Obama's Best, and Worst, Moves

Best and worst moves from president's first year in office

By Eamon Javers
|  Thursday, Nov 5, 2009  |  Updated 6:42 AM CDT
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President-elect Barack Obama speaks with reporters during his first press conference since being elected president. He may risk overexposure.

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Across Washington, political pros are quietly putting together their report cards on the first year of the Obama presidency.

On some issues – like Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran – it’s too early to tell whether they’re political wins or losses. On others – like Obama’s failure to break up the big banks – the judgment is hopelessly clouded by ideology. Where you stand, as in so much of life, depends on where you sit.

But on much of Obama’s presidency, there is a surprising bipartisan consensus on what has worked well and what has not. POLITICO spoke to a dozen political insiders and pulled together this list of Obama's ten best, and ten worst, moves of the year.

Ten Best

1. Letting Congress take the lead on health care.

Funny how times change. For most of the year, this strategic decision looked destined for the “Worst” list. Town hall screamers. Democratic infighting. Obama criticized for no plan of his own. But with health care almost certain to pass, letting Congress take the lead, as messy and painful as it was, is looking like a political winner for the president.

2. Picking Hillary Clinton for secretary of state – and not vice president.

Clinton’s had a couple of stumbles on her current overseas trip, but overall, this remains one of Obama’s savviest moves. It serves a double purpose: it keeps her from serving as an independent power center within the Democratic Party as a New York senator, and it keeps a certain former president from wandering the West Wing. But Bill Clinton’s stature from wandering the world as a global do-gooder can’t hurt.

“The same things that made Senator Clinton a complicated choice for vice president made her an obvious and inspired choice for Secretary of State,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “Namely, the fact that President Clinton already has such established relations with world leaders.”

3. Passing the stimulus bill and continuing bank bailouts

Controversial, to be sure. But leading economists broadly agree that these two mega-doses of taxpayer cash into the economy are pretty much all that’s holding the economy together right now.

“On the domestic front, the one two punch of financial stabilization and stimulus saved the economy from a worsening recession,” said former Bill Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. “Neither was popular, but together they worked.”

The downside is that this gusher of cash has galvanized Obama’s opponents like almost nothing else he’s done – as witnessed by Tuesday’s election results. Still, for now at least, stimulus and TARP look like a win.

4. Nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court

In Sotomayor, Obama picked an eminently qualified jurist and disciplined nominee who thrilled the liberal base and confounded his conservative opposition. He also helped solidify the growing Hispanic vote for his party.

At the height of the nomination fight, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took to his Twitter feed to denounce Sotomayor as a racist. Gingrich backed down, but Republicans will likely hear the echo of little outburst in 2010 and 2012.

5. Taking out those pirates

OK, technically, credit should go to the U.S. Navy sharpshooters whose amazing precision shots killed three of the pirates holding an American cargo ship captain hostage, but Obama as commander in chief looked decisive for signing off on the mission. Plus, imagine if it gone wrong – think Jimmy Carter and crashed helicopters in the desert.

 

 6. Sending Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to China.

The Mandarin-speaking governor was a perfect fit for the U.S. ambassador’s post. But more than that, picking Huntsman sidelined a potentially formidable 2012 rival for the presidency, who hasn’t been heard from in Washington since he decamped for Beijing – exactly what the White House wanted.

7. Firing GM CEO Rick Waggoner

To satisfy the pitchfork brigade, Obama needed to show that there are consequences for accepting taxpayer bailouts, and Waggoner was the perfect candidate to shoulder the blame. Obama probably wishes he had forced a few more CEOs to walk the plank, to counter a public perception that failed bankers got off scot-free.

8. The Cairo speech

Even for a president who mastered the art of the mega-event on the campaign trail, the sweep of his address to the world’s one billion Muslims was ambitious. “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” he said.

“The speech in Cairo was a high moment,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “It signaled a shift.”

Plus, the Egypt trip gave us the priceless images of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s personal aide Reggie Love riding camels at the pyramids.

9. Wooing the media

Obama’s been on the cover of nearly every magazine in America, including such non-political pubs as GQ, People, and Vibe. And he’s impossible to miss on TV: Here’s Obama joking about being black with David Letterman. There’s he’s talking Middle East policy on Al Arabiya. Now he’s killing a fly with his bare hands on CNBC.

Obama’s flood-the-zone strategy paid off as the media largely treated the president with kid gloves all year. “I’m Barack Obama,” he said at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.”

10. Beating up on FOX News

There is nothing – nothing – so delicious to Obama’s liberal Democratic base than beating up on the network that’s home to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. The Obama team’s decision to call out Fox News as “a wing of the Republican Party” was a brush-back pitch of sorts, warning the rest of the media to stay away from Fox’s more negative coverage.

Ten Worst:

1. Obama saying the Cambridge cops acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates.

As Obama took the side of an old friend against a police officer before he even knew the details, he threw gasoline on simmering racial tensions left over from his election. The White House’s hastily cobbled together attempt at a solution – the famous “beer summit” – is probably not what won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

2. Eight percent unemployment? No.

If the stimulus was a good idea, touting the stimulus too much was definitely not.

Obama’s advisers confidently predicted that unemployment would top out at 8 percent if Congress went along with his push for a $787 billion stimulus package. But unemployment hit 9.8 percent last month and 10 percent isn’t far behind.

The White House said that the economy was actually much worse than the advisers would have known at the time. Still, they broke a cardinal rule of politics – under-promise and over-deliver.

3. The Olympics bid

Copenhagen was not so wonderful to Barack Obama. More like the agony of defeat. The trip gave fodder to the White House’s critics to argue that the president remains too close to his Windy City political base, and all the big city machine seediness that implies. Not only that, Chicago’s bid was bounced on a first ballot – so much for the power of the global Brand Obama.

 

4. He’s everywhere, all the time

The downside of the flood the zone media strategy, Obama runs the risk of wearing thin on the American voter. “For awhile it looked like he would be on everything from the Home and Garden Channel to Golf Digest,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “It dilutes the impact of his message and will begin to create voter fatigue from seeing him too much.”

But the White House pushes back hard on this theme – saying the constant stream of invites from Leno and Letterman and the rest shows the public is still interested. 

5. McChrystal outguns Obama

These guys don’t get to be four-star generals without having a finely honed political sensibility, but you’d think the president would be an even better pol than a general.

First Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s go-big troop request was leaked to Bob Woodward – leaker unknown. Then McChrystal used a speech to a London think tank to “pre-but” the case for a smaller force in Afghanistan. By going public with his point of view, McChrystal handed Obama the untenable choice of defying his political base or defying his top general in the field.

6. No earmarks? Well, maybe just a few . . .billion

Obama campaigned hard against earmarks, but in March, he signed a $410 billion spending measure that was laden with more than $7 billion worth of the targeted spending provisions anyway. The president called the bill “imperfect” but didn’t veto the measure, and sent an early signal that he would bend – even on a core campaign priority.

“He had an opportunity to really be different,” said former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “He could have dominated and controlled Washington. But instead, he went along with it. Washington has not changed.”

7. No vetting the vetters

From Tom Daschle’s Town Cars, to Tim Geithner’s Turbo Tax to Bill Richardson’s federal grand jury troubles, Obama aides early in the year seemed incapable of turning up major problems before they hit the papers.

8. Gitmo, Year Two

Candidate Obama campaigned on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, so it seemed to make sense when he set a deadline of January of 2010 to have the facility shuttered. By all accounts, it’s not going to happen. Obama and his team failed to take into account the extreme difficulty of deciding what do with the prisoners there – Congress won’t let them come to prisons here, U.S. allies don’t want them either.

9. Snubbing the Dalai Lama

The White House was at pains to say Obama didn’t snub the Dalai Lama in October when the Tibetan religious leader was in Washington – but it sure looked like he did. Obama’s decision not to meet with him in Washington – even though the White House promised another meeting at a date to be named later – gave ammunition to his critics that Obama was downplaying human rights to appease the Chinese.

10. Beating up on FOX News.

Obama ran as a post-partisan candidate who rejected the old ways of Washington. But attacking the conservative network is just the sort of base building, red vs. blue move Obama seemed to denounce during the campaign. Even some Democrats were scratching their heads, saying it seemed beneath Obama to single out one network – a far cry from the inspirational, bridge-building figure the nation elected one year ago.

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