At the midpoint of his term, President Barack Obama has hewed close to what he promised voters. His achievements on economic stimulus, health reform, financial regulation and nuclear arms control are significant and ambitious. He is adapting to Republican gains in Congress. Now the question that looms before Tuesday's State of the Union address is whether the president can continue to tackle big issues such as energy, immigration and the federal deficit as he faces a Republican-controlled House and a re-election campaign.
It will take more time and a stronger economy for Americans to put into broader perspective how well the nation avoided a complete financial meltdown following the 2008 election. Many economists agree that the bank bailout started under President George W. Bush and handed off to Obama, as well as quick action by the Federal Reserve and Obama's moves to stimulate the economy, helped prevent another Great Depression. As it was, Obama came to office when the nation was in desperate financial straits, losing as many as 700,000 jobs per month.
Obama's efforts, including the $787 billion stimulus package, helped stanch the bleeding and began to gradually turn things around. The economy is slowly growing again and jobs are being gained, not lost, though job creation has a long way to go to absorb the millions of displaced workers. The president's decision to throw a financial lifeline to the auto industry helped the economy retain more than a million jobs and America's auto manufacturing base. And for those still unemployed, Obama fought for extended jobless benefits over Republican objections.
On foreign policy, Obama has fulfilled his promise to begin bringing combat troops out of Iraq. When he took office, there were about 142,000 troops there, and now that number is down to around 47,000. Obama also promised to shift the military's focus and commitment to the war in Afghanistan, which he has done, though significant success on the ground remains elusive.
Obama was able to shepherd through the Senate a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, and his efforts to address loose nukes have borne fruit, with commitments from 47 countries to secure their nuclear material within four years.
The health care reform that passed is essentially the plan Obama campaigned on. When fully implemented in 2014, it comes close to guaranteeing Americans universal coverage through private insurers. Now, with just part of the law in effect, Americans are already enjoying new protections against rapacious insurance company practices. No longer can health insurers impose lifetime caps, deny coverage of children for pre-existing conditions or throw people off the rolls once they get sick. Polls show Americans are warming to the reforms as they take effect.
On financial reform, the Dodd-Frank bill will bring more transparency and regulation to the financial sector. Americans also gained a new government bureau that will look out for consumers in their dealings with banks and credit card companies — an overdue reform.
Add the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" regarding gays in the military, and Obama's accomplishments are impressive. There have been missteps, but on balance Obama has succeeded in moving the country in the right direction. He should tell the nation Tuesday how he plans to work with Republicans over the next two years to continue to stabilize the economy and reach consensus on issues such as energy, immigration and spending.