THE BLOG

Liberalism Revived: Jacob Weisberg On "Obama's Brilliant First Year"

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I don't always agree with the top man at Slate, but I'm inclined to here:

This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year isn't just premature -- it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn't an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record -- how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

Take health care reform, for example:

The case for Obama's successful freshman year rests above all on the health care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate.

We are so submerged in the details of this debate -- whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox -- that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

And then there's the economy:

There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February-- combined with the bank bailout package -- prevented an economic depression.

And foreign policy:

Obama's accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush's unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory.

What is striking -- and this is largely, I think, the ironic result of how successfully he inspired so many of his supporters during the campaign, including me, and how many of his supporters (and voters) began to hope again, and to believe that genuine change was possible -- is that Obama is being judged by the standard of perfection, that is, by an unattainable standard of success.

It's like, if he doesn't remodel the entire American way of life for the better -- fixing health care, righting the economy, reversing global warming, ending terrorism, establishing world peace -- he is somehow deemed, even by those inclined to continue to support him, by those who generally agree with him, to be a failure. It is to be expected that conservatives wish failure upon him, and upon America if he can be blamed and they can score some political points, and applaud his perceived failure at every turn, but it is disheartening when those who should know better, those who should have the good sense not to rush to judgment, criticize him with such gusto.

Don't get me wrong, there is a good deal to criticize. I have been vocal in my criticism, as have many others. Indeed, while conservatives may think that all of us on "the left" worship Obama as a god, the reality is quite different. We have not fallen into lock-step behind the president -- or behind the Democratic Party generally. We have not done what Republicans do -- Republicans only turn on their own much later on, when the polls show abject failure, as they did for both Bushes later in their presidencies, that is, they only do so when they have lost, or are on the verge of losing, and when Bolshevism takes over.

Meanwhile, Obama faces criticism from within his own party -- from both the left and the right -- as well as from more or less friendly liberal and progressive voices in the media, including the blogosphere. An obvious example is Glenn Greenwald, who continues to be one of Obama's smartest and most persistent critics on a wide range of issues, notably national security (where Obama has been much too much like Bush). But he is not alone, and what we find on "the left," including among Obama's supporters past and present, is a generally healthy culture of constructive criticism.

The problem comes when Obama is criticized not for this or that policy but for not being perfect. And it is simply wrong, as many high-profile commentators have claimed, that Obama has done nothing so far in his first year as president.

There is obviously a lot more he could have done, and perhaps should have done, but Weisberg is right that he has actually accomplished a great deal. I'm not sure Obama's first year has been "brilliant" -- let's wait to see what what happens with health care reform, as well as with Afghanistan, and then where he goes from there in the new year -- but I think it's true that it's been fairly impressive, all things considered.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)