Measuring presidents’ performance is tricky, especially while they’re in office.
Judgments of Ronald Reagan during his tenure, for example, gave considerable attention to the budget deficit that vanished by the time he died. George W. Bush looked much better midway through his first term than after his second.
In a sense, Barack Obama is helping pundits and historians assess his presidency by pledging to achieve specific goals within specific periods. Of course, history suggests that neither the public nor future historians will judge him solely by his record in reaching them.
In the past two weeks, Obama has set such precise goals on two of the thorniest issues on his agenda: revamping the health care system, and ending the deadlock on an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement. And his actions indicate he recognizes that the success of his $787 billion stimulus bill will be measured by how quickly and strongly the economy recovers from recession.
Beyond spurring an economic recovery, it’s clear that passing a comprehensive health care reform bill this year is Obama’s No. 1 priority.
“If we don’t get it done this year, we’re not going to get it done,” he told supporters in a conference call last month. “I think the status quo is unacceptable and that we’ve got to get it done this year.”
Indeed, the White House is pushing for House and Senate action by the time lawmakers start their summer recess in August, with a goal of Obama signing a final bill by Oct. 1.
In a meeting last week with key Senate Democrats, he called the two months between now and the August recess the “make-or-break period” for passing the complex legislation. Accordingly, he stepped up pressure for congressional action by outlining for the first time principles he wants included.
Still, action by fall remains an extremely ambitious goal, given the complexity of the issue. Democratic presidents have tried and failed to pass universal health care coverage since Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped it from the original Social Security legislation of the mid-1930s.
The chronology of U.S. efforts to resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences is nearly as long. Here, too, Obama has set very specific, very ambitious goals.
“The moment is now for us to act on what we all know to be the truth, which is that each side is going to have to make some difficult compromises,” he said last week in Germany. “I’m confident that if we stick with it, having started early, that we can make some serious progress this year.”
Former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama’s special Mideast envoy, said Wednesday that means a “prompt resumption and early conclusion” of talks on a two-state solution: a Palestinian state and a more secure Israel.
This is also a very ambitious goal, given that it’s nearly 31 years since President Jimmy Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David Egyptian-Israeli accords with a goal of resolving other Mideast issues within five years.
Achieving that goal may prove even more difficult for Obama, given the reluctance of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obviously, Obama would benefit enormously if he succeeded in passing a major health reform program, prodded the Israelis and Palestinians into a two-state solution and presided over an economic recovery.
But history suggests he also could benefit if we see progress that falls short of his ambitious goals. After all, the depression Roosevelt inherited in 1933 didn’t totally end until World War II, but he was helped politically well before that because the public felt he had restored hope and made progress.
Obama clearly hopes to do more than that — and the political circumstances seem ripe — but no president gets everything he wants. Some disappointments seem inevitable.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.