US & Canada

Viewpoint: Obama's achievements unheralded amid 'scandals'

President Obama speaks at the National Defense University on 23 May
Image caption President Obama is quietly overseeing an economic recovery - but you won't hear that discussed among the Washington press corps

The Obama administration has made significant - and largely unheralded - progress on the economic front, as well as in important areas of foreign and domestic policy. The Obama administration has a secret life.

The White House's public life as represented by the Washington press corps is all about the Benghazi "scandal", IRS-gate, snooping on leakers and reporters and duelling with the wily Republican Congress for the sole purpose of 2014 and 2016 electioneering.

But in its private life, the administration of President Barack Obama is presiding over an economic recovery that is among the strongest in the recession-wracked world.

Republican dreams

Image caption Republicans have held numerous hearings on the 11 September Benghazi, Libya attack

In addition, the administration has been shrinking budget deficits, implementing healthcare reform laws, winding down the second of two inherited wars, and lobbying for gun control and immigration reform legislation that has a realistic chance of passing for the first time in decades.

It is of course possible that the public administration will swamp the private administration, dooming its legislative ambitions and giving the Republicans hope of capturing the Senate in 2014 or the White House two years later.

It doesn't look that way now.

Apart from the punditocracy, the country is well aware that things aren't so bad, though the Obama administration isn't necessarily given much credit.

Consumer confidence, a key indicator of the collective mood, is at its highest mark since February 2008, before the crash.

Home prices are posting their largest gains since 2006, inspiring that consumer confidence with good reason.

The federal budget deficit is shrinking because of economic growth.

In 2009 the deficit was $1.4tn (£925bn), or 10.1% of GDP.

Projections now are that the fiscal gap will be less than half that amount in 2013 at $642bn, or 4% of GDP.

The unemployment rate continues to drop, albeit slowly.


Image caption US troops are coming home from Afghanistan

In April it fell to 7.5%, the lowest level since 2008, but higher than the 5% mark that seems to be the contemporary rough measure of full employment.

These are among the reasons the so-called "perfect storm" of alleged scandals hasn't much harmed public perceptions of Mr Obama.

Mr Obama's approval rating last week was 49%, the exact average of his presidency and higher than George W Bush's rating at the same point in his second term, when the economy was booming.

It is far from clear that this level of support is enough to help Mr Obama in his battles with the Republicans in Congress over immigration, gun laws, long-term fiscal policy and, perhaps, tax reform.

But he seems still to have enough support to be ambitious, which wasn't true of the last two-term presidents - Mr Bush and Bill Clinton - a year into their second terms.

One sign of that confidence is the administration's reported decision finally to start pushing its judicial appointments.

Nothing has irritated active Democrats and liberals more than Mr Obama's perceived wimpiness on this front.

Installing sympathetic judges on federal courts is central to the enduring influence of any administration, especially a two-term presidency.

Republican presidents have done this with particular success and the Republican Congress has been particularly successful in blocking and scaring off Mr Obama's nominations.

A risky business

Image caption Home prices have climbed, making Americans feel wealthier

After long inaction, the president is reportedly ready to nominate three candidates to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the most important court besides the Supreme Court.

The Obama administration has also begun to set the table for the end of so-called "war on terror".

This is highly risky business.

Explicitly, formally ending this long and odd war entails far more than troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

For 12 years, the war on terror has set the parameters of political debate in America.

Virtually any expenditure could be justified by those three words - war on terror. A vast bureaucracy was built - and a private industry to serve it.

Even our vocabulary has changed.

Before 11 September 2001 we spoke of injured soldiers and veterans. Now they are "wounded warriors."

A timid president does not take on a project like this.

On the other hand, Mr Obama's recent speech on this phase of our national security posture last week barely interrupted the coverage and conversation about the "perfect storm" scandals.

So perhaps this important debate will also unfold behind the curtain, in the private presidency where the real governing seems to happen.

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