As far as I see, the most natural interpretation of the proposition that Obama’s a near-failed president is that he has been unusually ineffective in one of two senses. Either he hasn’t succeeded in implementing the important planks of his governing agenda, or he has implemented a fair share of them and they haven't had the desired effects on the political economy. Yet, if you ask me, it’s not obvious that Obama has been unusually ineffective in either sense.
Ezra Klein reminds us that it’s not easy to argue that Obama has disappointed reasonable expectations when it comes to enacting his agenda:
“ [I]f you had taken me aside in 2008 and sketched out the first three years of Obama’s presidency, I would have thought you were being over-optimistic: an $800 billion stimulus package — recall that people were only talking in the $200-$300 billion range back then — followed by near-universal health-care reform, followed by financial regulation, followed by another stimulus (in the 2010 tax deal), followed by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” followed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the apparent ousting of Moammar Gaddafi? There was no way. And yet all that did get done. But the administration hasn’t able to get unemployment under control — perhaps it couldn’t have gotten unemployment under control — and so all of that has not been nearly enough.”So you’d think that Obama’s alleged failure has to be a matter of ineffectiveness in the second sense. Yet that's not obvious either. I don’t see how anyone could yet know whether any initiatives besides the two rounds of economic stimulus are ineffective since most of them haven't yet taken effect. And it’s hard to see how anyone could be so sure that Obama has been unusually ineffective even when it comes to fiscal policy.
Yes it’s more than a little disappointing that unemployment is still over 9%. Yet when you call Obama a failure because of it, the relevant comparison is with people who've governed under similarly inhospitable conditions. No one would dream of calling FDR a failed president even though he presided over much higher unemployment, for much longer, than Obama has. And what heads of elected governments have managed their domestic economies more effectively since Obama was inaugurated? Sarkozy? Merkel? Cameron? Berlusconi? Granted, it’s not saying much, but it seems to me that you’d have to say that, as a steward of a national economy, Obama has managed to hold his own with a relevant peer group of center-right politicians.
So why is the aroma of failure around Obama suddenly so strong? I can understand why Republicans are getting a good whiff. That’s at least partly a matter of wishful smelling on the part of people for whom Obama’s every failure vindicates heartfelt convictions and inspires partisan hopes.
But why are so many liberals not just lamenting Obama’s bad luck in inheriting a bum economy, but starting to hold their own noses as well? They have no fundamental quarrel with what Obama has done. At most, they just wish Obama had the fortitude to have done a little more of the same (say, a public option in ObamaCare, or a somewhat bigger stimulus). You'd think that Obama's presidency hadn't just disappointed, but betrayed them.