In recent weeks I have seen pundits of various stripes grading the job performance of our new president. I read some of them and they invariably left me with a nagging feeling which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until this morning.

It dawned on me (duh) that most of these evaluations are stripped of any political/social context.

In our constitutional setup, the president does wield considerable power. But he doesn’t do it in a frictionless political environment. He has to contend with both rabid opponents as well as groupings within his own party that don’t share his views entirely. No president governs with a magic wand.

Every president also has to take into account the status, breadth, and level of activity of the movements and coalitions across the country that either support or oppose him. And all this occurs in a complex world in which crises and challenges are ever present.

Shouldn’t pundits, especially left and progressive ones, grading Obama’s first months on the job be mindful of this bigger picture? Shouldn’t they factor in the whole array of forces and conditions that weigh on his decision making process and performance before issuing a report card?

Looking back to the New Deal, FDR wasn’t a political ‘free floater,’ going in one direction and then abruptly in another on no more than a personal whim. FDR’s performance and policies were inextricably bound up with a broken economy and the clashing of diverse social groups, some of whom opposed him at every turn, some of whom tried to rein him in, and some of whom wished he would move faster and more boldly in a progressive/left direction.

The Obama presidency too operates in a very complicated political and economic context. (economic crisis, rising unemployment, two wars, climate change, massive inequality, a no longer dominant, but still aggressive extreme right grouping, a divided Democratic party, powerful corporations, etc.) that should inform the judgment of political analysts – and again, especially progressive and left analysts. If it doesn’t, their analysis will be shallow, their tactical prescriptions wrongheaded, and their presidential report card not fully reflective of the administration’s performance.

One of the striking differences between the two presidencies (and this is a major factor in determining the successes of each administration) is that the people’s upsurge in the 1930s (or should I say ‘upsurges’ because that mass upheaval took many forms) in terms of its scope, depth, and level of action surpasses the current upsurge today. In fact, if the Depression era upsurge was a decisive (though not the only) factor powering FDR’s achievements, the slowness of today’s movement to regroup in the post-election period goes a long way in explaining the current impasse in the Congress with respect to health care reform.

Or to put it differently, the movement that elected President Obama doesn’t yet match what is necessary to win the legislative reforms of the Obama administration – let alone more radical reforms that the administration will have to be nudged to support.

Thus analysts who grade poorly the performance of the Obama presidency are at the same time grading poorly the movement of which they are an integral part — even if they are unaware of it. Implicit in the criticism of the Obama administration is a more trenchant criticism of all of us who elected him. We haven’t fully put the pedal to the metal!


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.