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December 16, 2009

Obama's first year: Stanford's David Brady looks back

By Adam Gorlick

With commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum picking over Barack Obama's highlights and missteps as his first year in the White House draws to a close, Stanford's Continuing Studies program will offer a five-week course looking at the president's early record.

The Obama Presidency: One Year In will include lectures from reporters at the Wall Street Journal, Time and the Washington Post as well as Stanford faculty and fellows. It will be held on Wednesday nights and is open to the public.

David Brady, the Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor of Political Science and Leadership Values at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and deputy director of the Hoover Institution, will start the course with an overview on Jan. 13. He will be joined by NPR science correspondent Joe Palca and Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy to discuss science, energy and the environment.

In an interview with the Stanford News Service, Brady talked about some of the other key issues Obama has confronted since January. His insights are framed by his observations as a political scientist and data pulled from, a firm founded by Stanford Professor and Hoover Fellow Douglas Rivers. Following are excerpts from the conversation:

The economy

Whether the stimulus package accounted for the turnaround in the economy is a question I leave for the economists. As a political scientist, I prefer to deal with analyses of how the president is managing his options, rather than whether I agree or disagree with his policies. In regard to the economy, the president did get a large stimulus package through Congress with the claim that passing it would keep unemployment below 8.6 percent. The fact is that unemployment is at about 10 percent. Public opinion shows that the public now believes that it is Obama’s economy, conditioned on taking over a bad economy.

In January, the president started out with an approval rating of 59 percent and disapproval of 30. By mid-October, it was about even. Today, you have 50.4 percent who disapprove of his handling of the economy. So the first ranking was a good, solid A. Then it slipped to a B. And now, close to the end of the first year, it's a C+. But the economy is starting to improve and unless his grade falls back into a double-dip recession, it will improve with the economy.


Right now, he's got 52 percent of the American people opposed to him and 41 percent in favor. Insofar as the president's job is to lead public opinion and get the country behind him, he's failed. Democrats are still highly approving of him, but he's lost among independents. They're worried about the issue of long-term debt and how healthcare reform is going to be paid for.

The hardest problem for the president is convincing moderate Democrats that the bill will help keep costs down, and unless he can do that, there will be no public option or Medicare expansion. My belief is they will get a bill but without a public option or Medicare expansion to 55 years of age.

On the other hand, the second job of the president is to get things through Congress. Some people criticize Obama for not taking the lead in Congress, but I think that's wrong. The House has passed a bill, and that's much further than Clinton ever got. And I believe the Senate will pass a bill. The left will criticize the president because the Senate bill will not have a public option and the right has disliked the ideas and policies all along. He won't get a bill before Christmas, but he'll get it sometime early in the new year. So you've got the public giving him a low grade, but he's got a bill further along than Clinton ever did.

Foreign policy and Afghanistan

Foreign affairs are where his best approval ratings are. For all sorts of Americans who were not happy with the Bush administration's foreign policy, there was this great hope that Obama would change things. And there was an expectation that it would be collaborative – that we'd deal with Europeans and the United Nations. He gave speeches in Egypt and Europe which assured the world that the U.S. had shifted into collaborative mode. The European response was the Nobel Prize but no real combat troops in Afghanistan from France and Germany.

On foreign policy, he's making a big bet that a collaborative world where we deal with the U.N. and international organizations will work. The payoff – if it works – is that Afghanistan gets stabilized. Will this collaboration work and make the United States safer? That's an open question.

Delivering the promise of hope and change

That was great for campaigning, but starting in January it was time to govern. The expectations for him were so high. But there’s a reality to American politics, and there’s no way all the expectations could be met. Government time is tradeoff time. Take Guantanamo. We'll try the prisoners [in civilian courts], but we're not going to move them yet because nobody wants them in their state. We'll overhaul healthcare, but not as much as the campaign promised, because moderate congressional Democrats can’t vote for it because of the cost increases. Again, the notion that he was going to bring congressional Democrats and Republicans together, given their differences, was preposterous. One result of this has been that part of his base was angry because he has not moved far enough left, while many independents think he has moved too far to the left. On the other hand, without the notion of hope and change, he wouldn’t have gotten the nomination and wouldn’t have been president. So, as usual, you have a situation where the promises of a campaign cannot be delivered.



Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


David Brady, Hoover Institution: (650) 723-9702,

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