VPR, “Gotcha” Journalism and Grading Obama One Year In

At the very end of yesterday’s radio segment on VPR, Jane Lindholm sprung a surprise question on me: what grade would I give President Obama after a year in office? (I know, on a radio segment devoted to evaluating the first year of the Obama presidency, why would anyone expect this question?   That’s why Jane is so deviously clever!)

She prefaced her question by noting that I gave my students grades all the time, and presumably they were based on more than opinion, and in fact reflected students’ actual performance.  She also noted that Obama had given himself a B+.

At this late point in the program – there was time for one last question – I had yet to bump the table holding the microphone, burped, coughed or insulted any of the callers – all behaviors characterizing my previous radio appearances – and was feeling pretty darn good.  Then Jane exercised her mild-mannered VPR version of “gotcha journalism” and put me on the spot.

Upon reflection I think there were two mistaken assumptions implicit in Jane’s question:  that my evaluation of students rests on more than mere opinion (hah!) and that it is possible to accurately grade a president while he is still in office, before we can know the outcome of most of his decisions.  Think, for instance, about how “history” will judge George W. Bush’s presidency?  I would think the judgment may differ if two decades from now we see a functioning democracy in Iraq, stability in the Mideast, and oil reserves flowing into the U.S.

And so my initial reaction – the one that played out in my head – was to answer Jane by saying, “No, I won’t give Obama a grade. It’s far too early to do so.  We won’t know the aftermath of some of his major policy decisions, such as escalating the troop presence in Afghanistan, or passing the stimulus bill, or the tactics used to push health care through Congress, for many years.  Moreover, before giving a grade, we need to discuss the criteria by which we should evaluate a president, and that is worth a separate program.  Rather than do a disservice to your listening audience, Jane, and present some simplistic answer, I refuse to answer the question.  Nothing you can say will change my mind.”

Sigh. Of course, that’s not what actually came out. Instead, I uttered a mild protest, gave Obama a grade, and followed that with a lame explanation of the basis on which I arrived at that grade.  It was a pretty simplistic analytic exercise – you can hear the whole sorry mess, including the grade I gave Obama,  here.

However, Jane’s question has inspired me to do better – I’m going to devote an entire post to evaluating Obama’s presidency to date.  As a prelude to that, however, I’m curious to hear what you think.  What grade would you give Obama one year into his presidency, and why? For what it’s worth, I’ve played this exercise with several people, almost all staunch Obama supporters during the 2008 election, and they have been almost uniformly critical of him.  A local Democratic activist game him a “D+”.  Another supporter said he had surveyed his friends – all Obama supporters – and the average grade was a C+.  A third said she’d grade him between a B- and C+.  In fact, of more than a dozen people I’ve questioned – all Obama supporters in 2008 – not one gave him a grade above B-.  These are all people who pay close attention to politics at the national level.

On the other hand, the callers and those who emailed comments to Jane’s show were almost universally positive in their assessments of the Obama presidency to date.  So maybe these disparate reactions are more indicative of differences in the people I hang out with (pessimists all) and those who listen to VPR (those people who live on another, happier, planet.)

Anyway, what’s your take on the Obama presidency? A simple grade will do but it would be nice if you gave a sentence or two by way of explanation. (As always, your comments can be anonymous – no need to provide your name if you don’t want!)

Best answer, as judged by the same grading standards I use with my students (throwing the essays down the stairwell), gets an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt.


  1. For what it’s worth, I would have been 100% fine with your (undelivered) answer. Another option would be “You know how multiple choice tests sometimes have a box to check that says ‘cannot be determined from the information given’? That’s where we are now.”

  2. Olivier – Well, it’s not as if Jane twisted my arm – I’m being a little tongue in cheek with the “gotcha” journalism characterization and the “surprising” nature of the question. It was all in good fun. Nonetheless, had I been able to think more quickly on my feet, I might have eventually stumbled upon some version of your very useful suggested response.

  3. Matt, it all depends if you grade on the curve, or are a grade inflator.

    I would give him an A on the economy, just because we didnt fall of the cliff, and because of the previous administrations mess he is trying to clean up.

    I would give him a B- on foreign policy; a lot of feel good stuff improving our image, but no real concrete results internationally unless you include Haiti.

    I would give him a D- in setting priorities and negotiating with Congress (see Neustadt), put him on probation and tell him to get a tutor immediately.

    I do like your grading system: throw the far right and the far left of congress down the capitol steps and see what happens.

  4. Jack – I’m not ashamed to admit that your answer is far better than the one I gave Jane on VPR!

  5. Well, while you did fall into the echo chamber of political pundits for a few minutes there. Your blog answer redeemed the errors of your “on the spot answer.”

    As for my grade, its tough to truly gage. How can you place a grade on how our nation is now percieved from outside its borders? What about the 85-90% completed healthcare? How was the response to Haitii compared with recent governmental responses to disasters? How far would the economy have fallen off the proverbial cliff if not for Obama’s intervention? Are we really climbing out now, or are we only slowing the decline? History will tell.

    But that is the answer you declined to give on the radio. So, ……. (papers being thrown down the stairs) I’d have to give the president a B+. Thats what I always got in your classes despite the effort or lack there of in my papers. But also because it Neustadt said, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” Based on that, Obama is using his best political weapon (his ability to speak to the people) and is doing an effective job. He has convinced Congress to tackle issues (especially healthcare) that have in the very recent past spelled political suicide (see 1993). That alone is a huge feat. I argue that because of his continual bargaining rather than unilateral action Obama is scoring high. But things can change very rapidly (i.e. 10 months from now.)

    Remember that this is a large ship of state and to completely change its direction requires much more time than has passed for this president. However, in just over a year Obama has managed to put the subjects on the table and begin discussion that will/could eventually lead to a righting of the ship and a proverbial turn from the storm. But up here in New England we always say, “If you don’t like the weathah, just wait a minute.”

  6. Grading Obama assumes that he is working within a system that works. At some future date would you grade not only the president but also the system of shared responsiblities as it now funtions or doesn’t funtion?

  7. Fred – You raise an important point: that Obama’s effectiveness as president depends in large part on how well the rest of the political system is functioning. One frequently cited aspect of this is whether Congress is legislatively “gridlocked” and thus unable to address pressing problems. And, if so, is it any more gridlocked than in previous years?

    This is a complicated question, but we do have some data on legislative productivity. I’ll try to address this in a later post, but thanks for bringing it up.

  8. Professor Dickinson,

    In your radio appearance, you talked a lot about how our expectations for presidents vastly “outstrip their capacity to deliver.” In your opinion, why is there this misconception in America that a President is some sort of super hero who can accomplish anything he wants. Is it because of the pomp and circumstance of the office? The formality and status? The fact presidents themselves try to always portray a commanding persona?

    See: The uproar calling Obama’s “bow” to the mayor of my hometown (Tampa) last week a “sign of weakness.”

    P.S. Chris, Professor Dickinson always gave me a B+ as well and I had him 4 times. No wonder he gave the same grade to Obama.

  9. Gary,

    I think part of it is because presidential candidates feel compelled to promise more than they can deliver. It also reflects the unitary nature of the office – it’s easier to personalize presidential power than congressional power, even if Congress as an institution is more powerful. And yes, the trappings of office – Air Force One, the White House, etc. – help create a perception of power. And in some respects (and under some circumstances) that perception is not a complete illusion. Certainly during the Cold War, with the president able to launch a nuclear strike, the reality of presidential power at least in theory came close to the perception of an all powerful president. A final factor, I think, is that the presidency, more than any other office, embodies national sovereignty; in times of crisis, we look to the president first to insure the nation’s survival. All these factors collectively create the perception of a very powerful office. The reality, as all presidents discover, is that these expectations don’t match the capacity of any president, except under the rarest and most short-lived circumstances, to deliver.

    But you can help change this by teaching your students the reality of presidential power!

  10. Matt, it’s true–I sprung that grading question on you at the last minute and didn’t even really give you enough time to answer. So I’ll cop to that. I do like your alternative answer–that we really can’t judge a president while he’s still in office. And I’d be happy to be (gently) admonished for the question on air. At any rate, better you to have to answer the question than me. Thank you for being such a good sport.

  11. Jane – Had I offered the non-answer answer I outlined above, you would have verbally chastised me for waffling like a politician and your audience no doubt would have accused me of lacking a spine, much like the fabled Mr. Lubner from Saturday Night Live fame. Faced with this overwhelming media pressure, I folded like a cheap suit. Next time I’ll remember my academic roots and try to resist compromising my intellectual integrity, I promise.

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