President Obama gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. But let's call it what it is: A campaign speech. The president is looking at an uphill battle to keep his job, and the SOTU is the ultimate bully pulpit. Last year it drew an audience of 42.8 million people. Obama will tout his accomplishments, of course, and make the case for another term. But what are those accomplishments? Here they are, in descending order. (And before all you Obama detractors bombard me, at least wait until my next column, when I'll take the opposite side and point out President Obama's top five mistakes.)
5. Getting out of Iraq
Keeping one's promise is good currency for any politician, and this was a big one that Obama delivered on. The numbers: 4,484 Americans killed, 32,200 wounded, $806 billion spent (with an estimated $1 trillion needed for future medical care for war veterans through 2050, says a Brown University study) — all for a war that began under a pretext (finding weapons of mass destruction) that never panned out. Instead, it evolved into a costly, 105-month grind that damaged America's image in the world and, it could be argued, strengthened Iran's standing in the region. On top of all this, the war wasn't paid for. Yes, it toppled Saddam Hussein. But other Mideast dictators have been overthrown pretty much on their own during the Arab Spring; historians can only ponder how Saddam might have fared. Obama opposed the war all the way back in 2002 — and promised repeatedly on the campaign trail in 2008 that he'd end the conflict. Mission accomplished.
Obama's economic policies may not be popular, and are surely imperfect. But they unquestionably forestalled disaster.
4. Improving America's image abroad
America was showered with goodwill after the September 11 attacks. A few years and a couple of wars later, that goodwill had largely vanished. The war in Iraq led to brutal coverage around the world that screamed of secret U.S. prisons, torture, and images from Abu Ghraib. Fair or not, the Bush administration was perceived in some quarters of the globe as a unilateralist, my-way-or-the-highway bully. By 2008, America's standing in the world had fallen, sometimes sharply. Even staunch American allies were unhappy: Just 53 percent of Britons had a favorable opinion of the U.S., along with 46 percent of Australians, and just 31 percent of Germans. Today, those numbers are up in every region of the world — thanks in no small part to President Obama's effort to treat our allies as true partners. There is one important and ironic exception to this uptrend, however: The Muslim world. Just 12 percent of Pakistanis, 20 percent of Egyptians, and 13 percent of Jordanians had a favorable opinion of us last year — all down in the Obama years, despite opponents who accuse him of tilting toward the Muslim world (if not actually being a secret Muslim).
3. Passing health-care reform
"I will sign a universal health-care bill into law by the end of my first term as president," candidate Obama said in 2008. He certainly made good on that pledge — at considerable political cost to himself and his party. In some ways, the true success of this accomplishment is hard to judge, since most major provisions of the president's Affordable Care Act don't go into effect until 2014. Plus, the constitutionality of the law's central provision — a government mandate that all Americans have health insurance — will be debated by the Supreme Court this spring, with a decision coming as early as June. Until then, though: Promise made, promise kept. This is one of the most consequential pieces of legislation since LBJ's Great Society. Among the provisions of this piece of legislation already in place is a rule prohibiting insurance companies from rescinding coverage based on the flimsiest of pretexts, and lifetime limits on insurance coverage — which have sent many a citizen to the poorhouse — have been eliminated.
2. Getting Osama bin Laden
"Victory has a thousand fathers," John F. Kennedy said after his humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, "but defeat is an orphan." Had the bin Laden raid failed, it would have been completely on the president. Yet in the wake of its stunning success, Obama did not gloat. He gave credit where credit was due: To the many thousands of unknown men and women of America's intelligence agencies who spent years painstakingly piecing together minute scraps of information that led to the raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound — and to the heroes of SEAL Team Six who carried it out. This alone is one definition of true leadership. And the president deserves credit for bravely giving the order. The Defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates — who served eight presidents, including Ronald Reagan — called it "one of the most courageous calls... that I think I've ever seen a president make." Former Vice President Dick Cheney applauded Obama, too. "You've got to give him a lot of credit for making the decision," Cheney said. "It's no question that was his responsibility and I think he handled it well."
1. Preventing a depression
Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor point out that the unemployment rate has increased dramatically on Obama's watch. Cantor is right: It was 7.8 percent in January 2009, and three years later, it is 8.5 percent (down from the October 2010 peak of 10 percent). Yet three years before Obama was sworn in, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Republicans are also right when they say economic growth has been weak under Obama. But this still beats the two quarters before Obama was sworn in, when GDP fell at annualized rates of -3.7 percent and -8.9 percent. So let's be honest: The economy was in free fall when Obama was sworn in. The house was burning down, Republicans got out by the scruff of their necks — and now don't like the way Obama put out the fire. One of Obama's firefighting tools was the much-maligned stimulus. Was part of the stimulus a mismanaged boondoggle? Absolutely. But part of it was also tax cuts that went into the pockets of 95 percent of working families. Without the stimulus, the Congressional Budget Office and other independent analysts estimate that the unemployment rate and the U.S. economy as a whole would have been far worse off than it was. Obama's economic policies may not be popular, and are surely imperfect. But they unquestionably forestalled disaster.
Again, stay tuned: Next week, I'll point out the president's top five mistakes.