Think Obama Hasn't Gotten Much Done? Think Again.

About one thing left and right seem to agree: Obama hasn't done anything yet. Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney have found common ground in scoffing at the president's "dithering." NEWSWEEK recently ran a sympathetic cover story titled "Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet)." The sarcasm brigade thinks it has finally found an Achilles' heel in his lack of accomplishments. "When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far, and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it," Obama stand-in Fred Armisen recently riffed on Saturday Night Live. Jon Stewart asserts "it’s chow time" for a president who hasn't followed through on his promises. (Click here to follow Jacob Weisberg).

This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year is sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health-care-reform bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more in his first year than any other postwar American president. This isn't an ideological judgment. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record.

The case for Obama's successful freshman year rests above all on the health-care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate. Democrats have been trying to pass national health insurance for 60 years. Past presidents who tried to make it happen and failed include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated.

We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health insurance will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented a depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists dispute that Obama's decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quotedeconomist Mark Zandi, who advised candidate John McCain (and who now offers guidance to the Democrats), on this point: "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do—it is contributing to ending the recession," he said. "In my view, without the stimulus, GDP would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama's accomplishments have been less tangible but hardly less significant: he has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics derided as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush's unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America's global role.

Obama has wisely deferred some smaller, politically hazardous battles over issues like closing Guantanamo, ending "don't ask, don't tell," and fighting the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements. Instead, he has saved his fire for his most urgent priorities—preventing a depression, remaking America's global image, and winning universal health insurance. Chow time indeed, if you ask me.