Much is made of the idea of "grading" a President's performance. Even pollsters occasionally resort to asking people to grade various aspects of a particular president's job performance. Since Americans have almost universally experienced being graded in school and most of us have had some sort of job performance review in our work career, it's something we can identify with.
Many of us have experienced failure in some form, and almost all of us know someone who has failed out of school or been fired for poor job performance. It's something we get as a frame of reference - especially when deciding whether to re-elect a sitting president. Essentially, the pass-fail grade is the ultimate performance review that either keeps you in the university or off looking for a new job in an uncertain job market. That’s why pundits agree that a presidential re-election race is almost always a referendum on the incumbent.
President Obama himself made note of this in an interview with "60 Minutes" where he pointed out that, for example, if health-care premiums were up 50 percent, he likely wouldn’t be re-elected, and if they weren’t, he likely would. Certainly the president's erstwhile opponents like to bring up that interview. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has made a point in his stump speeches of saying that "By President Obama's own standard of success, he's a failure and doesn't deserve to be re-elected."
It’s a nice sound bite, especially among the tea party and fringe starting to dominate the Republican nominating process. But is that, in fact, an accurate answer to the question or is that simply just an attempt at right wing sloganeering by someone who rests their entire campaign on negative attack? Does President Obama "pass" the test and deserve re-election?
Quite a few folks have taken a stab at answering the question since former Massachusetts Governor Romney brought it up and TV commentators started replaying that old Obama interview. Most start out with a conclusion based on their ideology and work backwards. Admittedly, I myself am an elected Democrat, but I did want to take some time to try and analyze the question myself and try to look at it through (as) objective a lens as I could summon.
So what do we look at when answering the question? As a Democrat, I could be disappointed at the failure to close Gitmo, or the failure to get a public option into the Healthcare Affordability Act, and so on. And if you look at the Republican talk on television and radio, Obama couldn’t even kill Osama correctly and should be blamed for the scandal of saving our domestic auto industry when the correct thing to do would to have been to let the entire industry fail in an act of anti-union spite.
None of that really makes sense as a frame for grading whether the president deserves or will get re-election. If you’re in the crowd that cannot be pleased by anything less than a Bernie Sanders liberal or if you’re part of the crowd who has never considered any Democrat as a "legitimate" president, you by definition can't be grading the president. Your mind was made up long before Obama was even running for president the first time. Nothing useful can come of analyzing results-oriented science.
Since we are talking about grading whether the president deserves re-election, and by extension, we are trying to use that grade to predict whether President Obama will "pass the test." It makes sense to get away from the party bases and try to examine what those independent, swing voters, and persuadable Democrats and Republicans will look at. They’re the ones who will be delivering not a polling progress report, but the actual "pass/fail" grade after all.
Here’s what they are likely to look at:
Jobs = B-
Most is made of this area because, in the Obama interview, Obama himself stressed the need for unemployment to be lower than when he started his term in order to get re-elected without a fight. Republicans like to say that Obama promised unemployment wouldn't go above 8 percent, and it did; they want him fired over that alone. However, that "promise" is a Republican lie - Obama never said that. The reality is that the economy was losing 700,000 jobs a month when he took office, and it was in much worse shape than he and we all were lead to believe during the 2008 campaign.
The Recovery Act did stop the hemorrhaging, but it was too small to do more than cover the wound, yet alone heal it. Both Rs and Ds ironically agreed that to really have produced a net gain in jobs, we would have had to have enacted a larger Recovery Act with New Deal style infrastructure building programs. For good or bad, depending on where you stand on the issue, there were not the votes to do that. Up to now, we have produced 1.2 million new jobs and have had an uninterrupted 23 months of private sector job growth (the longest growth stretch since the tech bubble burst in 1999).
In normal times, that would earn a higher grade. But long term and minority unemployment are still stubbornly high and Obama set the bar on this. Now, the real effect of this on his re-election depends on how the trend continues through the summer and fall. If it continues in the right direction, his grade could be adjusted, but for now he gets a "B-".
The Overall Economy = B
The stock market is up. Corporate profits are up even by Clintons’ or Reagans’ standards. The American auto industry was saved (in my opinion, his biggest long-term domestic feat outside of health care). Our GDP is growing without interruption (even if it's slow growth). Still, economic confidence is shaky and wages (and even common stock dividends, like those more average investors receive) are stagnant. Sure, there are factors beyond his control, like Greece and the Euro, but you take the test in the school the way it's given.
Again, normally it would be a higher grade, but here perception matters more than reality. This is essentially the essay portion of the exam. Grading is subjective. The perception of the grader is more important than the reality of the statistics. If things improve and if unemployment breaks below the 8 percent barrier, the grade could go up. If unemployment edges up as it often does in the summer and then sticks in the fall, it will likely drop.
America's Standing in the World = A
Bin Laden, Somali Pirates, Libya, the Arab Spring, ending the war in Iraq, the wind down of Afghanistan, a willingness to confront China, and economic cooperation has lead to a general feeling we are leading again, rather than demanding tribute. Here's where Republicans have the hardest time attacking Obama. That said, while voters always list this as one of the most important issues they look at, it is the least important of the important issues. An A is still an A, but don't overweigh it. Bush Sr. was also an excellent foreign policy president and lost re-election with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than any sitting president in a hundred years.
Governing or “Passing legislation that matters” = C+ or "Incomplete"
The first two years in office have been offset by gridlock for the last two years. Sure, there was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Healthcare Affordability Act (despite the PR rollout on that being absolutely terrible), and the Recovery Act in the past four years, but there was the debt ceiling standoff, the failure of the DREAM Act, and the payroll tax cut in the last two as well. Obama seems to have recovered his footing with the passage of the payroll tax cut and has finally found his voice in divided government. Learning the art of constructive confrontation (something Clinton was a master of) has actually helped him pass about 2/3 of his jobs package to date.
Compare this to the Healthcare Affordability Act, which, as a whole, is unpopular but each the popularity of each provision individually is quite the opposite. Breaking the logjam of filibustered appointments and calling the bluff of pro forma sessions of Congress has helped the president as well. Still, the self-inflicted wounds of pursuing compromise with those interested only in appeasement dragged his signature Healthcare Affordability Act through the mud and took us to the brink of default. If the president can continue this path of constructive confrontation, I'm willing to give him an incomplete and not count it against his overall "GPA" but, as it stands, I give him a C+.
Bridging the Partisan Divide = D
I, for one, wish I could give him a higher grade. Many in my party actually didn't want that divide bridged. They wanted the same type of partisan governing that W and Rove took to new heights - the only difference is they wanted the Democrats and the left to be dictating the terms. Certainly, I would be hard pressed to think of a single elected Republican interested in trying to step away from the hyperpartisan divide. Absolutely none of the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010 were interested in it. The Republicans have been willing to tank the economy to take back power. That said, many in the middle really wanted us to step back from this abyss.
No matter whether it was that Obama overestimated his mandate and his abilities or underestimated his enemies’ unwillingness to engage on this issue, this campaign promise and theme has never materialized. It's not so much a broken promise, since he didn't turn his back on it as W turned his back on "being a uniter, not a divider." But he did not, by any measure, succeed. I considered giving him an "F" but held back. I think that with the new "constructive confrontation" strategy, as well as Obama's own move to bypass the Congress and take the public matters back (to) the "street" (i.e. public opinion), he’s started to pull things back (to) the center of American voters. We could be back in failing territory by November however, but for now I'll give him a passing grade - barely.
Overall, I’d give President Obama a passing grade.
If the pundits are correct, and independent voters look at the re-election of a president in this way, then Obama's chances on his own look good. Certainly, the trend line looks like he's improving. That's without the additional blessing of having what seems to be a flawed opponent (either a far, far right opponent or an out-of-touch rich guy with a dog strapped to the roof of his car), but nine months is forever in an election cycle. Let’s check back in September.
Reprinted from State Senator Curt Thompson's (D-5th) blog. Also, check the Senator out on Facebook and Twitter.