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Conference Examines Obama Accomplishments, Failings

By Mike Unger

James Thurber

More than halfway through his first term, how has President Obama handled the job he won in historic fashion and hopes to hold through 2016?

That’s the central question of Obama in Office, a new book edited by American University professor James Thurber, and it was the topic of the April 6 conference sponsored by AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and the Center for American Progress.

During the campaign Obama often criticized lobbyists and lamented the outsized role they’ve come to play in Washington. He promised to change the system, a vow Thurber said was easier said than done.

“In reality it hasn’t changed much,” he said. “We’ve had increased expenditures in lobbying. He has not changed partisanship in politics. He has made some improvements in transparency. The process in this democracy is the same. It’s messy, it’s pluralistic, it’s ugly to watch unless you’re a political scientist. I love it.”

Panelist after panelist noted the dire circumstances under which Obama entered the White House. The economic collapse and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were problems Obama inherited, but along with conflict in Libya, the deficit, and budget battles with the Republicans they are issues he now owns.

“This is unprecedented in terms of the amount of activities that are [happening] simultaneously,” said Rudy deLeon, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress.

Breakdown in Communications

Ron Elving is the senior Washington editor for NPR News. He noted a 2010 Bloomberg News poll that showed prior to the midterm elections likely voters believed that the economy had shrunk, taxes had risen, and the hundreds of billions of TARP dollars already had been lost. None of that is true, he said.

“How could there be so much disconnect?” he said. “Somewhere along the line the extraordinary communication between Barack Obama and the American electorate was lost.”

Elving was one of several speakers at the conference who voiced surprise and disappointment in the performance of the Obama administration’s communications organization.

“When we have a new president coming into office, we worry about whether their skills are up to the job,” said Scott Lilly, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “I admit I did. The one area where I did not think he would have a problem was communications, and that’s turned out to be a critical one. I think one of the great miracles of the first two years was the passage of the health care bill following the drubbing it took in the press.”

Obama and Women

Obama’s creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls and the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues showed a commitment to gender equality, said Jennifer Lawless, director of AU’s Women and Politics Institute.

“It’s a major step in the right direction, but in terms of specific changes things are a little bit fuzzy,” she said.

He also nominated two women to the Supreme Court and several to his cabinet.

“There’s no question that when there are options in front of the administration including women they’re willing to move forward,” Lawless said. “There just needs to be more in terms of recruiting women candidates.”

There are many ways to judge the first two years of the administration, Thurber said. But one metric in particular could be the key to his electoral fate in 2012.

“How do we assess President Obama and his administration?” asked Thurber, director of CCPS. “One could look at legislation. There are probably 350 pieces of legislation that have passed, but what’s the outcome? He wanted to be the first post-partisan president. He goes into this period of time with approval at 49 percent. Many people think it’s hard for a president to get reelected if you drop well below 50 percent.”