On November 26, the Obama administration put forward new anti-smog regulations that should prevent thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks every year. About two weeks later, Obama's appointees at the Federal Reserve implemented new rules curbing reckless borrowing by giant banks that will reduce profits and shareholder earnings but increase the safety of the financial system. Yet both of these were minor stories compared to normalizing relations with Cuba after decades and his sweeping plan to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Somewhere in the meantime, Democrats broke the congressional logjam and got a whole boatload of nominees confirmed.
It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama's party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats' overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a "realigning" election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won't be.
A historic first term
It's old hat at this point, but given the mixture of conservative rage and liberal disappointment that Obama generally inspires, it's worth emphasizing that his first term offered legislation on a truly historic scale. The Affordable Care Act and related measures are an expansion of the welfare state rivaled by only the New Deal and the Great Society. Even that, in some ways, sells the bill short. The tendency of today's slow-as-molasses Congress to work via megabills means that consequential measures like new rules mandating calorie labeling at chain restaurants stand as mere provisions of Obamacare rather than counting as substantial measures on their own.
Obamacare even included a substantial reform of the student loan system that's made it possible for the government to offer more help with college tuition.
Similarly, when I wrote about the under-recognized success of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, I was very focused on its core mission of creating a safer banking system. At the time, however, a lot of activist energy went into something else entirely — the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was, rightly, seen as a major goal worth fighting for separately from questions of macro-level financial stability. Overall, as Paul Krugman says, "there's enough evidence even now to say that there's a reason Wall Street — which used to give an approximately equal share of money to both parties but now overwhelmingly supports Republicans — tried so hard to kill financial reform, and is still trying to emasculate Dodd-Frank."
That's to say nothing of smaller measures from the 111th Congress like a food safety bill, a child nutrition bill, a Children's Health Insurance expansion, and a public lands bill the Sierra Club hailed as "a historic day for conservation."
After all that, Republicans won a huge electoral victory, and during the lame duck session Obama got Congress to finally ratify the New START arms reduction treaty and pass the bill that ultimately ended discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military.
The bad times
Obama doesn't walk on water. After the 2010 midterms, he spent an enormous amount of time and energy seeking to supplement his legacy through the construction of a "grand bargain" with Republicans on long-term budget policy. This effort ended up doing exactly nothing to improve the long-term budgetary situation of the United States, but did contribute to the terrifying debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and subsequent sequestration budget cuts that (deliberately) were poorly designed and poorly targeted.
The backdrop to those choices was the objectively difficult political position he was forced into after the midterms, and the backdrop to that was the poor state of the economy. Here, Obama needs to take blame for baffling early neglect of Federal Reserve nominations as well as a lack of creative thinking on fiscal stimulus.
Still, even on its worst point, the Obama administration can argue that the USA has outperformed other major world economies. This chart the administration likes probably scants the extent to which Germany and the UK have done better than us at job creation even as they do worse at growth. But it makes the point that, in context, US economic performance under Obama has been decent.
The post-legislative era
Campaigning for re-election in 2012, Obama mused that if he won the "fever" of opposition in Congress would break and it would be possible to get more done. It didn't come to pass. But rather than retreat into irrelevance, the Obama administration uncorked a series of game-changing policy measures he could conduct through the executive branch.
In an excellent November 26 article, Coral Davenport observed that Obama will likely "leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House" even though "it is very possible that not a single major environmental law will have passed during his two terms in Washington." The Clean Air Act of 1970 simply turns out to be a very powerful tool crafted by very ambitious legislators, who wanted to make sure future administrations would be able to address not-yet-foreseen environmental problems. He's used that law to issue a "series of landmark regulations on air pollution, from soot to smog, to mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide."
In his second term, Obama has also managed to get a record number of judges confirmed thanks to Democrats' use of the nuclear option to reduce filibustering. When Obama took office, 10 of the 13 appeals courts had Republican majorities — today only four do.