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The Accomplishments, Shortcomings Of Obama's First Term


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. This Sunday, Barack Obama will be officially sworn in for his second term as the 44th president of the United States. But today as Washington gears up for four more years, we wanted to look back at the first term, from health care to gay marriage to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

So what did you see in Obama's first term that surprised you? Not just anything that surprised you, something that came out of the White House. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is Or just join the conversation at our website, go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the controversy surrounding Quentin Tarantino's hit movie "Django Unchained." But first, an honest evaluation of President Obama's first term. Frederick Harris joins us, he's a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. He's also the author of "The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics." He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.


HEADLEE: You said before the - before the election that you were disappointed in Barack Obama's first term. What exactly disappointed you?

HARRIS: Well, what disappointed me, actually, is the lack of focus or attention on the legacies of racial inequality in this country. And the president, as a candidate for most of the period in 2008, didn't talk about race, but there were moments, moments particularly in 2007 when he was down with black voters, competing with black voters with Hillary Clinton, that he did make some bold proposals, particularly around criminal justice reform.

The American people tend to have amnesia about events, and this is particularly the case when Barack Obama won Iowa. The speech he gave in 2007 at the historical black college Howard University, the president laid out bold proposals for criminal justice reform. What he promised was a federal-level racial profiling act. He promised loan forgiveness to college students and law students who decided to become public defenders. He said he would encourage states to do away with the death penalty.

There was virtually no discussions around criminal justice reform, although the president did sign into a law the Fair Sentencing Act, where it narrowed but did not eliminate the disparities between crack and cocaine sentencing. So within that regard, when we look at his first term, it seems that there was much more focus on managing racial conflict than dealing with the legacies of racial inequality.

This was the case with the Henry Louis Gates affair. Professor Gates, who's at Harvard University, was arrested. The president said the local police there acted stupidly. And then since there was so much pushback, there was a beer summit held but no consequential policy focus.

And just last year the Trayvon Martin case, where the president could only sort of mumble, well, if I had a son, he'll look like Trayvon, but no sort of focus or teachable moment about those policy promises he made when he really needed the support of black voters.

So in many ways there was not that much as a surprise, but more disappointment.

HEADLEE: You're hearing the voice of Frederick Harris, a professor of political science and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. I want to bring James Fallows into the conversation. He's a national correspondent at The Atlantic and also a weekly contributor to WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and he joins us from his home in Washington, D.C. James, nice to speak with you again.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Celeste.

HEADLEE: You've written about two conflicting narratives in Barack Obama's presidency. Do they somehow overlap with what Frederick Harris here was talking about?

FALLOWS: I think they do, and the two narratives you're referring to is I did a long piece about a year ago, which I then revised, essentially on whether Obama should be considered as a chess master who's thinking ahead 12 steps in his negotiations with foreign powers and with the domestic constituency and with the Republican opposition, or should he be considered a pawn who is behind the curve in thinking about how people are going to stand up to him.

And I argued that on balance he was more ahead of events than behind them, but it's a very, very complex balance, where his presidency began in ways that he didn't foresee, with the financial collapse, and where any presidency is a mixture of very closely aligned pluses and minuses.

And in regard to the question of whether President Obama as the first nonwhite president has done enough on the racial justice front, one of the points I made is that almost every president ends up disappointing and, in a way, betraying the people who are his most fervent original base because once he gets in office - that when he's running for office, he can promise anything; once he becomes president, it's a matter of all the finely sliced compromises any president has to make.

HEADLEE: Let me go back to you, Frederick Harris, because I have to say, if there was one thing that surprised me, and maybe I've naive, after all these years of being a journalist, but I was surprised by the opposition, not that people would oppose his policies but that many of his policies I would consider to be centrist. Many left-leaning liberals were very upset at how centrist his proposals were, and yet sometimes it felt as though there was opposition simply to whatever he proposed.

HARRIS: Right.

HEADLEE: And does that kind of temper your disappointment to any extent?

HARRIS: Well, it does a bit. I mean as the first black president in an environment, in the political environment that's been not only polarized by partisanship but also polarized by race, and this happened before Barack Obama came into office, of course, certainly there's going to be that tension there.

But again, I just want to go back to when the last Democrat was in the White House, who was called a liar, a cheat and was...

HEADLEE: President Bill Clinton.

HARRIS: Bill Clinton. And was impeached. And the way he was treated, in fact, he was dubbed by Toni Morrison, the writer, as the first black president because of the way that he was being treated by the Republican Party and conservatives. So that's just to say that that environment always exists, particularly for Democrats, and this goes back from '64 campaign in opposition to the Civil Rights Act with Senator Goldwater, all the way to the '72, to the '80s with the 1988 campaign, where Willie Horton, the black man who was let out of prison and raped a white woman, was used to undermine that candidacy.

So what I'm saying is, is that that kind of discourse has always been a part of the political landscape for decades. Yes, it was heightened under Barack Obama, but my point is, is that that should not be used as an excuse to address these issues. If it's always used as an excuse, nothing can get done.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go to you, James Fallows, and in the balance, is there a way to objectively weigh Barack Obama's first term? I've seen lists of legislation that Barack Obama's White House has passed, as opposed to others, the number of bills he's gotten signed. Certainly I think it was a surprise to everyone that Barack Obama's health care passed; it was quite a surprise to me, anyway.

How do you examine this objectively?

FALLOWS: Well, first let me make a meta-point about how objective we can be about presidents' first terms. And then my assessment would be - one of the reasons I wanted to do my big Atlantic piece before the elections last year is that once a president has either won a second term or been defeated in that quest, as the first George Bush was and Jimmy Carter was, who I once worked for long ago, everything about that president's first term is viewed retrospectively in a different light.

We know how the narrative concludes: the president was rejected, and therefore we think that the balance must have been negative, that it must have been sort of faltering steps. But if he is re-elected, as of course Bill Clinton was and George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, we tend to think there is a larger logic behind these things.

But stepping aside from that, I think that in the purest objective way, we can say there were more successes for failures - than failures for President Obama: number one, the disaster that didn't happen in terms of the world financial crisis; number two, getting the health care bill passed. And now since he's been re-elected, that's going to be enacted.

And I would say number three, doing something that did not seem a gimme four years ago, which is winding up the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you recognize how contentious and traumatic those were five and six years ago, and to have them essentially both on the exit path for the U.S., I think those are significant achievements.

HEADLEE: We're talking about Barack Obama's first term, as we are on the eve of his inauguration for a second term. And our question to you out there listening is: What did you see in Obama's first term that surprised you? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is And let's take a call here from Rob in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Any surprises for you, Rob?

ROB: I was surprised at the significant strides the president has made in improving race relations between Native Americans and the federal government. Not only in signing an executive order to increase coordination between tribal governments - the president has significantly improved health care for Native Americans with the Affordable Care Act and has provided a lot of funding for tribal communities in Indian country, and the signing into law of the Tribal Law and Order Act made reservations much safer.

HEADLEE: I take it you are a member of a tribe, Rob?

ROB: Yes, that's correct.

HEADLEE: And which tribe is it?

ROB: The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

HEADLEE: Well, thank you very much for calling. It's a really good point. That's Rob in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Let's take one more call here. This is from Dennis in Mooresville, North Carolina. What surprises for you, Dennis?

DENNIS: Well, a big surprise to me is Gitmo. I mean, when...

HEADLEE: You mean that it didn't get closed?

DENNIS: That it did not get closed. There are still 166 detainees there. Not only that, I think we authorized something like $150 million worth of improvements to the facility. And all during his first campaign, Obama said that he was going to close Gitmo. Yeah, we were going to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, all that's taking place, but Gitmo is still down there, and to me that's a thorn in Obama's side.

HEADLEE: Thanks so much. That's Dennis calling from Mooresville, North Carolina. And James Fallows, that's kind of the way most people look at the first term, maybe of any president - one positive, one negative.

FALLOWS: Yes, and I think on the Gitmo point, there's an - I would view this in a different way from the expansion of executive authority more generally. I think one area where I personally disagree with the Obama administration has been its continuation in general of the idea of executive authority for drone strikes or whatever, the fact that he didn't go to Congress for the limited Libyan intervention, et cetera, that we had.

I think the Guantanamo case is a different one in that there President Obama can say that he intended to do that, and the Congress blocked him. The Congress would not authorize bringing these prisoners back into the United States for trial. And so there at least he intended to do something and ran into one of many roadblocks.

HEADLEE: Well, we'll take a short break and then have more with my guests James Fallows at The Atlantic and Frederick Harris, author of "The Price of the Ticket." And we want to hear from you. What did you see in President Obama's first term that surprised you? 800-989-8255. Or just send us an email, We'll have more in a minute. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. As the president prepares to once again lay his right hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, it's a good time to look back at his first four year in office. James Fallows from The Atlantic is with me, and we want to hear from you, as well. What about President Obama's first term surprised you? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send an email to Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We've invited two more guests who have paid close attention to Obama's first term. Frederick Harris is author of "The Price of the Ticket," and he offers this critique in the New York Times. To place policy above rhetoric, Harris writes, is not to ask what the first black president is doing for blacks. Rather, it's to ask what a Democratic president is doing for the most loyal Democratic constituency, who happen to be African-Americans and who happen to be in dire need of help. Sadly, when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.

Also joining us now in Studio 3A is Walter Russell Mead. He's a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and the editor-at-large of American Interest magazine. In a recent piece, he reflected on the president's first term and looked ahead to his second.

He wrote this: The war on terror is a historically new, though not completely unprecedented, phenomenon. And given the wide variation in conditions from Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way (unintelligible), it's not surprisingly that finding workable strategies is hard.

The question isn't whether this administration or any administration gets it right the first time or even the second. The question is whether the folks in charge learned from experience and adjust. Good point. Walter Russell Mead, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Good to be here.

HEADLEE: And before I let Frederick Harris go, I wanted to ask both Frederick Harris and Walter Russell Mead the same question. And let me begin with you, Walter. Do you see any overlap in - if there is disappointment on both sides, both the conservatives and the liberals, do you find any intersection there? Either - maybe it's a success.

MEAD: Well, I'm not sure I'm a spokesman for anybody, but I do think when I was listening to the earlier part of the program, some of the shortcomings in terms of you might say deliverables for African-Americans in the first term struck me, you know, really resonated with me.

You know, you look at some of the studies, particularly the way the housing bubble has worked out. There's been a collapse in the net worth of African-American families in the first term. It wasn't all caused by specific policy decisions in the first term.

And also if you look at the way that basically after the stimulus money started to run out and states and local governments were laying off huge numbers of employees, you look at what's happening in the postal service, that a lot of the basis of the black middle class, economically speaking, is in these government jobs and post office jobs, and that employment has really been decimated.

I don't think there's been nearly enough attention paid to what is actually the reversal, economically, of 30 years of economic progress. The gap in household wealth between black and white hasn't been higher in a generation.

HEADLEE: So those might be three disappointments that you have that might overlap someone on the left. So what do you think, Frederick Harris, where - what either disappointments or maybe successes can you agree on with someone on the right side?

HARRIS: Oh, that's a hard question.


HARRIS: But I do want to go back for a moment because I think there are some successes that I do want to mention that haven't been brought up. And that's particularly with the LGBT community and their pressuring the president around issues of gay marriage and the eradication of "don't ask, don't tell." I think that that's absolutely important. It's a milestone.

The president should get some credit in regards to that. And so I think, you know, looking back at that, that I think will be his most important civil rights milestone and something that he should be indeed credited for.

HEADLEE: That's Frederick Harris. He's a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. He's also the author of "The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let me then go to you - James Fallows is still with us, national correspondent at The Atlantic. Do you see, as somebody who kind of stands back, do you see any intersection that's not politicized? I mean I assume once you take politics out of it, as Americans there are successes and disappointments.

FALLOWS: Sure, and I think that's the case for any president. We tend, especially the more they recede into the past, to say this person was all successful, you know, the sainted Ronald Reagan or the effective Bill Clinton, this person was all a failure, the first George Bush, Jimmy Carter, even though the failures accomplished lots of important things, and the successes had lots of setbacks along the way.

I think the - if we have the reality, number one, that politics has become much more polarized over the last generation than before - and I think people on both sides agree with that - number two, that there was going to be resistance and challenge for the first nonwhite president - after Barack Obama's election four years ago, he had - there was a kind of surge in approval for him.

Many people who didn't vote for him felt good about America, that America had crossed the threshold, but that did ebb. But I think what really is going on here in my view, it's been for a long time, as Walter Russell Mead has written over the years too, a very difficult time for the middle of American society.

America as a whole has kept getting richer, but most Americans have gotten poorer over the last generation or so. And the public is under strain in all kinds of ways in the U.S. now. And so I think that President Obama has not been able to address that, as President George W. Bush was not able to and President Clinton was only in certain ways.

So I think that problem for America is reflected in some of the frustration we feel about our politicians of the moment.

HEADLEE: OK, our question for listeners out there is what you saw during the first term that perhaps surprised you. And on the line now from Panama City Beach, Florida, is Paul. Paul, what surprised you?

PAUL: I'm really astounded that the president expended so much political capital on health care in the midst of the worst economic recession we've seen in 80 years. I mean none of the people that caused the recession have gone to trial, much less prison. Nothing has changed. And thanks to Dodd-Frank instead of Glass-Steagall, the banks are still too big to fail. Thank you.

HEADLEE: Thanks so much; that's Paul calling from Panama City Beach. If you want to call in, you can dial 800-989-8255. So James Fallows, when the history books are written, do you think that people will look at Barack Obama's first term as the term of health care?

FALLOWS: I think they will. I think they will, and I actually had a fascinating time, about a month ago I was interviewing - or I was being interviewed by Bill Moyers, who of course had been a young aide to Lyndon Johnson when Medicare was being passed. And he was saying that Johnson told him at that time Medicare was ferociously controversial in 1964 or '65 when the struggle to pass it was going through, and Johnson was saying, you know, 20 years from now, people will assume this was part of the U.S. Constitution, they took it for granted.

I think that once this bill takes effect over the next five or 10 years, people will come to rely on it in the same way that they did on Medicare. I think the emergency President Obama faced, of course, was the economic collapse. I think personally the biggest missed opportunity (unintelligible) a tradeoff in the medical care bill was any kind of climate legislation, which obviously he was not able to do in the first term and may not in the second either.

HEADLEE: Well, Walter Russell Mead, let me take this, the idea of the economic collapse back to you. What worked and what didn't, not just in terms of stimulus, but you heard that caller and his frustration over the fact that many Americans feel nobody was held accountable.

MEAD: Well, I think it's - you know, I mean as Jim said earlier, the fact that, you know, we didn't go into sort of full-blown repeat of 1933 is, you know - considering just how deep the crisis was when the president took office, is something to reflect on. That may end up, arguably, as his greatest achievement.

But I think the stimulus, you know, was problematic in that it - the way it was set up, it didn't actually deliver a lot of stimulus right when the economic crisis was worst. You remember all the stuff about the shovel-ready projects. It turned out there - you know, there's no such thing as a shovel-ready project.

So in a sense, when the emergency was at its worst, there wasn't a lot of money. And you end up getting the president sort of on the political defensive because the headline numbers for the stimulus were very, very large, but the actual impact in terms of jobs and employment was disappointing. So you know, I think that put him off-balance.

In some ways, you know, he came in...

HEADLEE: It was almost an education for the president. I mean...

MEAD: I don't think almost. You know, remember, the president had never run anything other than a campaign. He'd been a senator. He'd been a - you know, had he been - had he had a term as governor of Illinois before becoming president, some of these - so there was a lot of on-the-job learning, as there is with any president, because there's no real preparation for it.

HEADLEE: There's no experience...

MEAD: But he was, generally speaking, had a shorter time at the top of national politics or at the head of large organizations. And so I think we saw in the first six months, especially, I think, you know, in the Middle East as well as on the stimulus, some decisions were made that then, you know, for the rest of the term were - made things more difficult.


MEAD: I think - but I think he's learned a lot on the job.

HEADLEE: Which bodes well I guess for the second term. Let's take a call here from Pat in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The question for you, Pat, is: What did you see during the first term that surprised you?

PAT: It took me a long time afterwards to look back and ask myself: did somehow this horrible bank - international banking crisis save the American car industry? And all of a sudden, it hit me. If they hadn't had to shove all that money on the table for him and Bernanke and Geithner and a few others to try to get the planes flying again because some planes couldn't fly since it was an international commodity, and it was tangled up in all of this, everything was coming to a screeching halt, but he stuck out a pinkie and stole one nickel for the workingman and kept our...

HEADLEE: Well, that's an interesting perspective. Thank you very much. That's Pat calling from Minneapolis. James, let me bring that to you. That's Pat saying that in fact the bailout for the banks made it possible to get a bailout for the auto industry.

FALLOWS: They certainly were part of the same bailout moment in the first year of the administration's dealing with the financial markets...

HEADLEE: Although that was began during the Bush...


HEADLEE: ...administration, yeah.

FALLOWS: Yes. Certainly, the banks were - what was interesting I think about the - while the bank bailout was sort of a reluctant all sides holding their noses - Republicans and Democrats alike - the auto bailout was a much more sharply partisan division where the Obama administration making a choice - this is something we're going to try to do when there were strong voices at the time as we recall of then ex-Governor Romney saying this was a waste, better to have the bankruptcy system just take it through.

So I think that was - the car industry, I think the administration deserved to take as one of its successes. Again, it's a mixed record, but the fact that the industry is now relatively strong and that there are many more manufacturing jobs, especially in the upper Midwest, than there would have been if that decision went the other way. I think...


FALLOWS: ...that's something we can view as a success.

HEADLEE: Fair enough. That's James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Let me go back to you, Walter Russell Mead, who's professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. I look back at the first term and I see somebody who really wasn't all that great with negotiating with the other side. Do you think that he has - that's one of the things he's learned, is to get better at talking turkey with the Republicans?

MEAD: Well, I think, you know, I think he's - in the first two years of the first term when he had a majority in both houses of Congress, you know, it was easier. And then in the second term when - second half of the first term when he had sort of lost the 60 votes in the Senate and had lost control of the House, it was tougher, and there was - the Republicans felt at that point they had momentum, so they were harder to deal with.

Now, we're in a new situation since where the Republicans still control the House, but really, you know, the Democrats won the popular vote for the House, the Democrats increased their strength in the Senate, and the president got a solid re-election, so what we've seen is three different negotiating environments in the three two-year segments of his term.


MEAD: So I think this is actually - he's now going to be in a somewhat easier negotiating position than he was the last two years. We'll see what he makes of it. I think he probably didn't get as much as he could in that first two years...

HEADLEE: On the fiscal cliff, right?

MEAD: Yeah. Where he was really, you know, he really did have a full deck of cards, but he did - but I think he learned a lot in that second two, as did Bill Clinton, you know, who became a much more...

HEADLEE: Fair enough.

MEAD: ...astute political manager when the Republicans took the House.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're talking - taking a look at President Obama's first term as we are here on the eve of the second term officially beginning. James Fallows, I would think that one of the things Barack Obama is learning better how to do is to delegate. And I think the use of Joe Biden in the discussions on the fiscal cliff is an example about that. What do you think?

FALLOWS: Celeste, I agree. I'm going to...

HEADLEE: You want to clear your throat?


HEADLEE: Let me throw that to Walter Russell Mead there. I mean what do you think? In the first term, we talked about him being kind of a neophyte in the president's office. What do you think? Is he getting better at finding the right person for the right job?

MEAD: I think he's establishing a closer relationship of trust with some key people. The White House was I think a pretty controlling White House in the first term...


MEAD: ...since that, you know, you didn't hear a lot of Cabinet people going off and having even a big public profile, and there was definitely a sense that serious decisions about serious matters were made by the White House and then executed by the Cabinet departments. So, you know, I think in that sense maybe what's happened is that Vice President Biden is more on the team now in some ways.

HEADLEE: And you're saying that's a good thing?

MEAD: You know, every president - I don't know how to be president of the United States.

HEADLEE: I don't either.

MEAD: You know, we've had, you know, we've had micromanagers, you know, no one has said that President Obama was trying to schedule the White House tennis courts, which is I guess what people said about Jimmy Carter at one point.


MEAD: On the other hand, nobody gets the sense of him as sort of being like Ronald Reagan, standing very far, aloof and, you know, you guys just go out and do it, and, you know, here's the very general guidelines. He's somewhere in between in management style. But I don't think it was the team of rivals thing that people talked about at the beginning with a lot of struggles between strong will people. That would actually be more like the first George W. Bush administration with Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. There was a team of rivals.

HEADLEE: That did not turn out well.


HEADLEE: Well, in the last couple minutes that we have, let me give you both the same question, which we touched on earlier, but James Fallows, if you were to look at one thing that you think will eventually define President Obama's first term, what would it be?

FALLOWS: Sorry for my medical absence a few minutes ago.



FALLOWS: And I agree with Walter, too, that that nobody start out knowing how to do this job. The first term is usually a discovery of the particular failure each incumbent is going to have because they're all going to be weak at something. And the real question is, do they get better? And I think Obama is getting better. I think the fact that he was able, as Walter was saying, to avoid economic catastrophe - that is a significant achievement and be able to - I guess he will be seen now, it seems possibly, as presiding over the growth of a different sort of natural Democratic majority, something that would have seen very strange 10 or 15 years ago when the Democrats were on the run but actuarially in...


FALLOWS: ...various demographic groups, the Democrats are growing stronger. So perhaps he'll be seen as having been the first president of that new era.

HEADLEE: Well, let me give the last word here to Walter Russell Mead. You have 30 seconds. What will be President Obama's first term be known for?

MEAD: I think whether or not the American people liked health care, Obamacare, by the end of this first term, will probably have a lot to do with how he's viewed.

HEADLEE: That's interesting. Well, after a short break, we're going to turn to the Opinion Page. In the meantime, let me thank our guests. That was Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, also the editor at large of American Interest magazine. He joined us here in Studio 3A. James Fallows is the national correspondent at The Atlantic, also weekly contributor to WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He joins us from his home in Washington, D.C. James, thank you. And, Walter, thank you very much.

FALLOWS: Thank you very much.

MEAD: Thank you.

HEADLEE: After a break, it seems to be - about all we hear about "Django Unchained" and director Quentin Tarantino is controversy. We'll get a roundup of takes on that controversial film when we come back. I'm Celeste Headlee, and it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.