A Matter of Belief

by Dave Schuler on February 28, 2013

In the comments of a recent post a frequent commenter assigned a letter grade to President Obama:

Obama is a B or B minus president. He’s neither a genius nor a fool. He’s neither a saint nor a great sinner. He’s a guy handed a mess who has done a decent if uninspired job of cleaning it up.

At first blush I thought that was fair but the more I thought about it the more confused I became. Let me try to explain why.

In the area of foreign policy I disagree with practically everything the Obama Administration has done. That’s no particular distinction—I’ve had much the same opinion of the George W. Bush Administration, the Clinton Administration, and the George H. W. Bush. Although I never voted for the man, largely on foreign policy grounds, I thought that Reagan did some things right and others terribly wrong. I thought that Jimmy Carter was the worst president from a foreign policy standpoint of any in my lifetime.

To give the Obama Administration more than a C on foreign policy it seems to me that you must:

  • Think that without the president’s influence we would still be in Iraq, the SOFA notwithstanding (I don’t)
  • Think that the Afghan “surge” was the right thing to do and that we should still have as many troops there as we do (I don’t)
  • Think that providing air support to the Libyan rebels was the right thing to do (I don’t)
  • Think that killing Osama bin Laden was strategically important (I don’t)

just to scratch the surface. There’s one aspect of the president’s foreign policy I can endorse wholeheartedly: he’s not John McCain. That’s worth a C, at least.

To give the Obama Administration more than a C on domestic policy it seems to me that you must:

  • Think that the administration’s policies saved the financial system. (I don’t)
  • Think that the administration’s handling of GM was correct and will enable the company to survive in the long term (I don’t)
  • Think that allowing the “Bush tax cuts” to stand in 2010 was the right thing to do while letting them expire in 2012 was the right thing to do (I don’t see how that circle can be squared).
  • Think that the ARRA ended the recession despite so little of the money that had been appropriated had been spent by the time the recession ended. Sort of an “Immaculate Conception” kind of thing.
  • Think that the “animal spirits” produced by the Obama Administration was enough to end the recession but there was nothing that could be done to produce a more robust recovery.
  • Think that the PPACA will pave the way for a better, more affordable healthcare system (I don’t). After all, even its supporters contend that it’s just a start.

What confuses me in all of this is how you can give President Obama a B or B- without giving President Bush a very similar grade—with the exception of the PPACA (“healthcare reform”) their policies have been remarkably similar.

I’ve realized that I can’t assign a letter grade to President Obama’s presidency. I just don’t know enough. So much is simply a matter of belief. The best I can muster is an Incomplete.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds February 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I like Obama’s foreign policy. It’s not coherent, it’s pragmatic. Yes, he continued existing Bush policies on leaving Iraq. (Though that’s not what the right said at the time.) But I consider continuing to do the right thing as opposed to, say, doing something worse, is a plus. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if people generally continued rational policies — even when they get no credit — rather than insisting on swapping them out for something dumber.

On the Afghanistan surge, I think it was a flop, but I also don’t think anyone expected much else. It was politically impossible to walk away from Afghanistan then, and I generally don’t fault people for failing to be superhuman.

I basically favored the Libya thing. I thought it was low-risk, low-cost, with a modest potential upside, and the bonus of killing a vile murderer of innocent Americans. Long term? Eh, who knows. So far so kinda good. It’s the middle east, I’m not expecting a pony.

I think you’re dead wrong on Osama Bin Laden. It is absolutely vital that when an American president declares a fatwa that the fatwad-upon turn up dead. We are the superpower: our threats have to mean something. And now the message is clear that we can reach you, wherever you are, however clever you think you are.

Further, I’m a big fan of the drone war. Obama ran on it, McCain attacked him, I think Obama was right. I notice a distinct reduction in the number of airliners being flown into buildings. Of course I’m sorry about the innocent bystanders, but not at all sorry about blowing up terrorists in Pakistan.

Staying with FP, good for Obama distancing himself at least a bit from that jumped-up little egomaniac Netanyahu. I’m a Jew, (ethnically) and a long-time supporter of Israel, but it’s important to make clear in a relationship who is the dog and who is the tail and who wags who.

Let’s also take note of what did not happen. Did we invade and occupy anyone under false pretenses and then blow the occupation through sheer incompetence so that we ended up with nothing but a stronger Iran and a trillion dollar debt? No? Then that’s a point.

As to the economic issues, as you know, my basic belief is that presidents fiddle around the edges and don’t do much one way or the other. Taxes edge up, taxes edge down. The federal government gets a bit bigger, it gets a bit smaller. I just started a small business and you know what? None of that mattered to me in the slightest, except insofar as taxes force me to work harder and make more money. That may not be good in the macro, but in the micro I just created a job and a half and hope to contribute to a more positive trade balance with Europe.

I like the ACA, not for the details, but for the lasting effect which will be to establish that Americans have a right, regardless of wealth, to get medical care. Will it be the usual cock-up with fewer benefits and more problems than advertised? Well, yes, of course. Duh. Since when do we do anything differently?

On GM: I had an interesting moment driving on the 101 today. Not one but two Chevy Volts — one in front, one to my right. I am pleased that we still have an auto industry, pleased that people kept their jobs, and I have even begun to seriously consider buying an American car. (For my kid, not for me. There are limits.)

Finally, I grade on a curve. The presidents of my lifetime: Ike (but I was a toddler), JF K (C), LBJ (C-), Nixon (D-), Ford (I), Carter (C-), Reagan (C), Bush Sr. (B-) Clinton (B), Bush Jr. (D) and Obama. Is Obama a better president than JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter and Bush Jr? You bet he is. Opinions may vary on whether he’s better than Reagan, Bush Sr. or Bill Clinton.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Think that killing Osama bin Laden was strategically important (I don’t)

I disagree. It was one thing Obama got correct. Making bin Laden pay the blood price was necessary. Foreign policy isn’t just moving pieces around on a chess board – emotions and motivations matter.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Think that allowing the “Bush tax cuts” to stand in 2010 was the right thing to do while letting them expire in 2012 was the right thing to do (I don’t see how that circle can be squared).

Think that allowing SOME of the Bush tax cuts to expire was good.

I would add the following:

* Think that cutting the payroll tax to protect a soft economy in 2011 and again in 2012 was the right thing to do while letting them expire in 2013. I don’t see how that circle can be squared, unless one thinks the economy is much more robust now than it was at the end of 2010 and 2011.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Further, I’m a big fan of the drone war. Obama ran on it, McCain attacked him, I think Obama was right. I notice a distinct reduction in the number of airliners being flown into buildings.

True, right up until Obama was sworn in during January of 2009 planes just kept flying into office towers at an incredible rate. It’s amazing we didn’t run out of airliners and/or office towers.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm

I basically favored the Libya thing. I thought it was low-risk, low-cost, with a modest potential upside, and the bonus of killing a vile murderer of innocent Americans. Long term? Eh, who knows. So far so kinda good. It’s the middle east, I’m not expecting a pony.

I could say “Tell it to Ambassador Stephens and the other three dead Americans” but that’s easy. Better to say, “Tell it to the people in northern Mali.”

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I’m a Jew, (ethnically) and a long-time supporter of Israel,

Which is why you adopted the Grant as your pen name, no doubt.

Did we invade and occupy anyone under false pretenses and then blow the occupation through sheer incompetence so that we ended up with nothing but a stronger Iran and a trillion dollar debt?

And yet Obama adds over a trillion a year in debt and you have no problem with that at all. Not one little bit.

Drew, there’s your evidence of bad faith, right there. As is Reynold’s not uttering a peep in protest over Obama’s greatly expanded warrant-less domestic surveillance, something that when Bush ran a smaller program made him accuse Bush of being as bad as Mussolini and a threat to stage a coup and declare himself President for life.

Drew February 28, 2013 at 6:13 pm

ice

Don’t remember the claim you cite. Must go to a board meeting. Later.

TastyBits February 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

@michael reynolds

… Nixon (D-) …

Nixon was a f*cking dirtbag. He should have been physically tarred and feathered before being actually run out of town. His bones should be dug up, ground up, and thrown into the ocean. I think his head should be on a pike in front of the White House as a warning to other Presidents.

Make no mistake, he knew everything that was happening.

michael reynolds February 28, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Tasty:

Yeah, I was living in DC during Watergate. I didn’t give him an F because of China, which was a good piece of work.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Let’s not forget some other Obama accomplishments: Institutionalizing trillion dollar deficits; helping to overthrow an allied government in Egypt in order to replace it with a non-aligned (at best, at worst an openly hostile) government.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the annual trillion dollar deficit inflates the GDP number. Drop that deficit back to 2007 levels and the economy goes off a cliff. And there’s the attendant manipulation of the financial markets by the Fed through QE Lazy Eight (and other methods). This last isn’t actually Obama’s doing, but Obama has been very accepting of these measures, which have been welfare for the biggest of the big. Obama certainly isn’t objecting to these measures.

Obama has also intervened in the housing market (to no effect), the used car market (to bad effect), made no effort to break up the TBTF banks, helped institutionalize government by Continuing Resolution (instead of passing a proper budget), and still hasn’t actually bothered to focus on unemployment except as an occasional campaign prop all while taking one fabulous vacation after another. (Or, as they did recently, taking TWO fabulous vacations at once as the rest of the First Family skied in Aspen while BO golfed in Florida. He was tired, dontchaknow, from all that vacationing in Hawaii.)

jan February 28, 2013 at 11:43 pm

What confuses me in all of this is how you can give President Obama a B or B- without giving President Bush a very similar grade—with the exception of the PPACA (“healthcare reform”) their policies have been remarkably similar.

Other economists have said the same thing about Obama and GWB — that their way of governing and polices mirrored each other. It’s remarkable to say that, though, considering how much Obama has used Bush as his whipping horse.

Icepick March 1, 2013 at 10:45 am

Last month incomes dropped by the largest amount in 20 years, thanks to the Obama tax hikes. Fortunately, gas prices are soaring to make up for that.

Oh, wait….

….

Somehow consumer spending keeps rising, which means the savings rate is cratering again. The savings rate is now the lowest since November 2007. (I wonder if anything happened in December of 2007?) So much for consumer deleveraging.

jan March 1, 2013 at 11:35 am

Speaking of grading President Obama, one would almost have to issue two grades — one for his ‘speaking’ performance, and the other for what he really does. For, IMO, Obama’s words are vastly different than his realized leadership, having far more substance and inspiration than his actions.

This morning’s dialogue, following Obama’s meeting with Congressional leaders, is a prime example. Here he talked about a balanced approach dealing with the deficit, including entitlement and tax reform. Sounds good, doesn’t it! But where have there been any policies even touching on this, other than revenue enhancement via taxing only ‘rich’ taxpayers? In this same press conference, he railed against Congressional republicans, as if they were the only cause for all our fiscal problems. There was no mention, though, of Congressional democrats lack of creating a budget or even dealing with bills sent to them by the house regarding sequestration options, other than voting them down. There was also no reference to the big last minute 7 minutes spent yesterday to make a deal, or the performance put on today for the media, while most of Congress left town — it was nothing but a ploy to put Obama in front of a microphone once again.

Consequently, I would give President Obama a ‘C+’ on his presidential speech, a benevolent ‘D-’ on his presidential actions, and an ‘F’ for his overall sincerity.

TastyBits March 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm

@michael reynolds

In my opinion, Nixon took a shit in the Oval Office and used the Constitution to wipe his ass. If your neighbor took a shit in your son/daughter’s room and used their favorite stuffed animal to wipe their ass, what grade would you give them?

As with anything Nixonian, I am also unimpressed with his China diplomacy.

Drew March 1, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Tasty

Do you hold the same invective for Obama as Nixon?? If not, why?

Steve Verdon March 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I posted the following in the linked thread, but might as well re-post here:

Michael,

Give us your letter grade for G.W. Bush. Keeping in mind:

1. Bailing out GM started with Bush.
2. Drone strikes started with Bush.
3. TARP/Fiscal stimulus started with Bush.
4. Obama kept the Bush tax cuts for quit awhile.

These are all policies that Obama kept and or pushed even more, and that Obama is also,

5. Is even worse on warrantless wire taps.
6. Has pushed for killing American citizens overseas even more aggressively.

To everyone else,

Prediction: We wont see any more posts in this thread by Michael.

Steve Verdon March 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I like Obama’s foreign policy.

You like terrorizing people in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan with drones?

Further, I’m a big fan of the drone war.

Oh, never mind you do like terrorizing people in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You think we should have troops in Afghanistan?

Those are just two areas I find very problematic.

I think you’re dead wrong on Osama Bin Laden. It is absolutely vital that when an American president declares a fatwa that the fatwad-upon turn up dead. We are the superpower: our threats have to mean something. And now the message is clear that we can reach you, wherever you are, however clever you think you are.

You are confusing symbolic importance with strategic importance. Symbolically killing bin Laden might have been a good move, but the gains from a strategic standpoint were probably minimal at best.

I like the ACA, not for the details, but for the lasting effect which will be to establish that Americans have a right, regardless of wealth, to get medical care.

By and large that was already the case. Granted we did it inefficiently and expensively, but the idea that people were denied health care at a hospital is largely a myth.

And the ACA is going to take the current system and further ossify and entrench it…a system that is indisputably broken and can’t last that much longer. Thus the “long term” implications are rather bleak.

As to the economic issues, as you know, my basic belief is that presidents fiddle around the edges and don’t do much one way or the other. Taxes edge up, taxes edge down. The federal government gets a bit bigger, it gets a bit smaller.

This doesn’t fit with reality too well if one were to look at things like government spending, at all levels. I know you’ll say, look at WWII…it got very big, then shrank. But as Robert Higgs noted, it didn’t go back to its pre-war levels…which were already elevated due to the Great Depression.

On GM: I had an interesting moment driving on the 101 today. Not one but two Chevy Volts — one in front, one to my right. I am pleased that we still have an auto industry, pleased that people kept their jobs, and I have even begun to seriously consider buying an American car. (For my kid, not for me. There are limits.)

So its good policy because Michael likes it.

Is Obama a better president than JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter and Bush Jr? You bet he is.

As I said before…you practically give the president fellatio when you write about him.

FFS…

TastyBits March 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm

@Drew

President Obama is pissing on the Constitution. Presently, I try not to disparage him out of respect for the office he holds. I think @Dave and @Steve Verdon make good cases for his trampling on the Constitution, but otherwise, it usually devolves into a partisan food fight.

The left is about to twist their head off trying not to look at the abuses, and the right is trying not to agree too enthusiastically. It is a role reversal from President Bush’s spending.

I suspect that history will not be generous. The precedents he is establishing are staggering. The US has been under a soft tyranny for a long time, but I do not see it getting hard.

Steve Verdon March 1, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Ahhh what is a few dead rag heads, right Michael?

One morning recently, a teenager named Bacha Zarina was collecting firewood on her family’s small farm in eastern Afghanistan. About 30 yards away, as family members recall, two Taliban commanders stood outside a house.

A missile screamed down from the sky, killing the two men instantly. Two chunks of shrapnel flew at Bacha Zarina and lodged in her left side.

Her family raced her to the nearest hospital, a half-hour’s drive away, but she died en route, an accidental victim of the rapidly escalating U.S.-led campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan. She was 14 or 15 years old.

Her family raced her to the nearest hospital, a half-hour’s drive away, but she died en route, an accidental victim of the rapidly escalating U.S.-led campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan. She was 14 or 15 years old.

Steve Verdon March 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm

The US has been under a soft tyranny for a long time, but I do not see it getting hard.

I don’t think it ever will get hard, not on a wide scale basis. But it will continue to grow until you’ll probably be told how to take a shit, complete with a CCTV in your bathroom to ensure you are using the appropriate technique.

TastyBits March 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm

@Steve Verdon

The Toilet Safety Administration (TSA) will require a seat belt also.

Dave Schuler March 1, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Toilet Safety? I’m happy as long as Congress refrains from mandating toilets that won’t flush (as it did for a while).

michael reynolds March 1, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Steve V:

Gee, once again you’re wrong. Here I am.

I know you Aspies love to make everything about a policy written on a nice clean piece of paper. But almost nothing is about policy. Politics is about power. Foreign policy is about power both hard and soft, but it sure as hell isn’t about policy.

We’ve had an OFFICIAL POLICY that North Korean nukes are “unacceptable.” Had it for many years. Does NK have nukes? Why, yes. Yes they do. You know why? Because it’s not about policy, Steve, it’s about power, as in balance of same, and threat and all that unpleasant stuff.

Part of our power is the capacity to frighten our enemies. And part of it is about flat-out killing them. And other bits involve buying them off, wowing them with our hot blonde actresses and action films, educating their kids at Berkeley in hopes they’ll like us when they grow up and move back home, etc…

Policy? This isn’t a college assignment where you get points for the lovely flow of your paragraphs and the richness of your footnoting. We are killing people because we want them to be dead. And we want all their friends to be scared. And we even want their enemies to be scared. That’s the game.

Am I sorry for innocent people being killed? Of course. I’m sorry innocent people were killed every time we flew a bombing mission over Germany in 1944. But that’s why wars are a bad thing. And yet, sometimes, a necessary thing. So spare me the “You wanna kill little Pakistani children!” silliness. I’ve actually spent quite a bit in tax money to ensure that the minimum damage is done to innocent people when we kill some bad guy. Dumb bombs are a lot cheaper than Hellfires.

Given that we have the power to exterminate every living thing in Pashtunistan tomorrow, and can do it without using up a fraction of our power, I’d say we’re behaving very well by historical standards. The Mongols would have just murdered them all. Here we are spending good money to try and carefully murder only the right people.

Now, you also wrote a bunch of other nonsense, mostly in the same semi-hysterical style favored by Icepick, but it’s too tiresome to wade through. A “B-” is a blowjob? Come on, you’re not that stupid. Don’t let your frustration at being part of an absurd, peurile and politically impotent ideology make you bitter. You’re better than that. Use your big boy words.

steve March 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm

“By and large that was already the case. Granted we did it inefficiently and expensively, but the idea that people were denied health care at a hospital is largely a myth.”

Wrong. Very wrong. We get to see people all the time who could not afford health care, until it became an emergency. Then there are those who dont even make it to the hospital.

Steve

Dave Schuler March 2, 2013 at 9:35 am

This probably isn’t the place for this comment but I don’t think that going after the Taliban within Pakistan does anything directly for our security at all nor is it intended to. I think it’s intended to bolster the security of the Afghan government.

What will happen if U. S. forces leave Afghanistan is that Karzai will attempt to cut a deal with the Taliban. It will be a necessity. I guess opinions can differ on whether our going after the Taliban with drones makes that easier or harder.

Besides killing a few Taliban and some innocent bystanders the effect of our drone strikes within Pakistan is to destabilize the Pakistani government. IMO the deleterious effect on our interests of that outweigh whatever beneficial effects going after the Taliban might have.

michael reynolds March 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I would argue that the Pakistani government has been in a state of destabilization as long as there’s been a Pakistani government. I am not convinced we’ve worsened that chronic condition, just that we are this year’s convenient excuse for Pakistani incompetence.

As for going after Taliban, so long as we have forces in Afghanistan it makes good sense to disrupt their ability to launch attacks into Afghanistan. An argument can be made for dropping the Taliban as a target once we are all the way out, but only so long as we are convinced that Al Qaeda is no longer being materially assisted by the Taliban.

Icepick March 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I’ll note that being against gay marriage was a practice so barbaric that the President himself decided he was for gay marriage less than twelve months ago. Oh wait, that doesn’t fit the narrative….

michael reynolds March 2, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Yes, and positions changed on slavery and women’s suffrage, too. Amazing, isn’t it?

Steve Verdon March 4, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Wrong. Very wrong. We get to see people all the time who could not afford health care, until it became an emergency. Then there are those who dont even make it to the hospital.

Which is what I meant by we do it inefficiently and inexpensively–i.e. the poor often rely on the emergency room which is more costly than having other options.

So not “Wrong. Very wrong.” It is right, totally right.

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