I think any Democrat could have been elected president in 2008. That person would have faced extraordinary challenges, the worst of which were leftovers. Any Democrat would have come in with some version of the Democratic agenda. We have the "mommy party" aims of equalizing opportunity and providing a basic safety net, and the "knowledge party" agenda of education, new technology, new energy sources, and transparency. Any new Democratic president would have had 18 months to fix the inherited mess and to pass the most important new initiatives. After that, the continuing economic mess, even if it was getting better, would still be so bad that the Democratic Party would lose seats in the midterm election, and probably lose a house of Congress. All of this seemed clear (to me, anyway) in January of 2008.
I believe we got a better-than-ordinary Democrat in Barack Obama. I think he understood the challenge before him in the same outline that I did.
He hit the ground running, attacking the economic collapse as soon as he was able. I think he did a pretty good job. The decisions to save some "banks" and let others collapse had already been made. The bailout for AIG, the remaining "banks," and the car companies had already been made. The decision to have some kind of massive stimulus had already been made. Given that, I think the administration did a reasonably good job. The car company bailout has been managed pretty well. Cash-for-clunkers, even if it made no big economic dent, was worth trying, and did restore a sense of hope that the government was working on the economic problem. Also, it improved the fuel economy of the country's automobile fleet (that is what made a "clunker" worth trading up).
Obama also had a problem of winding down the wrong war, and pursuing the right one. This has been done about as well as could be expected.
At the same time, I am glad he had the nerve to spend most of his political capital on universal health care. From fifty years of debate and resistance by the companies that benefit from the old system, anyone could see this was going to be a huge fight. The opposition party was unusually united and oppositional, and some members of the president's own party were unusually opportunistic. Nonetheless, I give Obama great credit for succeeding. He had the nerve to go ahead with a new initiative despite the many fires he also had to put out, and he had the wisdom to put almost everything else on hold until that job was done.
If he had done nothing else but prevent a great depression and get universal health care, Barack Obama's first Congress would be counted a success. That he had quite a few other successes, and the most successful lame duck session in half a century, is a happy bonus.
Obama has done some things that I am disappointed about. I would have been tougher on the investment banks and AIG - at the least, they should not have been allowed to give those ridiculous bonuses until they had paid back the bailout. I think he should have cleared out all of our political prisoners - charged them, put them on trial, and gotten it over with. This would have meant revealing the torture, violations of human rights conventions, violations of our own laws, and the other ways in which we botched the prosecutions of possible enemies. This would have been painful and extraordinarily embarrassing to the United States, but the worst would be over by now. We help our enemies when we act like them; when we prolong the offense and cover it up, this only makes the problem worse.
I am a centrist and a Christian realist. I think President Obama is, too. He is probably a bit to the left of me, but he is also realist enough to know that the electorate is a bit to the right of him. He also does not act alone - the chief executive is partner to the legislature, both of whom are constrained by the judiciary. I think President Obama's chief partner in the House of Representatives, Speaker Pelosi, was a very effective leader; Senator Reid - not so much. The judiciary was mostly its usual sensible self, except for the significant mischief of the Citizens United decision. In the new Congress, the president will face a persistent opponent in the new Speaker, and a competent obstructionist in the Senate's minority leader. President Obama's second Congress will probably be less successful than his first. On the other hand, the lame-duck session showed that the president's long and lonely pursuit of bipartisanship is starting to bear fruit.
I look forward to the next two years. I believe things will be even better in President Obama's second term.