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Obama lists financial rescue as 'most important thing' of his first year
"We don't feel that the core elements to help the American people have been compromised in any significant way," Obama said. "Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything I want? Of course not. But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government."
Obama highlighted some of the less well-known measures that he said "in a normal legislative year would be considered really big achievements." Those include bills to ensure equal pay, expand hate-crimes categories, extend health insurance to an additional 4 million children, place stronger regulations on tobacco products, reform the military procurement process and implement consumer credit-card protections. He also noted the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.
But David M. Kennedy, a presidential historian at Stanford University who has written about Roosevelt, characterized some of those measures as "Clintonesque -- trying to make a big deal about small things." He said Obama's stimulus plan showed that "the president and Congress learned some lessons from the Great Depression, that you had to counterpunch really hard."
"But it remains to be seen, in my view, what the health care will look like," Kennedy said.
A full plate from the start
On taking office, Obama, a former senator whose senior staff members include many Hill veterans, settled on a legislative strategy that departed from those of his predecessors. He decided that rather than pursue big pieces of legislation one at a time, his administration would seek health-care reform, a cap-and-trade bill, financial reform legislation and other measures simultaneously.
"In some ways, we just didn't have an option," Obama said. "Because of the financial crisis, we had to make a series of decisions that, back in 2007 when my presidential campaign began, were not at the top of our list."
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian specializing in Johnson's tenure, said that despite Democratic majorities, "the fact he's [Obama's] put forward such a bold agenda has made it exceptionally difficult to get bills passed."
Dallek said Roosevelt had the "advantage" of a huge crisis to bridge partisan division over the New Deal. Johnson, he said, was "able to invoke [John F.] Kennedy's legacy" to push through civil rights and Medicare legislation.
"While Obama has had a crisis, it's not the sort that the opposition would give in to his demands," he said. "Obama, in a sense, has had a tougher assignment than either Roosevelt or Johnson had. The fact that he's getting so close on this health-care bill speaks to his talent of leadership, doggedness and determination to put across the biggest piece of social legislation since Social Security."
In the interview, Obama said he "could have put off" health-care reform, adding: "There are some people who would say that wouldn't be such a bad thing."
"Given how difficult fighting the special interests has been on Capitol Hill, it's clear that if we hadn't decided to make a bold step forward this year, we probably wouldn't have had the political capital to get it done in the future," said Obama, who has argued that health-care reform is essential to the country's future fiscal and financial health.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that "the word that comes to mind" in assessing Obama's first-year legislative record is "incompleteness."
He added: "That reflects a huge agenda and perhaps an arrogance about how much he thought he could do. But he really thought there was that much of a wind behind him, and he certainly had a lot of people who knew an awful lot about Congress who helped him make that decision."
Obama acknowledged that cap-and-trade and financial reform legislation -- both of which the House has passed -- would carry over into the midterm election year, when political calculations slow down Congress. "I think there's no doubt that energy legislation is going to be tough," he said. "But I feel very confident in making an argument to the American people that we should be a leader in clean-energy technology, that that will be one of the key elements that will drive growth for years to come."