Before heading off to Hawaii for a brief Christmas vacation, President Obama held a press conference in which he used a football analogy to characterize his upcoming final two years in office. "My presidency is entering its fourth quarter," he said. "Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter."
Having been overrun by the Republican offense just weeks ago in the congressional elections, Obama has come back and picked up a lot of yardage since. His climate deal with China, his executive action on immigration and his opening to Cuba are the bold plays of a quarterback who can still score. Interesting stuff, indeed.
After a year of dismal ratings in popularity polls, his numbers are suddenly on the rise and Obama seems energized by the prospect of facing a Congress fully controlled by Republicans. The naïve talk of bipartisan cooperation with which he opened his administration six years ago has given way to a cocky attitude. Facing the hulking Republican defensive line, he appears to be saying, "Bring it on."
When Obama took office in 2009, his fans held impossibly high expectations and his enemies seethed with ridiculously dark fears. In the subsequent six years, many supporters on the left were disappointed by Obama's moderation, while opponents on the right had to cling to laughable exaggerations and lies to perpetuate the myth that he is a dangerous radical.
Pundits in the muddled middle have bounced around like jackrabbits in their assessments, mostly missing the reality that Obama is a patient, cool-headed man who takes his time to get where he wants to go. Cornering Osama bin Laden, reaching an agreement with China on climate change and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba were goals reached quietly over many months and years and hidden from the frenetic, impatient gaze of chattering cable news teams and caustic political bloggers.
One Obama critic, former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf, has said, "It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office." Actually, Rothkopf has got it backwards. It is hard to think of a recent president who has shrunk so little in office.
Leave aside the impossibly lofty expectations inspired by the 2008 presidential campaign and the always fluctuating opinion polls and consider that, unlike Rothkopf's former boss, Bill Clinton, Obama has had no personal scandal tarnish his White House. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama has not taken the nation to war on false pretenses or let Wall Street greed run the economy off a cliff. Unlike Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush, Obama did not fade from office after four years; instead, he won a resounding reelection victory. And, unlike Ronald Reagan, Obama has endured no political scandal on the scale of Iran-Contra. (Sorry, right-wingers, but, as House investigations have proven, none of the inflated assertions of scandal – from Benghazi to the IRS – have amounted to much.)
Obama has generally held steady through his years in power, even while facing the most virulent and uncompromising political opposition any president has faced since Abraham Lincoln. In the process, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman contended in a recent Rolling Stone article, this White House has racked up a pretty strong list of achievements.
At the top of that list is Obamacare. Tens of millions of Americans now have access to healthcare that was out of their reach before implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Though the plan may not be perfect, Krugman argues that it "is coming in ahead of schedule – and below budget – costing less and doing more to reduce overall health costs than even its supporters predicted."
Then there's the Second Great Depression that never happened because, at the very start of his first term, Obama acted to save the economy. Thanks to Republican opposition, the stimulus plan that helped rescue the country from economic collapse was truncated, causing recovery to come at an agonizingly slow pace. Nevertheless, things have gotten better when they could have been so much worse.
Obama has also taken important steps to deal with the looming catastrophe of climate change. It is a disgrace that he has not been able to do more, but that is not his fault. It's the fault of his Republican opponents who have blocked so many steps that should have been taken because they are either unable to understand science or unwilling to disappoint their rich benefactors in the oil and coal industries.
Many Democrats up in the bleachers are still grousing. With imperfect memories of the glory days of the 1990s, they long for the quarterback they once had and disparage the guy on the field. But that guy has proven wily and quick enough to put some unexpected points on the board, while facing a very tough team that plays exceedingly rough. So, it's too early for a final judgment on Obama. There's a whole fourth quarter to be played.