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.