These 4 Miscalculations Will Define Obama’s Presidency

Source: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Heaping one criticism after another on the president of the United States is common practice in American political culture. Not every judgement is warranted; a great deal of the animosity that engulfs the current political environment is the result of the hyper-polarization of Washington. But, regardless of whether criticisms are deserved or are simply the byproduct of events way beyond the president’s control, no executive gains praise for “passing the buck.” That term, popularized by President Harry S. Truman, who kept by his desk in the Oval Office a sign reading “the buck stops here,” refers to the act of attributing blame or responsibility to another party, rather than oneself. By keeping that sign by his desk, Truman essentially told the public that, as president, he would not shift blame to his political opponents or others in his administration. By comparison, President Barack Obama has a tendency to claim he had no knowledge of impending problems or that he underestimated their severity.

Of course, for his opponents, who track the instances he says he “didn’t know” or “underestimated,” Obama’s rhetoric has become a rallying point. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who has a particularly acrimonious relationship with the president, tallied key instances in which the president claimed he underestimated the problems plaguing the United States, from the economy to the terrorist group ISIL. “The way President Obama sees it, he’s never wrong. What may appear to be his mistakes or failures are really just a series of misunderstandings and underestimates,” argued Boehner in a September press release.

There is no arguing those phrases — “we didn’t know” and “we underestimated” — stand among the most hackneyed explainers used by the Obama White House. But Boehner has an interest in painting the president in a negative light — and because the House Speaker’s critique has political motivations, as do all in Washington, his list bears examination.

Obamacare

ObamacarePublicOpinion

Obamacare “proved as costly politically as we expected – probably actually a little more costly than we expected, politically.”

November 7, 2010,

“Another mistake that we made I think was underestimating the difficulties of people purchasing insurance … and somehow expecting that that would be very smooth.”

November 14, 2013

“[W]e probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should.”

November 19, 2013

Republican lawmakers saw the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act as symbolic of the ills of the Obama White House, and so it is no surprise that the much-hated health care reform took up three spots on Boehner’s list. The fact that Affordable Care Act passed into law without a single Republican vote was seen as proof the Obama administration intended to freeze the GOP out of the legislative process. And when software glitches and design flaws disrupted the rollout of the technical infrastructure designed by federal contractors, including the federally-facilitated exchanges created in states that chose to not participate in design of their own marketplaces, the GOP saw evidence that Obama was a better speaker than executive.

And the political upheaval created by the passage of the Affordable Care Act polarized the public in a way that Obama likely never anticipated when he was a candidate searching for a viable campaign issue. In the first year — which saw not only the implementation of the reform’s cornerstone provision, the individual insurance marketplaces, but also a massive expansion of insured Americans — public opinion hardly budged. Survey data continues to show how politically charged the Affordable Care Act remains. Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking Poll continues to show that Americans are more likely to hold an unfavorable view of Obamacare than a favorable one. At last reading, 40% of the American public saw the health care reform law positively, while 46% see it negatively. And while the negativity surrounding the health care reform and its yet-to-be-implemented insurance marketplaces did not push Obama out of the White House in the 2012 presidential election, the fact remains that of the 34 House Democrats that voted against the Affordable Care Act, only three remain in office. Although millions have benefited from the reform, the anger born of Obama’s failure to keep his “if you like your plan, you can keep it” promise helped the GOP secure its massive midterm congressional victory. Late last month, the House conducted its 56th vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety or in pieces, meaning all GOP lawmakers that have campaigned on a pledge to ax Obamacare have made good. Still, the vote was largely meaningless, as Obama will never sign such a bill.

Even though enrollments eventually surpassed the Obama administration’s highest target, for Republicans, the technical glitches reflected the administration’s great incompetence. True, the smooth functioning of the marketplaces’ interface was a monumental task, but it was essential to the success of Obamacare. Shopping for insurance was meant to be as easy to use as Amazon.com — a point Obama made often, ahead of the rollout. But that task was by no means simple. Not only did the web portal need to be a platform for insurance consumers to comparison shop between plans with different degrees of coverage offered by different insurers, but the prices shown enrollees have to reflect subsidies. And to determine whether an applicant is eligible for the subsidy or whether they can buy medical coverage on the exchanges, the databases of seven U.S. Agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security, must be linked.

Eventually, Obama admitted, “there’s no sugarcoating it: the website has been too slow,” referring to the hours-long wait times and site crashes caused by design flaws. But that admission obscured the real problem. “They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business,” David Cutler, a Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, told The Washington Post. “It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills.” That insularity was a central factor in the problems that plagued the launch of the insurance exchanges.

The congressional hearings that followed that disastrous rollout uncovered a number of additional problems; the software that assigned particular identities to enrollees and kept their personal information linked to those identities was overwhelmed by the high traffic numbers, preventing customers from logging in and creating accounts; and the web portal’s data center had inadequate capacity and poorly-written computer code by contractors pressured to rapidly adjust to changing government specifications. Of course, blame was shuffled between Obama, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the federal contractors.

Throughout the debate the administration’s competency, Obama maintained that despite the technical glitches, Obamacare as a whole was working as planned.

And data now suggests that Obamacare is somewhat of a success, especially considering the fact that 11.4 million Americans are newly insured through the exchanges. But that does not excuse the technical problems that plagued the October 2013 rollout of the reform’s cornerstone provision.

Economic Policy, February 14, 2012

“[T]his recession turned out to be a lot deeper than any of us realized. … [E]verybody underestimated it. … So, the die had been cast, but a lot of us didn’t understand at that point how bad it was going to get.”

Obama took a lot of criticism for admitting during an interview with Atlanta’s local Fox affiliate WAGA-TV that the recession was worse than he had expected. At that time, the United States economy had been expanding for nearly two and a half years, but the headline unemployment rate still stood at a painful 8.3 percent. The labor market was showing signs of improvement — private-sector employment grew by 257,000 in January and the unemployment rate had dropped 0.8 percentage points since August of the previous year; gross domestic product had expanded at a “comfortable” annual pace of 2.8 percent in the final months of 2011, indicating that year’s economic slowdown was ending; corporate profits stood at record highs, while the American automobile sector was gaining momentum. However, even though GDP had exceeded its pre-recession levels and the labor market had recorded 22 straight months of job creation gains, the economic recovery was not lifting all boats. Economic data revealed a great divide between corporations and people.

As a candidate running for president in 2008, Obama made some very lofty and specific pledges. One, of course, was that his health care reform plan would “bring down premiums by $2,500 for the typical family.” Others dealt with future prosperity. And while he never promised that the economic recovery would be completed during his first term in office, the viability of the pledges he did make — like the all-encompassing campaign tagline of “hope and change” — were dependent on a return to economic normalcy. And while it would be huge exaggeration to say the country’s economic should be blamed on Obama, nevertheless, his presidency was shaped by the financial crisis, and for that reason his detractors point fingers to his misguided assignment of the economic recovery.

But success depends on the lens used to examine the president’s record. Some cite the president’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, which was approved by Congress in February 2009, as the much-needed impetus of recovery. That Recovery Act, as the stimulus package was named, cut taxes, extended unemployment benefits, and expedited funds for public work projects. The $241.9 billion the government injected into the economy did help bump GDP to a 3.9 percent annual rate in 2010, while job losses halted March 2010 and the headline unemployment rate ticked down from its 2009 peak of 10.2 percent. But when the funds were completely spent, by the end of March 2011, growth slowed and the unemployment paused at 9.1 percent.

Because economic growth remains uneven and the lingering scars on the labor market still show, other political players and watchers will point to the fact that Obama’s first years in the oval office saw the weakest economic recovery in American history. The report released by his top economic advisers in early January 2009 predicted unemployment would not rise above 8 percent if the stimulus plan was implemented, but that proved to be a far too optimistic assessment. And, during his first year as president, Obama promised to “cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office,” “lift two million Americans from poverty,” and “jolt our economy back to life.” Of course, those were exceptionally optimistic goals that left Obama open to criticism from the GOP.

Terrorism August 9, 2014

“Did we underestimate ISIL? I think that there is no doubt that their advance … has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates.”

The fact that the president referred to the Islamic militant group now in control of a sizable chunk of land spanning Iraq and Syria, which is now the target of a U.S.-led bombing campaign, as a “JV team” in early January 2014 has proven to be woefully inadequate. Obama does not see this misstatement as an error — although his critics do. “Under fire for being out to lunch while the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) was taking over large swaths of the Middle East, the president is hoping that if he blames faulty intelligence estimates often enough, no one will notice just how incompetent his foreign policy prowess has proved,” claimed Boehner in a September 29 press release.

Instead of acknowledging the underestimation, Obama has employed several defenses. On NBC’s Meet the Press in early September, moderator Chuck Todd noted that the president’s views were a “long way from when you described them as a JV team,” and asked if that assessment was based on “bad intelligence” or misjudgement. “Keep– keep– keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL,” Obama responded. “I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally.” The origin of that poor assessment was a profile conducted by The New Yorker’s David Remnick. When Remnick noted that “flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Fallujah, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too,” Obama brushed the concern aside. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he noted. When reminded of this later, the president explained that his assessment was meant to be inclusive of all the militant extremist groups in the region. And, it should be noted that at the time of The New Yorker interview, ISIS was not a household name, and perhaps the president felt no need to make a distinction. Still, a number of news publications had cataloged how ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, and so it was clear Remnick was referring to ISIS.

However, in an interview with 60 Minutes, the president did not put the burden of misunderstanding on the American people. Rather, he shifted the blame to his intelligence advisers. According to Obama’s version, the U.S. intelligence community had been caught off guard by the Islamic State’s rapid expansion. He said that James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence, was at fault. “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” he said. But it has been well chronicled that U.S. did tell the president that the threat presented by ISIS was growing. As CNN reported, a top intelligence official told Obama more than a year ago that the group had “ruthlessly grown in effectiveness,” while in October a senior administration official said it represented “a major and increasing threat” — to the region and the United States.

Many lawmakers and members of Washington politics believe that information should have been enough. “As commander in chief, you’re accountable. You’re the one who is responsible whether the good ship of state is doing it right,” former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania told the National Journal. Sestak, the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to Congress, was referring to the warning that Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn gave about the growth threat posed by ISIL (as the group is also known) in a February 2014 congressional testimony. “The administration failed, and the president is the captain of the ship and should assume accountability.”

Israeli/Palestinian Conflict — January 21, 2010

“This is just really hard … If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

When Obama admitted to Time’s Joe Klein that his administration had not misjudged the seriousness of the political problems dividing Israel and Palestine, he was a new president. In fact, the interview was meant to severe as reflection on Obama’s first year as president. Given the limited time Obama had served as president, at this point, it may not seem that unreasonable that he had assumed a diplomatic solution could be found with enough concentration.

But given how long the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted and how many international attempts have been made to forge a peace agreement, his comments seem naive, even without the retrospective the past four and a half years provide. And, indeed, the day preceding the publication of Klein’s interview, Time published a list of “Obama’s Accomplishments,” which noted under the foreign policy heading that “in terms of substantive successes on the world stage, however, it has been a trying year for Obama.” Israel, in particular, was highlighted as example of where Obama’s community-focused style of foreign policy had not proven to be effective. “Israeli relations with the Palestinians have deteriorated, after some initial optimism,” noted the article. But Obama should not have any delusions regarding the problems standing in the way of a peace agreement. As Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media mogul, noted in a September 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times, “when [Obama] visited Israel as a candidate he saw firsthand how vulnerable Israeli villagers were to rocket attacks from Gaza.” However, Saban also made the argument that the president’s “support for Israel’s security and well-being has been rock solid.” And that assessment suggest that even if he had been overly optimistic about his administration’s ability to ink an agreement between Israel and Palestine, Obama at least was keeping the United States’ alliance with Israel strong.

If what Saban wrote of Obama was true, it could be argued that Boehner was merely casting a wide net when he drew up his list. Yet, for the Republican party, Obama’s short comments on Israel in that early 2010 interview can be described as the beginning of the president’s timidity on the foreign stage and the ineffectiveness of his policies. Boehner’s criticism of the president is tied into the Republican party’s broader problems with the foreign policy objectives set by the president. Furthermore, any critique of how Obama’s relationship with Israel must include a footnote; the six years of Obama’s presidency have seen the failure of numerous U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the outbreak of hostilities on several occasions, including the recent 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip.

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