January 23, 2013
By John Zogby
As President Barack Obama prepares for a second term as the 44th President of the United States of America, there are a few things we know for sure. There will be a monument erected in his honor somewhere along the pantheon of similar constructions that venerate the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
There will also be a coin or some form of currency that will place his likeness in the same category as Jackson, Grant, and Kennedy. He is, after all, the first African American President, was elected twice with majorities, and built a new demographic coalition ushering in a new future for this country. Significantly, his Second Inauguration occurs on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not simply our greatest civil rights leaders but perhaps the greatest American.
But how large will the monument be and how much circulation and longevity the currency will have will depend on the answer to one key question: did the Presidency of Barack Obama make this nation a better one? To a greater degree than ever before, this answer will be supplied by men and women we refer to today as "quants", a fitting role for those who function in an era of endless supplies of data. More than previous Presidents, Mr. Obama's performance will be judged by the numbers of new jobs, the distribution of income, the numbers of deaths by firearms, the numbers of lives saved by our health care system, the status of the national debt, the numbers of high school and college graduates.
This has not been the case with previous greats. Washington established a new definition of chief executive and benchmarks for how strong and weak the new federal government could be. Jackson redefined the Presidency as an authority that emanated from the will of the electorate, while Lincoln both expanded and contracted civil rights as he saved the Union. One Roosevelt battled giant corporate trusts and expanded the American Empire abroad, while the other Roosevelt inspired a nation that was hopeless and methodically moved a reluctant people toward a war against an ugly tyranny. Kennedy inspired a whole new generation to service and called for landing a man on the moon. But the quants were nowhere to be found.
To date, President Obama has had to do repair work. He has stopped the bleeding in the auto and banking industries, thus saving hundreds of thousands of jobs. He has created a new set of banking regulations and a consumer regulation agency that have at least established parameters for acceptable behaviors in that industry. And he has tackled health care reform in a way that previous Presidents have wanted to but never succeeded. His very presence in the Oval Office, and his subsequent majority re-election has produced for the very first time the thought that perhaps down the road this nation may finally move beyond its terrible color line. And he signed his first piece of legislation that established the principle of "equal pay for equal work".
On Monday, a stronger President Obama will produce a bold new agenda. It will include immigration reform, tougher measures to stem an epidemic of gun violence, new measures to curb the emissions of carbon gases, new spending that not only build and repair infrastructure but prepare for the green technology jobs of tomorrow. While the debate in his first term revolved around curbing spending and adding new revenues, on Tuesday the debate will be framed around how much new spending (pump-priming, in the words of FDR's New Dealers) will be required to prepare this nation for a future of growth.
Individuals who save money do the right thing but that doesn't make them great. The same with companies and governments. After all, it is ultimately those who risk, invest, spend, and take chances who make things work and get the monuments built in their name. This will be the debate that Mr. Obama will launch on Monday – the pre-eminent risk-taker's birthday. Will the nation be better off because of the Obama Presidency? In some ways it already is and the tangible monuments will be created. But the final answer will come from not only passing an agenda but by the numbers that show it.