Monday, June 9, 2014

How should we measure a president's success?

I, for one, really appreciate Jonathan Chait's column yesterday titled: Obama Promised to do 4 Big Things as President. Now He's Done Them All. He uses the following statement from the President's 2008 Inaugural Address to name those 4 things:
Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
And so President Obama's initiatives on the stimulus bill, Wall Street reform, health care reform, education reform and now climate change are noted as major accomplishments.

But what strikes me in this kind of analysis is that most of that list involves legislative accomplishments. That is primarily the job of Congress. In the separation of powers outlined by our founders, the main job of the presidency is not to legislate, but to administer the functions of the federal government. And yet when it comes time to evaluate a president's performance, that aspect of the job is most often not included.

We must not forget that President Obama not only had to clean up the financial and foreign policy messes of the previous administration. He faced a FEMA that completely botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, a Justice Department that was politicized and corrupted, and yes...a Veterans Administration that was incapable of dealing with the needs of soldiers deployed in unnecessary wars.

We're not likely to see headlines when - even in the midst of escalating climate disasters - FEMA performs competently and thoroughly. And yet, anyone who has ever had to turn around a poorly functioning system knows that is always a difficult and complex management process. I would count that as one of the major success stories of the Obama administration.

But perhaps nowhere was the job more daunting or necessary than at the Department of Justice. Particularly, we know that hiring in the Civil Rights Division had become a politicized process and the focus of investigations had shifted to claims of so-called "reverse racism." I've tried to document how AG Eric Holder and former Civil Rights Division Director Thomas Perez worked effectively to turn all that around.

And so, when I listen to the "what have you done for me lately" conversations (like the one engaged on Melissa Harris-Perry's show yesterday) that attempt to lecture President Obama on the need for structural reforms to address racism, I am amazed at the ignorance of actual structural reforms that have been undertaken by this administration. At least one guest actually mentioned the work by DOJ and the Department of Education on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. But there was no reference at all to things like:
That summarizes some of the work of just one federal department that I have been following pretty closely. To measure the actual impact of a presidency, the same could be done for every one of them. This should especially be important to Democrats. Because as I've been saying for quite some time, the best way to advance a liberal agenda is to ensure the practice of good government. That's the president's job.

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