Debating President Obama's First Year On The Job

When he entered office last year, President Obama was greeted with two wars and a tanking economy. But while the nation's first black president has made some strides, he’s also had a fair share of challenges. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks to journalist Farai Chideya, columnists Ruben Navarrette and Riehan Salam about President Obama’s first-year report card.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Im Lynn Neary, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

A little later, well find out how Africa and the Caribbean are helping Haiti regroup from the devastating earthquake last week. Well also hear from our moms panel about how parents might have more spare time than they realize. Thats coming up.

But first, exactly one year ago today, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

(Soundbite of inauguration speech)

Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Supreme Court): And will to the best of my ability...

President BARACK OBAMA: And will to the best of my ability...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Pres. OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: So help you God?

Pres. OBAMA: So help me God.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NEARY: But a year after that historic moment, President Obama is confronting low approval ratings and criticism from both his political foes and allies. And now, he faces a challenging new landscape in Congress. Scott Browns victory in the race to the Massachusetts Senate seat yesterday will end the Democratic Partys 60-vote filibuster-proof majority.

Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): Im Scott Brown.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. BROWN: Im from Wrentham.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. BROWN: And I drive a truck.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. BROWN: And let me just say, let me just say in conclusion, I am nobodys senator except yours.

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: So, whats next for the Obama presidency and where does his agenda stand one year after he took office?

Joining us to discuss that is author and journalist Farai Chideya, syndicated columnist and regular TELL ME MORE contributor Ruben Navarrette and Reihan Salam, a the fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Welcome to all of you to the program.

Ms. FARAI CHIDEYA (Journalist; Author): Thank you.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Fellow, New America Foundation; Author, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream): Thank you.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Thank you for having us.

NEARY: Reihan, let me start with you. As we mentioned, of course, its the presidents anniversary today. But who is celebrating? The Republicans. So, what does this victory, Scott Browns victory, in the strongly the very Democratic state of Massachusetts say about what voters feel about the president now?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that its hard to say that it has any conclusive ideological meaning. I think that there is lot of enthusiasm because theres a lot of frustration with incumbents of all political stripes. And I think that there is a lot of anger thats coming from both the right and the left that the Democrats and Republicans are failing to really get at, failing to really capture effectively.

So, I think that its very unpredictable, very hard to say. This is certainly not good news for the Democrats or for the presidents agenda, but I still think that there are ways he can turn it around.

NEARY: Apparently, a lot of that anger has come from people who are very opposed to health care reform perhaps in any form, but certainly in the form that is being discussed now.

Farai, the irony here is that Scott Brown will be replacing Senator Edward Kennedy who died last year. And he has been his whole life was about overhauling health care policy. Where does this change leave the plan?

Ms. CHIDEYA: Well, you know, first, I want to say - and excuse me for the frog in my throat - that I dont think we really know whether or not this was largely a rejection of health care because there was no exit polling. So we dont know whether these were ideological voters who were truly opposed to health care reform, whether they were people who likes, you know, the winning candidate, dislikes the losing candidate. We just dont have enough information. We can certainly say some people to believe that, but there is no question that the overall game has changed on health care.

And now the ball is in the Democrats court to decide what to do. Nick Kristof posted something on his Twitter feed that I thought was very interesting which is he said, the House needs to pass the exact same bill as the Senate. Therefore, there would be no reconciliation needed. Therefore, health care would proceed. And he saw that as the only sort of, you know, kind of good faith option that would avoid these questions of messy political strategies.

You know, but I think that, you know, everybody wants good health care, they just dont know how they want it. And its a lot easier to reject a flawed plan than it is to come up with a workable one. So, I suspect that even some of the people who are responsible for the victory in Massachusetts want some form of health care reform. I wish we had better numbers.

NEARY: Well, I think whats interesting, and Reihan, let me turn to you now. We do know that Scott Brown campaigned on his opposition to the Democratic health care plan. But he was campaigning in Massachusetts which already has a statewide health insurance plan. And its been interesting to hear the conversation coming out of Massachusetts about the concerns people had that their health insurance plan would be undermined by any national health insurance reform.

So, on some level, does this victory perhaps reflect a liberal disappointment in the health care overhaul plan that that was being considered thats being considered now?

Mr. SALAM: Well, it could. But one can also just as easily say that, you know, the view is that Massachusetts achieved its own settlement that bear some resemblance to the Democratic reform model at the federal level in some very broad sense. But actually because this happened in a more homogeneous state politically, where you have this large Democratic majority working with then Republican Governor Romney, you ended up having a much stronger individual mandate, you ended up having much more consensus on how this would work.

And so, its possible that at the state level, you can reach a much more workable compromise toward this form of universal coverage that is much harder to achieve at the federal level. And there are lots of folks, including on the left and on the right, who said that there are many aspects of this reform that are not really workable the way that they might be if you had more in the way of a political consensus that youre likely to have at the level of the state.

So, I dont think that its really so much a left or right issue as, you know, can you make this work at the state level versus at the federal level. And I think its fully consistent for Scott Brown who backed Romney care, you know, before it actually came to pass to say that universal works at the state level not necessarily at the federal level.

NEARY: Ruben Navarrette, how do you see Scott Browns victory affecting the future of the health care reform?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Oh, its huge and not just in health care but in all these issues. Its absolutely the right point that this changes the equation that members of Congress now, Democrats, in fact, are saying lets go slow on health care. Its a game changer, to use that phrase, because there go that Democrats filibuster-proof majority. And its a an important fix, it means that they are going to reach across the aisle and suddenly theyre going to deal with Olympia Snowe again to make, you know, deals with Republicans to see if they can get the extra vote in.

And thats going to mean that death - the absolute, certain death of the public option which is, you know, as far as I and a lot of other people are concerned, is fine with me. I think that that has been the sort of the millstone dragging down the rest of health care debate.

But let me correct, I think, a couple of misperceptions. This is not just about the spin coming out of the White House. This is a weak candidate. This was a local election, all sorts of the same things we heard after Virginia and New Jersey. You know, this idea is from how this is against incumbency. I know Celinda Lake, the pollster for Martha Coakley said, oh, this is really about anti-incumbency around the country.

This is not that. This is a firm and definitive rejection of the Obama agenda which seems, to many people, to be going to far, to fast, at too great a cost, economically. And what I was struck by is a poll that I saw the day before the election that said the 20 percent of Browns voters were disgruntled Obama supporters. People who had supported Obama, but woke up one morning and said, oh, wait a minute this is not what I wanted.

That is really significant. And I think that Obama and the White House needs to take - they need to take that to heart. They need to stop blaming Martha Coakley and realize that it wasnt Coakley that was a drag on Obama, it was Obama that was a drag on Coakley.

NEARY: And if youre just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and were reviewing the first year of the Obama presidency with journalist Reihan Salam, Farai Chideya and Ruben Navarrette.

I want to just focus a little bit for a moment on the question of the public option. Ruben, which you just brought up, because President Obama originally introduced his - when he originally introduced his vision for health care legislation, he immediately drew criticism about the public option. And, of course, that would offer a government-run health care plan. And this is how the president responded to that concern in a speech before joint session of Congress last year. Lets listen to it.

President BARACK OBAMA: Its worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor public insurance option of the sort I propose tonight. But its impact shouldnt be exaggerated by the left or the right or the media. It is only one part of my plan and shouldnt be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.

NEARY: Now, Ruben, you seem to think that that became something that just brought the rest of the plans for health care reform down. But for some...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

NEARY: ...people, by discarding the public option, he gained a lot of criticism in some quarters on the left.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Absolutely.

NEARY: So, was that a strategic mistake...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I think it was.

NEARY: ...to compromise?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, I think it was. And I dont know if thats a compromise. I think that what he said basically was I still support a public option, but if you send me a bill that doesnt have one, I wont veto it. And the people who went nuts over that were not the right wingers, it was the left wingers. It was Al Franken and company, it was Keith Olbermann, others. People started talking at that point about running someone against Obama - as incomprehensive - as inconceivable as that seems to a lot of people, this idea that somehow Democrats would run against Obama from the left. They started saying that after he discarded the public option.

And so, now, if you paid attention to the Senate debate, you - the health care debate - you understand that the Senate bill is really stronger of the two bills in terms of support, stronger than the House bill. It doesnt have a public option in the Senate, does have a public option in the House.

And so its - the momentum has really gone that way. So theres a lot of disgruntled folks on the left, who if they were grading Obama, would give him failing grades across the board on a lot of issues where they think hes governing like a Republican.

NEARY: Farai, let me bring you in on this, because Im curious. Do you think that sort of criticism coming from the left is justified? Or do you think the president has accomplished more than hes being given credit for this year.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Well, you know, the question is not so much whether or not the criticism is justified or unjustified that - or rather, you know, thats not a question that absorbs me as much as this one. Who did people vote for? I think theres a fundamental problem in that a lot of people who voted for President Obama did not really understand his policies and did not understand that he was not a progressive candidate in the typical sense.

He had some progressive ideas and some centrist ideas. And so when it came, for example, to the fiscal crisis in the United States and the way that he dealt with the banks, some progressives were very disappointed. But if they understood a little bit more about who he was before they voted for him, they might not have been so shocked. And so, I think today is a day of reckoning in many ways. Its been - excuse me - one year since President Obama took office and a lot of the people who were more progressive are coming to realize that they essentially created a progressive candidate.

In that book, Game Change - that everyone seems to be reading and certainly selling like hotcakes - theres a moment where the authors describe discussions in the camp of candidate Clinton. And say, you know, you can fight against a man, but you cant really campaign against a movement.

NEARY: Farai, I want you to hold that thought because were...

Ms. CHIDEYA: Absolutely.

NEARY: ...going to have to take a break right now. Were going to continue this discussion and were going to talk a little bit more about the economy when we return. We are talking with Farai Chideya, Ruben Navarrette and Reihan Salam. Stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, well look into how the Caribbean and African nations are helping victims of the massive earthquake in Haiti.

But first, we continue our discussion about President Obamas first year in office. With me are political commentators, Reihan Salam, Farai Chideya and Ruben Navarrette. Farai, lets continue with what you were saying before the short break and making the point that maybe people didnt quite understand who they were electing?

Ms. CHIDEYA: Exactly, I mean, really all I would say to summarize was that, you know, in the book, Game Change they make a persuasive argument that Obama was a movement as much as an individual candidate. And in a movement, people matter, the herd matters.

And so, there was a groundswell of opinion for people who wanted change. They wanted a new administration that was different from the Bush administration. That doesnt mean that they completely understood Barack Obama as a leader and policymaker. Now, they are coming to the reckoning that they may have voted for their ideals, but their, you know, sort of hard, progressive ideals may not have been shared by the candidate.

NEARY: Reihan, lets talk about the economy, because certainly that played a role in the Senate race in Massachusetts. What are your thoughts about the presidents economic agenda? What should he be doing to address the recession and unemployment? Has he done enough?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that the problem is that were in this very uncertain environment. We have a series of really unprecedented things that have happened vis-a-vis the financial sector, et cetera. And so its not a matter of just, well, we pulled lever X and heres how its going to work. And we know exactly whats going to happen to employment levels, et cetera.

My sense is that the Obama administrations approach has been one of experimentation. Lets do our best. Lets also try to bring Congress into the process and thats - its actually kind of a tough thing to navigate because, well, then how do you make that case, for example, a federal stimulus package that really reflected the interests of lots of Democratic legislators and literally three then Republican members of the Senate. I mean, its very hard to really take ownership of something like that and they certainly tried to do that. But again, theres this incredibly uncertain terrain, so its hard not to feel at least somewhat sympathetic.

My own view is that the federal stimulus package was very, very poorly designed in terms of trying to maintain and increase employment levels. But again, I mean, you know, these causal chains are really, really uncertain. So, you know, as someone who is on the right end of the spectrum, I would have liked to have seen something that is more tilted towards an investment tax credit, something more tilted toward payroll tax relief.

But, you know, have we tried that, I have no idea where exactly wed be. I think wed perhaps be in a somewhat better place. But these are really open questions, and I do sense that folks within the administration tried to struggle with them somewhat honestly while also trying to hold on to that Democratic majority, keep folks onside. And thats tough.

NEARY: Ruben, how would you rate the president on the economy?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Not very well. I think I have give him a near failing grade on the economy. The other things hes done correctly - things I think he deserves credit for, sticking to his word on Afghanistan troop surge, you know, starting the health care debate, in fact. But with the economy, he would have done himself so much good. Hed be riding high in the polls. Massachusetts may have gone differently had he just focused in on jobs, jobs, jobs. I mean, you cant lose with that.

And now we, you know, I come from the newspaper industry where its no small thing to talk about people being laid off and, you know, publishers talking about a jobless recovery. We may recover, but its going to be a jobless recovery. Jobs are, obviously, the number one issue, and instead what you see from Washington is a tendency to try to take over things, take over General Motors, take over health care, you know, with the bailouts take over the banks.

Thats not what I think the people of Massachusetts and the people from around the country want. They want to focus in on how can you - what can you do to stimulate job growth in this country. None of those things have worked and it is still pretty dark days ahead, you know, were 10 or 11 percent, almost 11 percent unemployment around the country. And the last figure, I think, was 10 and 10.5 before that.

And now in California, you know, a state - a blue state youre at about 12.5 percent unemployment. So I think, the president from this point on would have done himself a lot - will do himself a lot of good if he can just focus in on jobs, keep it real, keep it down to the basics, what people want. And dont try to tell people what you think they need, but just listen to them and hear what they want.

NEARY: And, Farai, the African-American community and other minority communities have been especially hard hit by the economy - high unemployment rates, high foreclosure rates - what could the president be doing more? What more could he be doing to help minority and other economically disadvantaged communities, and at the same time, not neglecting the needs of the middle class?

Ms. CHIDEYA: Well, you know, this - its been a really fascinating moment where the Congressional Black Caucus kind of hip checked the president and said you cant use nonracial remedies to deal with the fact that there is a racial difference in the unemployment rate and there always has been.

And first of all, the unemployment rate isnt even the unemployment rate. Because of the way that its calculated, you have people who are called discouraged workers. You always have more people unemployed than the typical unemployment rate. And the economist Julianne Malveaux makes the point that the de facto joblessness rate in black America could be as high as 27 percent.

You know, that is staggering. But, you know, this is from, you know, Labor Department statistics. So what I think that, you know, theres an attempt to foster programs like Cash for Caulkers to, you know, get people to take care of their homes because you see a domino effect. When you have a working community, black or otherwise, and people lose their jobs, theyre protecting the housing stock of this country. When they have no money to protect the housing stock, you see the roofs start to go. You see the lawn start to go. You see of course home ownership start to go. And theres this domino effect where the neighborhoods physically degrade when people dont have jobs.

I think that you need to focus on, you know, the government needs to focus on small business creation and maintenance and growth, and also recognize there are a lot of people who are cobbling together economic lives out of various actions that might be viewed as sole proprietorships. A lot of people who were working for companies who now have to pay their own Social Security taxes. What if you cut, you know, if you want to talk about direct relief, what if you cut a break for a certain percentage of the Social Security taxes that self-employed people would have to pay? Those are people who are working who are now taking a hit for working for themselves instead of for a company. There are simple things like that that should be put on a table.

NEARY: And also quickly, Ruben, what about immigration? How would you score the president on that?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, its a mixed message. He keeps saying the right things before Hispanic groups. He talks about how he wants to do it. He wanted to do it in the first 100 days of the first year of the administration. That didnt happen. Now people are already pronouncing it dead for 2010. Im not sure thats necessarily true, but no thanks to the president. I think he deserves some credit for, at least, saying the right things.

But a lot of Hispanics, Luis Gutierrez, in the Congress and others are voicing the same concern that African-Americans are voicing about job growth and joblessness in the black community. Youre not doing enough. And, you know, at some point words arent enough. You need to really deliver on some these promises, and I think thats going to be a challenge for him. He hasnt really delivered on any kind of immigration reform plan. And I think that he should, and I think that he probably owes it to not just to his Latino supporters, but also to the whole country to fix the system thats broken.

NEARY: And finally, Reihan, I wanted to ask about President Obamas response to the earthquake in Haiti. Hes pledged a $100 million. He sent the military to help with relief. Is he doing enough? What more should he be doing, Reihan?

Ms. SALAM: Well, thats really hard to say. I mean, I think that in the grand scheme of things, there are deep questions about whether or not Haiti is in the medium term a viable society for its population of nine million. You saw the administration decide, I think wisely and rightly to allow temporary protected status to undocumented workers from Haiti.

Now thats a very, very controversial move. One of the reasons why we might not see comprehensive immigration reform is that in a time of, you know, economic contraction in times of high economic anxiety, its not obvious that lots of Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, are going to be comfortable with the prospect of a very large immigrant influx.

And I think that Haiti is going to be an issue were going to be dealing with not for the next year, but rather for the next 10 years. And some people have suggested, and I think rightly, that this could be the defining issue of the Obama presidency, certainly one of the defining issues. So are we doing enough? I dont think we fully appreciate the scale of the challenge involved when a country with a population of nine million really sees its human and physical infrastructure collapse over a really short period of time. And so I think thats something were all going to have to deal with for a long time.

NEARY: Okay, we have just a brief time left so, Farai, or Ruben, anything to add to that - on Haiti?

Ms. CHIDEYA: What I would say is that, you know, we have to remember that Haiti paid the equivalent of $20 billion U.S. to buy its own freedom from France when France was its colonial power. This is not a country that had to be this poor. This is a country that could have had earthquake-resistant infrastructure. We cannot continue to keep them in a debtor status when, in fact, they were in the crosshairs of post-colonial payback. So we got to stop looking at them as people who mismanage their country and also look at them in a broader context.

Mr. SALAM: I give the president - I give the president high marks for Haiti.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for all of you for joining us. Farai Chideya is a journalist and political commentator. Riehan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation, and they both joined us from our New York studios. And Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist and a regular TELL ME MORE contributor, and he joined us from San Diego. Thanks again to all of you.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Mr.�SALAM: Thank you.

Mr.�NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

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