The White House held a conference call today for Elizabeth Warren and various bloggers and writers. Most of it was what you'd expect, but Warren did mention that Rep. Barney Frank once told her that getting a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a "pipe dream."
I think some people will see that as a mark against Frank, but he was right, at least judging by Washington's record over the previous 20 or 30 years. In fact, a lot of the Obama administration's accomplishments were pipe dreams.
A near-universal health-care system? Why would Obama and the Democrats succeed when Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton had all failed, and politicians as adept as FDR and LBJ refused to even make the attempt? They've seen the numbers, right? The health-care industry is bigger now, and richer, and there are no more liberal Republicans. There's no way.
A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would've been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.
The fact of financial reform is less impressive given the fact of the financial crisis, and readers know that I'm skeptical about the final design of the bill. But the consumer protection agency really is an important addition that might not have been included if the White House was occupied by a different team.
There are the smaller items that, in any other administration, would be seen as achievements. Menu labeling in chain restaurants. The Independent Payment Advisory Board to bring down Medicare costs. Ted Kennedy's SERVE America Act.
And then there's what didn't happen: The financial system didn't collapse. Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George W. Bush deserve some of the credit for that -- though they also deserve some of the blame for not preventing the crisis in the first place. But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history -- and it's also one of the least popular.
The Obama administration is also unpopular, though still more popular than the Democrats or Republicans in Congress. Many of its achievements -- notably health-care reform and the stimulus -- are similarly unpopular. That makes it difficult for the administration to run the midterm campaign that would've been the natural extension of this record: We have fulfilled almost all of the major promises we made in the 2008 election, and we're the most accomplished White House in a generation.
Those things are true, of course. And I think that the labor market will eventually recover, and the health-care reform plan will cover 32 million people and make the system better and more secure for a lot of people beyond that, and Obama, like Reagan before him, will be considered an extremely successful president despite struggling with his popularity in the early years of his first term. But for now, that kind of popularity is, well, a pipe dream. And the Obama administration is left running on exactly the record it hoped and promised to have in 2008, but without the level of economic recovery and thus popularity that would've helped convince the American people to deliver a favorable initial review.
I disagree with him about the Financial Regulation (I actually liked it, and liked the attempt), but that's just me.