An optimist’s view of the White House

By Ian Bremmer
November 8, 2013

What will the White House screw up next? Democrats have watched as one calamity after another has befallen what was once the most promising Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy’s. Obamacare, the NSA, Syria, heck, even the administration’s campaign foibles are back in the news with the publication of the new tell-all book Double Down.

Yet all is not lost. The Obama administration has not exactly bungled its way through five years of power. Until this year, in fact, Republicans were complaining that the press had been too kind towards Obama. With all the dour news, it is worthwhile to take stock of all the good things for which Obama can take credit. Bear in mind, some of these successes may not have been Obama’s ideal objective — but the end results are victories regardless. These are the top eight achievements that not even Edward Snowden can take away, in descending order of importance.

1. An economy that still exists

When Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate was steadily rising — it would hit 10 percent in October of 2009 — and catastrophe beckoned. But by effectively wielding George W. Bush’s TARP program, passing a stimulus of his own, bailing out the automotive industry, and resisting the urge to nationalize the country’s banking sector, Obama was able to keep the crisis from swallowing a country and his presidency. Regardless of which particular policies may have been the secret sauce, surviving the worst financial crisis in decades happened on Obama’s watch.

2. A move beyond the 9/11 era

Obama has helped stitch up a chapter in American history, the 9/11 era, in which the responses to 9/11 — the war on terror and America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — drove foreign policy and security calculations exceedingly more than anything else. What’s been left in America’s wake hasn’t been pretty — mass bombings have returned to Iraq, and relations with Kabul have been icy — but Obama has wrapped up one war and the other is soon to follow. He was able to leverage the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a symbolic end of this 9/11 era, shifting the country’s operating framework from the global war on terror to a more cautious, global awareness of the terror that targets America, while pushing more resources into other looming threats like cybersecurity.

3. His loyalty to Ben Bernanke

It wasn’t the most popular decision at the time, but in 2009, Obama re-nominated Bernanke for a second term as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. That small decision had a big impact, ensuring we would see sustained quantitative easing from the Fed, and that the economic recovery would continue.

4. Effectively forcing Iran’s hand

As I’ve written before, the reason there’s sudden progress in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program is because of the Obama administration’s resilient dedication to international sanctions. In a G-Zero world, the negotiations are a rare instance of successful collective leadership, and put Obama in a position to get a historical deal inked (although there remain many hurdles). The sanctions campaign has put the U.S. in a position to succeed on this front.

5. A pivot to Asia

The long-term commitment of the administration to move away from the Middle East and towards Asia has been called into question lately. The administration’s focus on Syria, Iran, and Israel-Palestine, and Obama missing a key APEC summit in Asia to deal with Washington dysfunction, has made it seem like the pivot to Asia has deteriorated. But Obama’s State Department laid the groundwork for American success in the region in his first term in office. It has taken advantage of China’s overly bellicose dealings with its neighbors, using them to tighten ties in the region and to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership that — if it passes — will change the way trade works between the U.S. and Asia. While the outlook has gotten cloudier over the past few months — otherwise it would be ranked higher on this list — the pivot still qualifies as a success.

6. Finding a middle ground on energy

Obama has played a successful balancing act when it comes to U.S. energy policy. He has tacitly embraced the revolution in unconventional means of finding oil and gas with an “all of the above” energy policy, while still securing tighter EPA rules on pollutants. He delayed the Keystone pipeline, sure, and environmentalists were happy to see fuel standards go up. But he has done what it took to not derail unconventional energy efforts through overbearing government regulation. His approach has at times enraged both environmentalists and business interests — that’s how you know it’s been balanced.

7. Reduced deficit

Don’t look now, but the deficit is vastly decreased from the levels that Obama inherited when he took office. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a deficit of $642 billion for this year; less than half of the 2009 tally. Of course, this is very far removed from any deliberate plan of Obama’s. A lot of this was the result of a harsh sequester that struck when Democrats and Republicans were unable to reach a deal. But Obama deserves credit for staring down the GOP on tax break expiration and by essentially boxing himself into a host of spending cuts that do not sit well with his party.

8. Passing and protecting Dodd-Frank

After the financial crisis, it was clear that the banking sector needed better supervision. Dodd-Frank accomplishes some of that, but not all (the bill’s a mess). Still, Obama and Congressional Democrats defeated an exceptional lobbying campaign and established tighter controls. Ideally, future Congresses will build on those controls to repair the bill, rather than tear it down. But the baseline has now been established — and it wouldn’t have been without Obama.

There are still three years left in Obama’s second term, no matter how many rumors you read about Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie. There’s still time for him to set his administration right. And even if he doesn’t, there is a bright side to his time in office too, as he’s leaving an impressive run of accomplishments in his wake.

This column was written based on a correspondence with Bremmer.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Jim Young | REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst | REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton | REUTERS/Jason Reed

11 comments

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Thank you, Ian Bremmer, for noting things that have gone alright! It’s a pleasant surprise, as is a recent presentation at the BBC, where there’s a report, via Hans Rosling (Professor of Global Health, Karolinska Institutet), of “Five Good Things.” They might also be called, “Five Really Underreported Good Things,” because, as surveys show, most people don’t know them. Here’s a summary of the report:

The distinction between developing and developed countries has blurred, and keeps getting blurrier, because a lot of poorer and weaker countries have been catching up to the richer and more powerful ones. The number of people living in extreme poverty now has approached half that of 20 years ago, and the proportion of people with moderate incomes has grown to such an extent that per capita income on the planet has ceased to be bimodal. The literacy rate for adults has reached 80% worldwide, and, for the world as a whole, access to formal education has increased, especially for girls, who, at about 7 years of schooling on average, are now just 1 year short of the average for boys, as measured by the experience of those aged 25 to 34. Accompanying these developments, more countries are becoming characterized by lower infant mortality rates and healthier adults, resulting in longer life expectancies. Globally, in the last 50 years, the average life expectancy has risen from 60 to 70 years of age, while infant mortality dropped to 1 in 20 from 1 in 5 births. Longer lives are, however, being balanced by shrinking family sizes. The still declining average fertility rate has halved to 2.5 children per woman in the last 50 years. The population of children has already peaked, and the total human population is projected to level off sometime during the second half of this century.

That’s it, in one paragraph. I doubt these developments happened entirely by accident. I suspect they were at least partly driven by post-WWII efforts to improve global health and well being, and to reduce the risk of war in the process. Those efforts were neither consistent nor universally shared, but there is evidence that they may have sufficed to make a positive impact. That’s the good news.

The bad news, which is also well worth facing, is that our successes, in addition to being incomplete as yet, may be coming too late. For example, it’s great that the human population looks set to stabilize, but it’s set to do so at about 11 billion people, which is very probably a bigger population than the planet can long sustain with our current consumption patterns.

Among other problems, fossil fuels still supply about 80% of our energy needs, and in addition to their negative effects on climate, they’re too finite to supply 11 billion of us very long. Technological innovation might come to our rescue in regard to this and other major challenges, but it appears that investment in the research that would drive such innovation is declining of late, as too many national governments have taken an increasingly austere approach to spending. We should know better than to do that. I think the survivors of WWII and the depression that preceded it knew better, and to disappoint the pessimists, it better not be that everybody has to go through what they did to wise up.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

“Don’t look now, but the deficit is vastly decreased from the levels that Obama inherited when he took office.”
How can you print this blatant lie?
A cursory search shows the following:
2013 – $901 trillion budget deficit (projected)
2012 – $1.1 trillion budget deficit
2011 – $1.3 trillion budget deficit
2010 – $1.3 trillion budget deficit
2009 – $1.4 trillion budget deficit
2008 – $455 billion budget deficit

Posted by bertibus | Report as abusive

Another pathetic attempt by progressives to salvage what will turn out to be 8 years of wasted time. You can put a positive spin on anything I guess.

Notably, Obamacare was left out of the list, which is supposed to be Obama’s signature achievement and prospective legacy, around which we’ve experienced eight years of political polarization and an American public that consistently polls that it doesn’t approve of it. And now with its implementation, Americans are finding out that it’s neither what they thought it was nor what they were promised. As each layer is rolled out, Americans will see this is the stink bomb that keeps on giving.

Most promising Democratic administration since JFK? Obama walks around saying he was unaware of this, didn’t know about that, is outraged about bad outcomes (website, Benghazi, IRS, AP, Syria, etc.) while being completely disingenuous about the impact of Obamacare (you can keep your plan, your doctor, your premiums go down) and dodging responsibility. He’s one of the most divisive presidents in recent history with an astounding record of non-leadership, a joke abroad and a lame duck at home.

To go over the items you enumerate above would be a waste of time since all you are trying to do is “put lipstick on a pig.” You only need to list one achievement: a government takeover of 1/6 of the US economy that if not eventually repealed will lead to Universal, single-payer government health care, which is what Obama and his leftist allies wanted all along. In Obama’s mind he’s done; mission accomplished: all the rest is details and damage control.

JFK is rolling over in his grave.

Posted by cab717 | Report as abusive

WTF have you been smoking!!!!!!

I look to Reuters for 1 of my “go go” news feeds, Ian Bremmer you have to be one of the most naive persons I have ever heard of.

Posted by frtillman | Report as abusive

According to the OMB, from 2009 to 2013, as a percent of GDP, the annual deficit figures are:

Year__% of GDP
2009___9.2%
2010___8.8%
2011___8.4%
2012___6.8%
2013___4.1%

That the 2013 deficit is substantially less than half the 2009 deficit by this measure is due partly to GDP growth, which must’ve been revised upward quite a bit if your $901 trillion figure is accounting for just 4.1% of GDP in 2013, bertibus.

And I hadn’t heard that the Hoover Institute had started cranking out “progressives,” cab717. When did that change? Before or after the GOP became the Party of Andrew Jackson, in response to which, the Democrats became the Party of Romney – George, that is? (Except for Mitt’s RomneyCare.)

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

#’s 1 and 3 are tied together. Printing $85 Billion a month is NOT a recovery. It’s a giant rug they’re using to try and hide the truth.
#2. move beyond 9/11 into full police state complete with secret courts, secret evidence, extrajudicial assassination of citizens, and draconian civil surveillance that would make the Gestapo blush.
4. Forcing Irans hand? This doesn’t even exist, the latest talks were a complete and utter failure.
5. Pivot to Asia? Oh, you mean when Obama cancelled his personal appearances and sent underlings instead? He got called for traveling.
6. Middle ground on energy? Paying money to failed solar firms owned by democratic doners? Blocking the pipeline?
7. Reduced deficit? But astronomical debt accumulated, the likes never before seen in history.
8. Frank-Dodd? Really? Protecting the bankers for crashing the economy?

And this was supposed to be an optimists view.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

@stambo2001 is basically right. This administration has not really shined as we had hoped it would. But @MoBioph’s first post is far more important in the long run. There is hope for the world. Yes, the USCA is in decline and probably should be, but Asia is on the rise and seems quite capable of leading humanity to new heights in the 21st century.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Let’s quote James Carville…shall we…Can there be any more partisan Democrat?? “We can admit that there’s some real, deep, fundamental problems with this president.”.

Call Carville what you wish, but he’s not a stupid man, and won’t throw himself under the bus to defend the indefensible. Defending the indefensible destroys journalistic credibility faster than a New York minute.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

This article provides some balance of opinion compared to the usual push and pull of ranting politics. Here are some financial questions.
How did the national debt increase from 1980 to 2008?
When former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was telling the truth about this, he basically had to leave the Republican party.
Here it is: In the twelve years of the Reagan/Bush administrations, the national debt quadrupled. The Bush/Cheney administration inherited a balanced budget from the Clinton administration – the first years of a federal balanced budget since the Eisenhower administration in 1958. In the eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration, they doubled the national debt and catapulted the nation and the world into financial crisis. The Obama administration has had to mop up.
Here is another question, what is the first year since 1980 that income tax on the top tax bracket has gone up?
That would be 2013 – this year. In the early 1980s, this tax rate was 70%. Both Republican and Democrat administration consistently lowered this tax rate to what it is today.
What has been the result of lowering this tax rate? This has been the biggest “peacetime” transfer of wealth to the top in the history of the country. Many ordinary people have suffered because of this, and the shrinking of the middle class is one direct result.
Here is the last question. How much did President Hoover raise the top tax bracket rate when the Great Depression hit? He raised the top tax bracket from 25% to 63%.
Go figure.

Posted by OnTheGround | Report as abusive

@OnTheGround, you are spot on. The republicans had the house, senate, and presidency during the 107th, 108th & 109th congresses. That’s six years they had control and yet did nothing. Neither party intends to. They just spew rhetoric to keep the population quite.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

stambo2001:

You want more pipelines between Canada and the US so the US can export oil to Canada, is that it? Because, as I’m sure you’re aware, the US has now surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer, and US production is still rising. (That this is not all good news can be gleaned from my first comment. I wouldn’t welcome depending on fossil fuels to do anything but get us to better energy sources ASAP. I’d even prefer nuclear over oil and coal, despite Fukushima. Thorium reactors would be especially preferable.)

Check the US federal debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP from 1940 to 2012, and you’ll see it peaked at about 110% of GDP in 1946, and was, as reported at the CIA Factbook, 72.5% of GDP in 2012. The US did pretty darn well after 1946, too.

Here are some more data for public debt (% of GDP, CIA World Factbook), along with CPI (% annual inflation, WSJ/Heritage Foundation) data, among nations in 2012:

Debt___CPI_Country__Debt_Rank
214.3_-0.3_Japan_____1
_81.9__2.5_Germany__28
_72.5__3.1_US_______35
__2.6__8.5_Liberia__last

Would you find the standard of living acceptable in the country with the lowest public debt? How about the country with the highest public debt?

PS – Thanks, tmc. It seems to me that we foreshadow a grim future if we only cast the present in a negative light.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive