economist magazine, conservative by nature, assessed: “His handling of the crisis and recession were impressive.” However, the administration blew it with over-optimistic comments that shredded its credibility. It was also too generous to banks in negotiating their rescues, and it often seemed oblivious to resentment of crony capitalism, and to broader issues of economic inequality.
Worst of all, Obama dropped the ball on housing, betraying struggling homeowners. Far fewer mortgages have been modified or refinanced under administration programmes than expected, and some Americans have lost their homes as a result, exacerbating inequality. Underwater mortgages have been a drag on the entire economy.
Democrats traditionally favoured every anti-poverty programme except the one that might be most effective: reform of inner-city schools. Finally, that has changed under Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. They have pilfered Republican ideas and repositioned the Democratic Party to make school reform a top priority. They are willing to offend teachers’ unions but recognise the practical need to work closely with them. Obama’s Race to the Top initiative bribed states to devise their own school reforms, a cost-effective way to achieve nationwide change.
Obama has pushed Pell grants to make college more affordable and has promoted investments in community colleges. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done quite as well on early childhood education, which should be every bit as much a priority as tertiary education.