Maybe that Saturday Night Live skit wasn’t so funny after all. Four days after Fred Armisen announced that Barack Obama’s signature accomplishments were “jack” and “squat,” our do-nothing president did something that Democratic presidents have been trying to do for most of the last century: He celebrated a universal health care bill’s passage through Senate Committee. For good measure, the Dow topped 10,000 for the first time since last fall’s meltdown. Obama’s polling has even ticked up: According to Gallup, he’s more popular than he’s been since summer.
If he gets health-care reform, Obama will have done more to rebuild the American welfare state in one year than his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did in a combined twelve.
Get ready for the “Obama comeback” stories, in which the same publications that recently declared that “he’s failing miserably” (Politico) and “suddenly looking unsure of himself” (The Economist) discover that he’s thriving again. But the boring truth is that he was pretty much thriving all along. Journalists are non-fiction script-writers. They need plot-twists: Barack meets public; Barack loses public; Barack regains public. Bill Clinton was great this way: Whenever things were getting monotonous, he’d grope an intern just to make life interesting. Obama, on the other hand, is relentlessly disciplined, pragmatic, and successful. Beneath the fascinating exterior, he’s dull as hell.
And it’s not just that Obama is predictable. Politically, we live in fairly predictable times. The demographic shifts that have put the Democrats in power—more young voters, more Hispanic voters, more highly-educated voters—have been decades in the making, and aren’t likely to reverse themselves anytime soon. Nor are voters likely to forget George W. Bush. Obama is blessed to have taken office in the aftermath of disaster—which means that he’ll probably be judged against a low bar. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, unemployment was still 17 percent, but it was no longer 25 percent, so FDR won all but two states. In 1984, unemployment was seven percent, but that was lower than when Ronald Reagan took office, and it was headed down. And so Reagan asked Americans whether they were better off than they were four years ago, and Walter Mondale told them the answer didn’t matter because Reagan had run up huge deficits, and Reagan won 49 states.
Now Obama is in a similarly fortunate position. Most of the fiscal stimulus passed by Congress hasn’t kicked in yet, and it may not kick in time to save Democrats from grizzly results in next fall’s midterms. But Reagan got clobbered in the 1982 midterms as well, and it didn’t ultimately matter. If the economy is better in 2012 than it was in 2009, even if it’s not all that great, history suggests that Obama will reap the rewards and Republican arguments about deficits will work about as well as Mondale’s did.
It’s like giving Peyton Manning the ball at your own 20 yard line: there’s not a lot of suspense. Even this summer, when the press was announcing a dip in Obama’s fortunes, the health care bills were moving steadily through Congress, the stimulus was gradually slowing the nation’s economic descent, and Obama’s approval ratings never fell below 50 percent.
So liberals should stop complaining that Obama hasn’t done anything. Sure, he hadn’t yet done much to bring world peace, but the stimulus bill—which includes vast sums for college tuition, renewable energy and mass transit—is one of the most important pieces of progressive domestic legislation in decades. And if Obama twins that with health care reform, he’ll have done more to rebuild the American welfare state in one year than his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did in a combined twelve.
As for journalists, you can hardly blame them for trying to inject some volatility into the Obama storyline. But if this fall is any indication, much of the volatility will be imagined. The dreary truth is that politically, Obama is both lucky and good, and he’s well on his way to a successful first term. Oh, well. We still have Sarah Palin.
Peter Beinart, Senior Political Writer for The Daily Beast, is a Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.