Barack Obama has not been a perfect president. Millions are still suffering from a weak economy, vitally important issues like climate change and immigration remain all but unaddressed, and most disappointingly, the promise of a new politics to move us beyond a long and bitter partisan divide remains painfully unfulfilled.
But he has been a very good president. For all the promises on which he has fallen short, he has kept many others. He has provided steady, pragmatic leadership in trying times, and he has set the stage for a stronger, more sustainable America to emerge. His chief failing has been his inability, in the face of entrenched opposition from the Republican Party, to bring the Congress and the nation together around solutions to our major problems. He will need to do better in the next four years, but he must be allowed to finish the job.
Looking back at the crises President Obama faced when he took office is not an exercise in shifting blame to his predecessor. It is a matter of making a clear assessment of what Mr. Obama has accomplished during his term. The economy today is disappointing — gross domestic product grew just 2 percent in the latest quarter, and job gains, while consistent, have been anemic. But the economy four years ago was terrifying. The nation was shedding 800,000 jobs a month; the financial system was collapsing; the housing market had cratered; and the centerpiece of America's industrial economy, the auto sector, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Moreover, it's not as if the economic shocks of 2008 came after a period of great prosperity. On the contrary, real economic gains for the middle class had been virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, deficits had soared as the result of tax cuts tilted toward the rich, a massive and unfunded expansion of entitlements, and two wars. The nation had squandered the surpluses of the Clinton years and built an economy on the shaky foundations of a housing bubble.
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the president's $840 billion stimulus package did not immediately restore the economy to robust growth. Recoveries after financial crises have typically taken years longer than those after ordinary business-cycle recessions. Nonetheless, the stimulus stopped the job losses and set the stage for modest growth. Its only fault was that it was too small and spent too much on tax cuts rather than the kind of infrastructure projects that put people to work immediately and pay dividends for years to come. The stimulus was unpopular, and so were President Obama's decisions to bail out Chrysler and General Motors and the financial industry. But without them, we might easily have slipped into a second Great Depression.
President Obama's record is not just about stopping the bleeding, it is about setting the stage for a more sustainable, competitive American economy. His Race to the Top initiative has unleashed a wave of school reform far greater than what was achieved by the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind. It has fostered incentive pay for teachers and charter schools, even in union-dominated states like Maryland. The president's policies have made college loans more affordable so that the nation has a chance to once again lead the world in educational attainment.
His health care reform legislation expands coverage to millions and prevents many of the insurance industry's abuses. But it also enables experimentation with alternative methods for providing and paying for health care, which eats up a far larger percentage of our economic output than in any other industrialized nation while producing mediocre results.
And President Obama's energy policy is leading to investments in developing technologies like wind, solar and biofuels while also focusing on the mundane work of increasing efficiency — including a doubling of auto fuel economy standards by 2025.
In foreign affairs, Mr. Obama has similarly recalibrated a strategy gone awry. He renounced torture, ended the war in Iraq and refocused our efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere on stopping al-Qaida. Thanks to those efforts, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are many other top al-Qaida leaders. Had Mr. Obama not reversed the ideology-driven foreign policy of the previous eight years, he never would have been able to mobilize the international coalitions that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi and supported crippling sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, President Obama has stood up for equal pay for women, repealed "don't ask, don't tell," voiced support for gay marriage and appointed two well-qualified justices to the Supreme Court. He has not tackled climate change or immigration, and he has failed in his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Nonetheless, his record is, on the whole, commendable.