It’s difficult to judge a president’s success while they’re still in office. Thus judging our current president’s success is problematic due to the fact that we have little historical context with which to judge him with. That being said, President Obama will always be viewed by most of those who watched his rise, with a certain degree of disappointment.
I say this from the perspective as neither a liberal nor a conservative, as neither a supporter of Obama nor an opponent. I say that he is a disappointment due to the situation in which he was elected into office, the way in which he was elected, and the campaign he ran to get elected.
When Obama was elected in 2008, the U.S. was not exactly in a good situation. The economic downturn was in full swing, and the outgoing president had an incredibly low approval rating in the country. Whatever your view on former President Bush is, it’s clear that he was very unpopular when leaving office. And so in that political climate, of a growing recession and an unpopular outgoing president, Obama was elected into office.
But it wasn’t just that he was elected in a time when the country wasn’t at its best -- plenty of presidents have been elected during hard times. It was how he was elected that set him up for disappointment. Obama ran a campaign on the lofty ideals of hope and change to our institutions if he were elected.
He was already setting himself up for disappointment with this style of campaign because one person, even the president, cannot hope to change the institutions of a country as large as our own. Large groups of people can at best, but historically presidents have had little success changing the institutions they had to deal with. Even the dynamic presidents of the 20th century -- Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan -- had a very difficult time changing the country’s institutions, and it’s questionable how much they actually changed.
So already Obama was creating a daunting goal that he could not hope to reach, setting himself up for some degree of disappointment, as there was no way his promises could live up to the political reality. Yet it seemed that perhaps he could. Obama was elected with a significant majority in the 2008 election, and he came into office with large democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. He was an inspirational speaker, and seemed like a strong leader. The opportunity was there to create some of the big changes that Obama spoke of, as all the political factors seemed to be aligning in a way that could enable some of this change to happen.
And then it didn’t. The first year of Obama’s presidency, the time when any President has the best chance of getting something big accomplished, went by without any of the big changes Obama promised. Whether or not you’re a supporter of the health care bill, there’s no doubt that it was not what people were expecting when Obama promised to change the healthcare system in the country. Instead of big change, a bill was passed that tried to improve specific areas, without actually changing the healthcare system that much.
Obama promised to change the culture in Washington and to reduce the influence of those involved in the economic institutions that helped bring about the recession, yet he hired people like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, powerful members of those economic institutions, to hold powerful positions in his administration. And much of the Obama administration’s economic policies seem to have reflected the allegiances of these advisors by strongly supporting the economic institutions that Obama campaigned against in many ways through bank bailouts and other policies.
But the disappointment with Obama as a president is more than just specific policy points. The reason why Obama will always disappoint us, no matter what your political affiliation, is due to the problem of failed expectations. The fact is that Obama didn’t campaign on making some small reasonable changes to our political and economic systems, he campaigned on truly changing the political and economic culture in this country.
These expectations were only increased by the large popular support Obama had after his election and the large majorities in Congress the Democratic Party enjoyed. These factors created lofty expectations that Obama could never have achieved. Even if he does win the election in 2012, Obama will always be a disappointment on some level because of the lost potential for actual change that his 2008 presidency represents. Even if history ends up viewing Obama’s presidency as being successful overall, there will always be that disappointment by those of us who lived through it because of what could have happened, of what we were promised would happen.