In an election year, one important criterion in evaluating an incumbent is whether he/she has grown in office. Barack Obama entered his presidency with a strong narrative and a compelling personal history, but with little or no experience as an executive. Suddenly, on November 4, 2008, he became the world’s most powerful individual—in the midst of a major financial meltdown and economic recession, along with two inconclusive wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and a burgeoning debt.
There will be other instances as we get closer to the 2012 election when his record will be assessed in more detail. The question that must be posed now is: Has President Obama grown in office? Has he learned from his mistakes? Is he acting with greater assurance in the exercise of his duties?
We know President Obama started with a 60 per cent plus approval rating in much of his first 100 days, and six months from his re-election rendez-vous, he is slightly under 50 per cent. Many pundits blame the slow economic recovery for this drop. Others believe Obama made a major mistake in pushing universal healthcare at a time when people were still feeling the recession. Ultimately, the November result will give much material for historians of the Obama Administration.
Surely, Obama has not had an error-free administration. On healthcare, he may have passed his landmark legislation, but he failed to win much support for it in the process. On the economic stimulus plan, he may have compromised unnecessarily to get Republican votes in Congress, and the sluggish recovery has obscured the fact that his Administration has created more jobs in three and a half years than his predecessor Bush did in eight.
Yet despite mixed results, we can observe the maturing of Obama in office. While he seemed more detached in the first two years—depending a lot on his rhetoric and foregoing the traditional strength of the Presidential bully pulpit—he now seems more engaged.
In December 2011 and later in February of this year, President Obama faced the hostile Republican majority in the House of Representatives to win an extension of the payroll tax-cut for an extra year. He has since promoted the ‘Buffet rule’ which sets a floor of 30 per cent on the income rate for millionaires and billionaires. Obama has yet to win this battle, but he framed this issue for the campaign, and placed the GOP on the defensive. Just recently, the President took the offensive on women’s issues after a disastrous Republican primary season, and has all but won the fight on freezing tuition interest rates for students. His approach on the Jimmy Fallon show, where he engaged in “slow jamming the news” on the issue, represents an Obama reminiscent of his better 2008 days.
In the area of national security and foreign policy, the president has increasingly demonstrated a sure-footedness in dealing with a complex, ever-changing and dangerous world. As we recall the daring elimination of Osama Bin Laden a year ago, we are reminded that this President has done much to improve America’s standing in the world. Over 50 per cent of Americans approve of Obama’s performance on the international stage.
With Romney the soon-to-be-crowned opponent, Obama is now setting the agenda—unlike last summer’s battle on the debt ceiling where he appeared weak and ineffective. He has since changed the political climate and is now showing more presidential poise and confidence with each outing.
This being said, the economy remains a problem, and the mood of America is not positive. Americans may soon conclude that the Obama presidency has failed, and may want to return to the GOP policies of the past. However, at this moment, the GOP challenger is still trying to define himself, while Obama is showing increasingly that he is on an upward learning curve. At the end of the day, this could be the determining factor in winning President Obama a second term.