Column: An optimist's view of the White House

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 08, 2013 1:19 PM
Column: An optimist's view of the White House

By Ian Bremmer

What will the White House screw up next? Democrats have watched as one calamity after another has befallen what was once the most promising Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy's. Obamacare, the NSA, Syria, heck, even the administration's campaign foibles are back in the news with the publication of the new tell-all book Double Down.

Yet all is not lost. The Obama administration has not exactly bungled its way through five years of power. Until this year, in fact, Republicans were complaining that the press had been too kind towards Obama. With all the dour news, it is worthwhile to take stock of all the good things for which Obama can take credit. Bear in mind, some of these successes may not have been Obama's ideal objective — but the end results are victories regardless. These are the top eight achievements that not even Edward Snowden can take away, in descending order of importance.

1. An economy that still exists

When Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate was steadily rising — it would hit 10 percent in October of 2009 — and catastrophe beckoned. But by effectively wielding George W. Bush's TARP program, passing a stimulus of his own, bailing out the automotive industry, and resisting the urge to nationalize the country's banking sector, Obama was able to keep the crisis from swallowing a country and his presidency. Regardless of which particular policies may have been the secret sauce, surviving the worst financial crisis in decades happened on Obama's watch.

2. A move beyond the 9/11 era

Obama has helped stitch up a chapter in American history, the 9/11 era, in which the responses to 9/11 — the war on terror and America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — drove foreign policy and security calculations exceedingly more than anything else. What's been left in America's wake hasn't been pretty — mass bombings have returned to Iraq, and relations with Kabul have been icy — but Obama has wrapped up one war and the other is soon to follow. He was able to leverage the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a symbolic end of this 9/11 era, shifting the country's operating framework from the global war on terror to a more cautious, global awareness of the terror that targets America, while pushing more resources into other looming threats like cybersecurity.

3. His loyalty to Ben Bernanke

It wasn't the most popular decision at the time, but in 2009, Obama re-nominated Bernanke for a second term as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. That small decision had a big impact, ensuring we would see sustained quantitative easing from the Fed, and that the economic recovery would continue.

4. Effectively forcing Iran's hand

As I've written before, the reason there's sudden progress in negotiations on Iran's nuclear program is because of the Obama administration's resilient dedication to international sanctions. In a G-Zero world, the negotiations are a rare instance of successful collective leadership, and put Obama in a position to get a historical deal inked (although there remain many hurdles). The sanctions campaign has put the U.S. in a position to succeed on this front.

5. A pivot to Asia

The long-term commitment of the administration to move away from the Middle East and towards Asia has been called into question lately. The administration's focus on Syria, Iran, and Israel-Palestine, and Obama missing a key APEC summit in Asia to deal with Washington dysfunction, has made it seem like the pivot to Asia has deteriorated. But Obama's State Department laid the groundwork for American success in the region in his first term in office. It has taken advantage of China's overly bellicose dealings with its neighbors, using them to tighten ties in the region and to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership that — if it passes — will change the way trade works between the U.S. and Asia. While the outlook has gotten cloudier over the past few months — otherwise it would be ranked higher on this list — the pivot still qualifies as a success.

6. Finding a middle ground on energy

Obama has played a successful balancing act when it comes to U.S. energy policy. He has tacitly embraced the revolution in unconventional means of finding oil and gas with an "all of the above" energy policy, while still securing tighter EPA rules on pollutants. He delayed the Keystone pipeline, sure, and environmentalists were happy to see fuel standards go up. But he has done what it took to not derail unconventional energy efforts through overbearing government regulation. His approach has at times enraged both environmentalists and business interests — that's how you know it's been balanced.

7. Reduced deficit

Don't look now, but the deficit is vastly decreased from the levels that Obama inherited when he took office. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a deficit of $642 billion for this year; less than half of the 2009 tally. Of course, this is very far removed from any deliberate plan of Obama's. A lot of this was the result of a harsh sequester that struck when Democrats and Republicans were unable to reach a deal. But Obama deserves credit for staring down the GOP on tax break expiration and by essentially boxing himself into a host of spending cuts that do not sit well with his party.

8. Passing and protecting Dodd-Frank

After the financial crisis, it was clear that the banking sector needed better supervision. Dodd-Frank accomplishes some of that, but not all (the bill's a mess). Still, Obama and Congressional Democrats defeated an exceptional lobbying campaign and established tighter controls. Ideally, future Congresses will build on those controls to repair the bill, rather than tear it down. But the baseline has now been established — and it wouldn't have been without Obama.

There are still three years left in Obama's second term, no matter how many rumors you read about Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie. There's still time for him to set his administration right. And even if he doesn't, there is a bright side to his time in office too, as he's leaving an impressive run of accomplishments in his wake.

(Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This column was written based on a correspondence with Bremmer.)