03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Domestic Policy: Good but not Good Enough

In terms of domestic policy, Barack Obama has had the most successful first year of a presidency since Jimmy Carter. This might seem like damning with faint praise. Although he is not remembered as a very successful president, Carter pushed through important environmental regulation in his first year, such as the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Even more impressively, Congress that year passed major legislation regulating corporate behavior with the Corporate Reinvestment Act and the Unlawful Corporate Payments Act of 1977.

Obama likewise shepherded through important domestic legislation. In its first year, the administration strengthened the ability of Americans to challenge discriminatory pay, increased health insurance coverage for children of working-class families, invested more money in the social safety net than in past decades, cut taxes for middle-class America, extended unemployment insurance, and most recently made a bid to provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.

These accomplishments are even more impressive when compared to the first years of conservative presidents, like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Both of these presidents came to power in the midst of recessions and passed legislation that cut taxes primarily for higher-income Americans, thereby concentrating wealth and lowering federal revenue so there was less government money to invest in job creation.

After a year in office, the Obama administration is clearly more interested in maintaining, rather than challenging the status quo. Obama's incrementalism will help Americans survive the "Great Recession," for instance by extending unemployment benefits, but the president hasn't substantively reversed regression of the middle-class economy. This holds true particularly for disenfranchised minorities like African Americans and Native Americans, whose unemployment rates are over 150 percent that of white Americans. Obama will most likely follow the basic policy path of former President Clinton, who pushed through liberal policy reforms on medical leave and handgun control, but also signed the business-backed North American Free Trade Agreement. The key difference is that there won't be a booming economy to buoy the Obama presidency, even if he wins a second term.

Like Clinton, Obama has attempted health care reform. But he has learned from the Clinton administration's failures by ensuring that the health insurance industry benefits as much as (some would say more than) anyone else through the current legislation. Herein lies the problem with the Obama presidency. Obama has won the highest office in the land in a political system beholden to elite special interests. These interests do not make room for the type of bold political action necessary to meet the challenges our country now faces.

For all of his attempts to depict his campaign as a mass grassroots venture, the Obama win relied on corporate cash, as do most successful candidacies for national office. These funders have disproportionately influenced Obama's domestic policy. As a senator, Obama provided for his corporate sponsors by supporting Bush's bailout of Wall Street. As president, Obama extends unemployment insurance and finds other ways to help the middle and working class survive the economic cataclysm. Yet funds to substantively invest in restructuring the economy and address the greatest concentration of wealth since the Great Depression have not been forthcoming.

President Obama receives two scores for his first year in office: one that is relative to other American presidents' first years and another that rates him on adequately addressing the country's domestic challenges. Compared to presidents over the last 45 years, Obama gets a 7.5. I rank him slightly ahead of Clinton (7), but behind Carter (8) and Lyndon B. Johnson (9). Johnson, in his first year in office, passed the Clean Air Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Wilderness Act, and the Nurse Training Act. In terms of domestic policy, Johnson set the country on the right track by dealing with racial inequality, environmental policy, and trying to strengthen economic opportunity for all Americans.

Obama can learn how to strengthen his domestic policy by following Johnson's example, taking a lead on racial inequality and an Economic Opportunity Act of 2010 that invests in working-class America. Obama can also learn from Johnson about how foreign unpopular wars can undermine even the best domestic policy.

My score for Obama on dealing with the country's current challenges is a six. A six, in a 1-10 scale, translates into a D, which is a passing letter grade in some classes and a failing one in others. A 6 might be all that's needed to get re-elected. For our political system, this is all that matters. But for the people of this country, another three years of near-failing grades will lead to a greater failing for the American people.