Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to Judge the Obama Administration

In order to judge the new Administration's success or relative lack of success in office, it's important to set some guidelines and expectations. Robin Hanson sets the bar at a reasonable level:

We've heard a lot of hyperbole about how Bush was the "Worst. President. Ever." and Obama's inauguration is the most exciting in a half century. So to avoid future bias, this is a good time to ask yourself: where do you set Obama's bar? That is, what does Obama have to do for you to consider him a "good" president, or even better than Bush? It is enough for you that he is (part) black and a Democrat? Or does he actually have to do something? Or are those already insurmountable barriers to you?

For most any president today, odds are that we'd:

be mostly out of our moderately deep recession in four years,
add some symbolic financial rules that mostly lets old games continue,
mostly watch as Israel, Russia, and China throw more weight around,
mismanage another Katrina because governments are just bad at that,
go deeper in debt "stimulating" and "bailing" because politicians love to spend,
not much relax homeland security or immigration because we're still scared of terrorists,
mildly pull out of Iraq since the war has been going well lately but we don't like to look weak,
do little on carbon emissions or the coming Medicare train wreck as those are very expensive, and
not reform medicine or education or welfare more than Bush's Medicare drug benefit and "no child left behind," or Clinton's welfare reform, as those were unusually big changes.
So will Obama be great (or terrible) if he just follows this least-resistence path and adds a few cheap symbolic moves on stem cell research funding, gay marriage, torture definitions, wiretap limitations, or foreign abortion funding? And would that be enough for a non-black or non-Democrat?

Four (and probably eight) years from now we should judge his performance in office by what he has done beyond or short of these items. Naturally, most voters will not. I predict he will be re-elected due to the first item – I put the probability of a decent recovery by 2012 around 90%.

One quibble: I would not include the item on Hurricane Katrina, because events like that are quite rare. Remember, George W. Bush helped his re-election chances by appearing to respond well to the less severe 2004 Florida Hurricanes – ‘Responding well’ consisting mostly of being photographed touring disaster areas with sleeves rolled up. I can easily see a similar less-severe incident occurring during the new administration for which Obama’s response will be compared favorably to Bush’s.

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