No, the headline is not wishful thinking.
Yes, Barack Obama’s party took a terrible beating in the midterm elections, and the president’s job approval ratings have been, well, in the toilet for some time (though recent polls show an uptick in public perception of his performance).
But look at the record:
First, the economy is on a roll. Recovery from the 2008 recession has been slower than it should have been because Republican insistence on austerity and tax cuts has hindered growth. Still, the stimulus package of Obama’s first year pumped money into the economy, and in recent months there are signs the economy is primed to take off. The GDP — the nation’s gross domestic product — increased at a very healthy annual rate of five percent in the third quarter of 2014. Under Obama — labelled a “socialist” by his opponents — the economy has added 6.7 million jobs, compared with just 3.1 million under George W. Bush at a similar point in his tenure. Stock prices have soared, with the Dow Jones hitting 18,000. Corporate profits are way up, and all signs indicate continued growth.
The president can’t take credit for all the good news, and there are plenty of danger signs in the so-far uneven recovery. Most of the economic improvement has shown up in the paychecks and dividends of the very rich with little going to the poor and the middle class. Falling oil prices — while good for most of the country and will no doubt boost the president’s poll ratings — may adversely affect some states, such as Texas, Alaska, and North Dakota.
Second, the president’s signature legislative accomplishment — Obamacare — is a triumph after a rocky rollout. The right-wing propaganda machine, led by Fox News, plays up every glitch and hiccup in the system, but the facts are clear: The number of Americans without health insurance fell by around 10 million, despite claims that more people would lose insurance than gain it; premiums are growing far slower than predicted; and there are signs that overall spending on health care is slowing, with specific cost-control measures performing well.
Third, the president’s foreign policy — an area in which critics frequently portray him as a weak and ineffective leader — is looking pretty good. The historic opening to Cuba reversed a senseless policy driven more by domestic political considerations than by rational international policy. The steep and swift drop in oil prices has weakened a number of American adversaries that are heavily dependent upon oil exports, in the process forcing them to take actions that could help the president achieve some of his foreign policy goals. Russia, where the ruble has fallen along with oil profits, may be more reluctant to launch revanchist policies and more likely to abide by a ceasefire in Ukraine. Iran shows signs of more flexibility in talks over its nuclear program and appears to be cooperating indirectly with the United States in attempts to stem the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq. Venezuela, another country dependent on high oil prices, has seen its influence in the Caribbean diminished, which may in part explain Havana’s willingness to open relations with Washington. Falling oil prices also weakens the finances of the Islamic State.
Again, the president can’t take credit for all this; many factors outside his, or anyone’s, control determine oil prices. He may be just the lucky beneficiary of good fortune. But as the great Branch Rickey — the man who brought Jackie Robinson into baseball — once said, “Luck is the residue of design.”
Fourth, let’s not forget Ebola in assessing the president’s good year. Remember Ebola? It has vanished from the headlines so quickly that it is hard to remember the panic of a few weeks ago when some politicians suggested banning all travel to and from West Africa, imprisoning and quarantining travelers, and closing the border with Mexico (why that made sense is anyone’s guess). Well, the health experts on the president’s team, relying on conventional and time-tested methods of controlling epidemics, performed very well in preventing the spread of the deadly disease and reassuring the public.
Finally, a number of presidential actions taken in 2014 will cement his legacy. The Cuban rapprochement is one example. Another is the historic climate agreement with China to cut greenhouse gas pollution. A third is the president’s executive order on immigration. History likely will look kindly on a president who gave voice to compassion and decency in easing the burdens on undocumented workers with clean records and families in this country.
Yes, it was a very good year for Barack Obama.
Happy New Year, Mr. President.