Obama lists financial rescue as 'most important thing' of his first year

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A01

President Obama outlined Tuesday a first-year legislative record that he said rescued the economy and placed it on a path of long-term growth, even as he acknowledged that some unfinished items would probably be more difficult to achieve heading into a midterm election year.

In an Oval Office interview with The Washington Post, Obama rejected criticism that he has compromised too much to secure health-care reform or turned over too much authority to congressional leaders in pursuing his broad legislative agenda.

But some of Obama's signature initiatives, including cap-and-trade legislation and financial regulatory reform, remain unfulfilled heading into an election year likely to be shaped by what he achieved in Congress this year. Obama personally made the case for his legislative record at a time when his approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency and as even some of his most ardent supporters are questioning the results of his congressional strategy.

"Overall, if you had a checklist of promises made, a lot of those promises have been kept," Obama said. "When those things are complete, and I think they will be, we will have achieved a fundamental shift in health care, energy, education and our financial regulatory system that will put this economy on a firmer footing to grow over the long term."

As the Senate prepares to pass its version of health-care reform legislation, Obama's advisers have portrayed a highly successful year pushing important bills through Congress, comparing his record to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Presidential scholars offer a more cautious appraisal, even as they note that Obama is operating in a more partisan time in Washington than those Democratic predecessors had.

Obama's legislative record includes the $787 billion stimulus bill passed in February, a mix of tax cuts, infrastructure spending and aid to state and local governments that was the largest of its kind. It also includes a variety of bills addressing issues of particular interest to his political base that had been languishing for years.

His top domestic priority

Although Obama noted in the interview that "the most important thing we did this year was to ensure that the financial system did not collapse," health-care reform dominated his agenda and will stand as at least one pillar of the legacy he leaves behind. He has come under sharp criticism for the size and shape of the legislation, including from former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, who has said he would prefer that the Senate defeat the bill rather than pass what he considers weak legislation.

In the interview, Obama vigorously defended the legislation, saying he is "not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved."

"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill," Obama said. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill."

In listing those priorities, he cited the 30 million uninsured Americans projected to receive coverage, estimated savings of more than $1 trillion over the next two decades, a "patients' bill of rights on steroids," and tax breaks to help small businesses pay for employee coverage.

Those elements are in the House and Senate versions of the legislation; their competing proposals will have to be reconciled in conference committee next year. The House bill includes a government-run insurance plan favored by progressive Democrats; the Senate version does not. "I didn't campaign on the public option," Obama said in the interview.

Throughout the health-care debate, the president has declined to weigh in with specific preferences. The tactic has exasperated his supporters, but his advisers have deemed it key in keeping the bill moving through a balky Congress. Obama called the public option his preferred choice to ensure broad coverage and provide cost-cutting competition to the private insurers. But he has never demanded that it be part of a final bill.

"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."

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