After the media have finished their pronouncements regarding President Obama's State of the Union message, his first year will continue to be a topic of discussion. A year is likely too short a time in which to accurately judge a presidency, but pundits and editorial boards make a critical look at that first year an absolute must.
So how do we evaluate Obama's first year? He began this presidency under the most dire conditions in recent history. While former President Bush began with a budget surplus in 2001, Obama inherited a financial crisis, the worst economy in 50 years, two wars, a Congress which is unable to compromise, and a declining image in the world.
Obama's articulate and compelling rhetoric have been tremendous assets in restoring America's global image. His choice of rival Hillary Clinton and emphasis on diplomacy have been important in steering our foreign policy away from advocating torture to working with our allies to strengthen our defenses against terrorism. He has developed a plan to end the Iraq War and remove our troops by the end of 2011. Since the Afghanistan War had deteriorated during the Bush administration, the president has strengthened our forces there and continues the policy of sending drones to go after Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. He plans to close Gitmo, and commissioned a review of our interrogation and detention policies.
Some Republicans argue that the decision to try the "underwear bomber" in U.S. courts and imprisoning detainees in this country somehow put this country in danger. However, President Bush agreed to try the "shoe bomber" in U.S. courts, and there was no controversy over his decision then. Further, it is likely that imprisoning detainees in maximum security prisons in the U.S. would be much safer for us than having them imprisoned in many of the countries who are willing to take them.
No Republican in the House and only three in the Senate voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Mark Zandi, one of candidate John McCain's economic advisers, said recently, "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do — it is contributing to ending the recession. In my view, without the stimulus, GDP would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."
While the stimulus package has not been the "silver bullet" one would hope for, here is a short list of provisions of the Act which have affected the economy in a positive way.
1. Extended unemployment benefits for those whose benefits were to run out, and COBRA benefits, so health care would be affordable to those who have lost their jobs.
2. Renewed SCHIP, which extended health care to millions of children in this country.
3. Gave tax credits of $3,000 for existing businesses that hired a full-time employee in 2009.
4. Provided for computerizing medical records to improve efficiency and ensure privacy.
5. Provided funds to stabilize state budgets, enabling states to retain teachers, school programs, and other state and local workers.
6. Provided $1.4 billion to improve services for veterans.
Obama restored support for stem cell research and responded quickly and decisively to the H1N1 flu virus epidemic, ensuring that vaccines were safe and plentiful, and that it did not become the epidemic that was threatened.
Though the bank bailout and the automobile industry bailouts were not popular with many Americans, many economists agree that without the bank bailout, the Great Recession would have become the Great Depression. Even if there is some legitimacy to the argument that the automobile industry was responsible for its failures and should be allowed to fail, it is a fact that the bailout saved thousands of support factories and suppliers, thus saving many jobs. GM will be paying back $5.7 billion of those loans in June.
Obama is taking on those banks who accepted bailout money, continued to give out large bonuses and then failed to make "Main Street" loans which would have helped American families stay in their homes. He plans to tax those banks $90 billion over the next 10 years. This would help recoup the cost of that bailout, and return money to taxpayers.
The president has not pleased everyone. Some Republicans have complained that he is increasing the deficit, somehow forgetting that the national debt increased 72 percent under the Bush administration when Congress was controlled by the Republican party. Dissatisfied citizens have created "Tea Parties" to protest health care reform and any tax increase. The fact that taxes have actually been reduced by Obama's policies has somehow escaped their notice.
Democrats complain that the president has not done enough. They are frustrated by his failure to end the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Some say that adding more troops in Afghanistan does not increase our security, but is a waste of our blood and treasure. Many also believe that Obama should have taken a more assertive role in health care reform. Almost everyone would agree that jobs and the economy are the most pressing issues currently, and though the job situation has improved somewhat, that is of little consolation to those who have actually lost their jobs and are still looking for work.
One of Obama's most important promises was one he has not kept — that was to bridge the partisan divide. Although he has made efforts to that end, he has been blocked by an opposition that wishes to deny him any legislative success, no matter what positive effect it may have on citizens or the economy. Some admittedly hope that he will fail.
In his political cartoon, Tom Toles has a statement which best describes the current theory of the role of the Republican Party in Congress: "Opposition to everything is the route to successful governing."
Sadly, unless that attitude changes, one of Obama's most important promises will remain unfulfilled, and the rest of his promises will continue to wither in a Congress which has completely lost its way.
Cynthia Neely, of Lodi, is a retired city attorney.