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Divining Obama’s Next Act From His First-Term Record

Bloomberg View Memo Pad

Divining Obama’s Next Act From His First-Term Record


Presidential inaugurations are traditionally occasions for stroking one’s chin and offering sober assessments of what the president and the nation can accomplish in the next four years.

This is bound to be an exercise in futility. Four years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath, no one had heard of the Tea Party, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon, Abbottabad, the Arab Spring, Sheldon Adelson or the 47 percent. “Sandy” referred to beaches or a legendary pitcher for the Dodgers, not a devastating hurricane or a shooting at an elementary school.

It’s safe to predict that we will continue arguing in 2013 over the debt ceiling, gun violence and immigration. For everything else, the crystal ball for this year — not to mention the next four years — is cloudy.

So let’s look backward instead, to Obama’s record of success and failure. His partial successes — works in progress — offer the best clues to what he may yet achieve.

PolitiFact, a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has kept track of the 508 promises Obama made when he was running for president in 2008. This week, it released an “Obameter” report that rated more than two-thirds of his promises as “Promise Kept” or “Compromise,” a better average than voters cynical about campaign pledges had any reason to expect.

Remember Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.

Other, lower-profile “Promises Kept” testify to Obama’s vision of an activist government — not Big Brother, but “my brother’s keeper,” as he put it during the campaign.

Expanding broadband access, a credit-card bill of rights, increasing minority access to capital, closing the “doughnut hole” in the prescription drug plan, rural development grants, a best-practices list for businesses to accommodate workers with disabilities, boosting the Veterans Affairs budget for mental health: Page after page of popular ideas that went from campaign rhetoric to reality.

Most of the accomplishments look better up close than they do when depicted abstractly as merely “spending.” Familiarity with the particulars breeds respect for government, not contempt.

The list is a reminder of the stakes in 2012. Had the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and his party won the 2012 election, hundreds of the “Promises Kept” would have become “Promises Repealed.”

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is a bestselling author and journalist who served as senior editor for Newsweek from 1983 to 2011. He is currently a lead columnist for Bloomberg View as well as a contributing correspondent to NBC News. Alter's 2010 book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, reached #3 on the New York Times Best Seller list.

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  1. dtgraham January 18, 2013

    At some point the White House has to start producing balanced budgets. Obama missed two opportunities to let the Bush tax cuts sunset and now he has to use 84% of them as a starting point for revenue negotiations. I partially understand the second missed chance because he allowed the extension of unemployment benefits to be tied in with sequester. That would’ve been pain to a lot of vulnerable people and I get that as a socialist.

    I just don’t know that I buy into the idea that a modest increase in general tax rates would have significantly worsened recessionary times, although I know that was Obama’s thinking and judgement in keeping the Bush tax rates those first two years. A properly structured, direct investment, stimulus program– in the right amount– should have more than offset a return to the Clinton tax rates but that’s just my opinion. At any rate, the GOP have now stolen democracy and left him with a Republican Congress regardless of how many people voted Democratic. He’s now screwed.

    He won’t get more than a dime (if that) of military spending cuts out of Congress and that, combined with keeping the vast majority of the Bush tax structure, has him painted into one hell of a corner. This has been his biggest failure. While Bill Clinton got lucky with a booming economy, he still nonetheless produced surplus budgets mostly on the back of the 1993 Budget Reconciliation Act. He did it with revenue, and he never had to contend with Afghanistan/Iraq or unpaid for Medicare expansions. One might think that a few lessons should have been learned as to what the natural, ideal, tax rates should be IF you actually want to pay for things. Keeping so much of the Bush tax cuts just ain’t makin’ it and I’m not sure what Obama’s next move should be.

    While I definitely agree on increasing the top tax rates, it’s not so much that the top marginal tax rate was too small but, rather, it’s the structure of the whole tax system. The big problem at the moment has to do with the taxation of dividends and capital gains, which was justified on the grounds that this would help with capital formation. There is ZERO evidence that the 2003 cut in the dividend rate from 39.6% to 15% had any meaningful economic effect at all, and there’s no reason to think that if it went back to 39.6%, it would have any negative effect. Look, this has to be symmetrical right? If there’s no positive effect, then there can’t be a negative effect to go back.

    All during the entire post WWII era, dividends were taxed as ordinary income and the U.S. economy did perfectly fine. Bumping it up to a whole 20% (as I think has now been done) is just pissing in the wind.

    1. Independent1 January 19, 2013

      Sorry, balanced budgets in a federal government context are nonsense; it isn’t going to happen. There are just too many variables, potential war conflicts, unexpected disasters that have to be dealt with, and on and on. Nothing is more nonsense than a balanced budget amendment that succeeds in doing nothing but setting up the situation where clueless legislators fight over which Peter to rob to pay Paul. Just like now, where the nitwit Republicans are trying to figure out which entitlement program, or welfare program for the needy they can cut to pay for fixing the disaster Sandy created. No one sector or program in America should suffer to fix what is EVERYONE’s problem – a disaster that may happen to their state or home tomorrow. Disasters in America are the responsibility for the whole country, and should be paid for through debt so everyone can be part of paying it off. But what we don’t need, is what George and tricky Dick did, which is create debt for many things that should have been budgetted and paid for: two wars one of which should have been unnecessary and the other that should never have taken place; two budget cuts that were not warranted when George and tricky Dick knew full well that were going to be in a war (they had planned the Iraq war even before the election in 2000).

      1. latebloomingrandma January 19, 2013

        I agree. A Balanced Budget Amendment would be a disaster for the world’s super power. It would lead to a systematic decimation of all our domestic programs and safety nets. How else would disasters and acts of war, and all the unexpected things get paid for? When Bush started the Iraq War, he should have initiated a “war tax” instead of a tax cut. That alone might have created enough of an outrage to get us in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan real fast. People are so mistaken when they equate their household budgets with the budget of our complex country.

      2. dtgraham January 19, 2013

        Actually I agree with everything you said Independent1. You and lateblooming are misunderstanding me. I also don’t think codifying balanced budgets into law is a good idea for many of the same reasons I’ve been reading here. I just said it should always be the goal (in normal times anyway) but not always required. Sometimes even periods of deficit financing is the right prescription for a number of reasons. Nations aren’t household budgets….true. You’re preaching to the choir here.

        The thing is, it can’t go on forever though and right now this is a structural thing. Depending on what charts you’re looking at, federal tax revenues are about 7 percentage points less than expenditures, expressed as a percentage of GDP…..and those revenues are far below historical post war averages. Far enough below that they can’t be explained by a fragile economy. Under these conditions every budget into eternity is guaranteed to be in the red and increase the national debt. He’s not going to get any military cuts or any more revenues from those people in Congress. They’ll crash the country first. They’ll be demanding an axe to all progressive reforms of the 20th century to fix the budget.

        They’re no longer conservatives by any definition of the word I understand. They’re some weird Frankenstein Libertarian, Theocrat, Plutocrat party. After the State redistricting of 2011 the White House might have given more thought as to what actions were going to be needed, given a permanent Republican majority Congress. Something could also have been done with that lame duck Congress in late 2010. By then it should have been apparent what the GOP had become as a party, what they were dealing with, and what was to come.

        1. Independent1 January 19, 2013

          I understand what you’re saying, and don’t disagree. But in an economic situation such as we’re in, I think Obama has done everything he can to bring down deficit spending without dumbing down the economy. He’s actually dropped the 1.6 trillion in deficit spending Bush passed him in 2009 down to about 1.1 trillion which is a 1/2 trillion decrease in spending over 3 years. Had the GOP not stalled on all his efforts to get the economy moving again, e.g., sitting on two of his jobs bills and much other legislation, I think unemployment now could be well under 7% or maybe even 6% and tax revenues would be up quite a bit, possibly dropping the 1.1 trillion in deficit spending to around 1/2 a trillion. What bothers me is the examples we have in Europe, with country after country trying to solve their recession problems by severe budget cuts, and what have the got? Another deep recession with projections for things to just get worse. And Europe is really the only continent that’s really in that much trouble, and their the only ones that have used austerity as a means of trying to fix a recession (which is exactly what the GOP has wanted to mistakenly do).

          You’re right that we can’t keep going on with the trillion dollar deficits. What’s needed is for the GOP to stop being obstructionists so the economy can rebound. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this i by putting more people back to work and creating more businesses to replace those that were trashed in the 2008 debacle. That will drive up revenues so that the budget that is now creating a deficit, will become a surplus (without the need for the drastic cuts people envision).

  2. labrown69 January 19, 2013

    “What will your hero do next”? Possibly perform oral sex on Lloyd Blankfein?

    1. ococoob January 19, 2013

      That’s pretty low, pal!

      1. Luther E Corbett January 19, 2013

        to say the lease.

      2. labrown69 January 19, 2013

        No ococoob – “LOW” is selling out the American people to banks who stole 7 trillion bucks from our economy without so much as a single prosecution. Get your dictionary and look up the word “fiduciary”. I promise you won’t find forgery, lying on loan docs, fraud or any of the other things Obama gives these guys a pass on in the description. Whoopee, he is raising the debt ceiling yet again .. now there is a cause for celebration …”we won”. LMAO

        1. amarquez647 January 19, 2013

          I am sorry that you are so angry. I agree with you, most of those bankers should be in prison. At that time, everyone was scared. The market fell like a lead balloon.
          2001to 2006 the financial sector was deregulated. Risky mortgage loans were made, causing housing to be artificially high. In 2006, the housing market was failing due to subprime mortgages. September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The Dow dropped 500 points. In October of that year, the Dow was over 13,000.00. In 2007, we lost over 17,000 jobs. The Federal Reserve bailed out AIG with an $85 billion “loan” for 80% equity. AIG ran out of cash in attempting to pay off credit default swaps against mortgage-backed securities. Investors panicked, money market funds lost $144 billion. The Dow regained 400 points as news of the bailout reached investors. September 20, Paulson and Bernanke sent a $700 billion bailout deal to Congress. Dow went up 11,000 until Sept. 29, the Senate voted against the bill, and the Dow fell 700 points, the greatest in a single day in US history. The congress finally passed the bailout, but it was too late, the economy lost 160,000, and Dow drops 8000 points In Oct. 2008. The economy lost a staggering 240,000 jobs in October. AIG bailout grew to $150 billion. Then Uncle Sam bailed out the nation’s biggest banks and the auto industry, and the stock market crashed. All this happened before Obama’s swearing in on Jan. 20, 2008. Please research the facts.
          Obama, Superstar

          1. labrown69 January 20, 2013

            “Research the facts”? Amarquez, deregulation took place in 99 and 2000 with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, written primarily by Phil Gramm and signed into law enthusiastically by Bill Clinton, which allowed excessive mergers, eliminated capital reserve requirements and set the table for the collapse of our economy and again in 2000 with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, also written by Gramm and signed by Clinton, which allowed “derivatives such as default swaps” to be sold over the counter outside of the purview of either the SEC or the CFTC or any other government oversight entity so if you’re trying to pin this entirely on Bush, think again. I would add that Chuck Shumer was one of the cheerleaders for these events so it was hardly the partisan phenomenon that those who read this publication seem to want to make everything into.

            Given that the events you enumerate, bad mortgage loans to feed the Wall Street securitization machine, the crashing Dow, massive job losses and the other conspicuous manifestations of deregulation are basically accurate and much of this did take place between 01 and 06, why then are you making excuses by saying “this all took place before Obama’s tenure” instead of asking why Eric Holder who represented these same banks at the Washington DC white shoe law firm of Covington and Burling was allowed to keep his job, why Goldman Sachs was Obama’s biggest contributor, why not one single prosecution of bankers who falsified loan docs, inflated appraisals and forged notes to foreclose on properties they had no legal claim to has taken place, why Obama cut deals with insurance companies like AIG BEFORE a health care plan was conceived and then abdicated the role of a real leader by passing that buck to congress who created the proverbial “Camel, a horse designed by committee” and drafted an unworkable Frankenstein monster instead of the public option we should have had, why Dodd-Frank is a toothless slap on the write to Wall Street created by two of the villians who helped create the crash etc. Sorry Amarquez, I have done my homework and I have “RESEARCHED THE FACTS” and that is precisely why you can not sell me your blind idolatry of Obama . I voted for him twice but in 08, I thought he was going to really be something special but thus far he is just more of the same old sleaze but a few shades darker.

    2. Mary Martinez January 19, 2013

      You need to pull the corn out of your ass, so you can start thinking like a real human being, as you are a poor excuse of one.

    3. gahoof January 19, 2013


      This comment is a reflection on the comment maker.

      1. labrown69 January 19, 2013

        And just why is that? Because you sycophants don’t want to be distracted when worshiping your hero or because it reminds you that you haven’t had any in years? What is “inappropriate” is celebrating a victory that amounts to haveing won a place in the fire rather than the frying pan while our leader allows the banks to continue raping the economy.

  3. Fern Woodfork January 19, 2013

    I Think Thru All The Racists Assholes He Have Been Dealing With!! He Will Go Down In The History Books As A Great American President Who Cares About All The American People!!!

    1. gahoof January 19, 2013

      You have been consistently right on, Fern, but this is a good summary of the feelings of, I think, most Americans.

    2. old_blu January 19, 2013

      You are absolutely right my friend, I too think he will go down as one of the great ones, I think that the Republicans are going to go down in history too as one of the worse and so far they are. What are they now 18% at one time they were 7% the only reason they are going up is because Mr. Obama is forcing them to do something.

      1. lana ward January 19, 2013

        Did you see where Omuslim voters were asked how they liked the inauguration??? They all gushed and said it was great!! LOL!!!

    3. labrown69 January 19, 2013

      YES – all the American people but especially those on Wall Street.

    4. lana ward January 19, 2013

      Omuslim will go down in history as the worst president, right along side of Carter

      1. Independent1 January 19, 2013

        I’m sorry Lana but GWB has already won that award hands down as the worst president ever. Let’s see why:
        – Intentionally let the first terrorist attack on American soil in 180 years happen on 9/11 that killed 3,000 Americans
        – Intentionally started an unwarranted war based on lies and distortions that not only killed 5,000 more Americans but also helped him drive up the deficit by 10 trillion dollars.
        – Passed two unfunded unwarranted tax cuts for the wealthy that also help drive the country’s debt sky high
        – Added an unfunded drug benefit giveaway to the drug industry that purposely included a provision that prevented the government from negotiating drug prices which not only helped drive the deficit higher, it also put an added burden on the elderly who already struggle with paying for their meds.
        – Because of the tax cuts and wars he started drained the country’s coffers, he cut federal government subsidies to the states more and more each year for things like fixing federal highways and providing for government mandated benefits and programs like Medicaid and the disasterous no-child-left-behind fiasco which has helped drive many states to the verge of bankruptcy.
        – Tried desperately to privatize social security, knowing full well it was a big mistake, but did so anyway so he could funnel money to his cronies in the financial sector just like he did to those in the defense industry by starting the Iraq war, and to those in drug industry by adding an unfunded drug benefit to Medicare (which has also been instrumental and making that program flounder)
        Fortunately he was thwarted in that effort even by his own party.
        – Even when the economy was running somewhat amok, he allowed regulations to be relaxed on the financial markets (wall street, banking, etc.) which allowed unscrupulous traders and lenders too hoodwink Americans into buying homes they couldn’t afford and financial institutions to sell worthless securities to each other until the house of cards came tumbling down into the worst financial disaster America has ever seen, making the country’s troubles that allowed Hoover to create the big depression look like a walk in the park.
        – During the “War Against Terror”, allowed Americas security arms to use torture in interogating suspects, severely damaging Americas standing with virtually every country on the planet and helping America become hated by many countries on the planet that had once held us in high esteme.

        Do I need to go on, I could for quite some time. George Walker Bush was not only Americas worst president ever, he is without question one of the most useless humans on the planet.

        1. lana ward January 19, 2013

          Omuslim is the worst thing to happen to America. Communist dictator destroying America then blaming it on the GOP. He’s a trouble making little coward!!

  4. stsintl January 19, 2013

    Obama’s first term record must be compared against the first term record of G. W. Bush to realize what has been achieved in the last four years. In a two party system, the achievements depend on whether there is COLLUSION, COMPROMISE, or COLLISION between the governing parties. In Clinton years, the parties COMPROMISED. In G. W. Bush years, they COLLUDED. In Obama’s first term, they COLLIDED. Nation had budget surplus during Clinton years. Nation’s debt almost doubled during G.W. Bush years [also Reagan years], and we had two wars of choice with one still going on, and the economy went in to a tail spin. The VP [Virtual President] Dick Cheney and the Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told the nation that “Deficits & Debts don’t matter” and that the banks should be deregulated to let the “Free Market” take its course. When the then Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neal, objected to the huge tax cuts for the rich, Dick Cheney told him ” We deserve it, we won the election, didn’t we?” and fired him.

  5. old_blu January 19, 2013

    @labrown69– Really? That’s what you got? *ROLLS EYES*

    I was trying to reply to lebrownspot69….

  6. latebloomingrandma January 19, 2013

    President Obama comes into his second term battle hardened, and completely done with his “on the job training”, which by the way, ALL Presidents have. There is no perfect training ground for the world’s most bone-crushing job. For all the incredible garbage that has been thrown at this president, he has handled it with grace, optimism, calm, and still manages to make solid decisions in the face of unprecented intransigence by Congress. I can’t even imagine what this country woud be like under McCain and the twit, or what the prospects would have been under a President Romney. Everyone can write their own scenario. Lord knows, I often thought about how the 2000’s would have gone down under a President Gore. Oh well—glad we discovered Barack!!
    Eat your hearts out, righties.

    1. lana ward January 19, 2013

      Omuslim has handled NOTHING with grace, optimisum and calm. When he doesn’t get his way, he pouts, kicks and screams just the spoiled, pompous communist bitch that he is!! And blames everything on Republicans!!

      1. latebloomingrandma January 20, 2013

        What are you–12 years old in junior high? I’ll talk to you in your own language—Na,na,na,na,na !!!!! I’m sure you know the tune.

    2. labrown69 January 20, 2013

      Such shallow hero worship makes me nauseous. Not one single prosecution of a banker after the theft of 8 trillion bucks, no public option, and a system that UNLIKE Europe continues to allow banks and Wall St brokerages extract every penny we have and stand on the throat of what’s left of the middle class. Nice f-ing hero.

      1. latebloomingrandma January 20, 2013

        Not hero worship–just showing respect for a President. Im sure you did your proper “respect” to the Sainted Reagan.

        1. labrown69 January 20, 2013

          Dear Latebloomingidiot – Of course you are sure I “showed respect for Reagan” for the same reason you idolize Obama for merely not being Romney. I was a registered Democrat for almost half a century until a couple of years ago when I re-registered as independent in disgust at many things you probably don’t know exist and I never voted for Reagan however I do not praise mediocrity just because it’s emanates from my team or “could be worse”. I leave that to blind partisans like yourself.

          1. latebloomingrandma January 20, 2013

            I admit I’m a left of center liberal, but I’m neither blind nor uneducated. Having been a registered Republican for 38 years, I got educated after the disastrous George Bush administration, who I voted for twice, no less. I discovered that I needed to pay attention and just not vote by what I learned from one news source. I’ve probably read at least a dozen Presidential biographies, many different journals, and have come to some understanding of what makes a good leader. I read numerous books about Obama, not utilizing the tabloidy ones. The only reason I’m not registered as an independent is you can’t vote in the primaries in PA. Forgive me for assuming you were a Reagonite. Of course, your profanity and ad hominem attacks don’t make for a good persuasive argument.I guess our life experiences give us a different prospective on which party’s policies disgust us most. For me, at this point in time, the Republicans are carrying that burden.

  7. onedonewong January 19, 2013

    Polifact is a non partisan source. Its part of the Washington Post a cheer leader for the obama regime and part and parcel of the state Run Media

  8. Taalibdin Shabazz January 20, 2013

    It is hard to take for racist to accept that less than 200 years ago the President if he was living then
    could have been a slave looked as no more than live stock someone’s property, and today he is the President of the United States, their President, it don’t matter if he have a white mother and black father, because the slave master would often father children by his slave property who was seen the same way as a bag of grain to the racist he was still seen as property with no rights what so ever.

  9. Dennis Hoover January 20, 2013

    VERY GOOD ARTICLE !!! Thankfully it’s what we always get from J ALTER

    Too Often people only hear from us when we don’t like something, well I’m here to say, THANK YOU MR ALTER for always being truly fair and balanced in your writing and when expressing your opinions on the air with regard to current events. WE NEED THOUSANDS MORE JUST LIKE YOU, who are not afraid to tell the truth, rather than the typical watered down stories with the disingenuous effort to excuse negative actions as if “they all do it”.

    Mr Alter is also just as forthcoming with facts regarding the protected and excused class of Neo Cons and Israeli Firsters who only give us a one sided story.


  10. Sierra111 January 20, 2013

    He did a great job considering the Republicans had an all-out effort to crucify him all the time.

  11. donbronkema1 January 21, 2013

    Undertake 200-year Populist reform, featuring

    –broadcast media Fairness Doctrine
    –proportional representation [Australia]
    –public financing of short campaigns
    –permanent registration [everywhere]
    –digital holographic voter ID
    –encrypted uniform ballot [paper receipt]
    –abrogation of filibuster [unique to U.S.]
    –nonpartisan electoral district configuration [Scandinavia]
    –91% marginal taxation of income [Truman/Eisenhower era]
    –labor/green/consumer majorities on corporate boards of directors [Germany 1955-2013]
    –social security update; single-payer med
    –nat’l land-use & reforestation act
    –carbon control, expedited renewables

    For starters…


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