The following first appeared in The National on January 20, 2010.
American presidents are almost always failures in their first year. The gap between their campaign promises and reality is too far to bridge in only 12 months. Barack Obama’s first year in the White House has been no different.
New poll data from The Washington Post and ABC News shows that barely one third of the American public thinks that their country is headed in the right direction. Mr Obama’s campaign message may have been one of hope and change, but as a president he seems to have fallen short of most American’s expectations.
On terrorism and the war in Afghanistan, his policies enjoy popular support but his domestic politics have been less favourably received. Since April he has steadily lost support for his work on the economy, the budget deficit and health care. The amount of government spending is a particular worry and most Americans now favour a smaller government that offers fewer services.
But polls are only snapshots, and public opinion is a poor measure of the correctness of one’s actions. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr Obama’s politics, he has set out to solve many of America’s most persistent problems with an energy rarely seen in any US president. The problem is that he has failed to make significant headway on any one issue, leading many to accuse him of “dithering”, or worse.
The financial crisis left Mr Obama with the weakest economy of any incoming president in decades, but Mr Obama managed to prevent the recession from turning into a depression. Cash injections into the banking system have proven controversial, but the alternative was an implosion of the financial sector. We may never know what would have happened if Mr Obama had allowed many banks or borrowers to reap the fruit of their own poor judgment, but the consequences were too dire to risk. But now, with banks making record profits, people blame Mr Obama, despite the fact that the bank rebound is probably only a good thing.
The health care debate has also inflamed partisan tensions, a situation not helped by dismissive pundits on the Left and populist ranting on the Right. In the debate over public health insurance, the right wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh has framed the battle as one of himself and the founding fathers standing against Comrade Obama. Popular debate on the subject has been reduced to its basest form.
Mr Obama has only himself to blame for this situation. His message of change had the ability to inspire both at home and abroad, and it won him an election, but it also set him up for a massive fall. Normal campaign promises are difficult enough to keep, his are almost certain to go unfulfilled. Too much of his authority derives from his personal appeal and his oratorical strength, too little on his ability to execute the demands of his office. Yes, people like Mr Obama, but he’s not what they hoped he’d be.
This is all the more tragic given that it is difficult to fault Mr Obama for what he has done in his first year. He inherited a financial disaster, two mismanaged wars, a damaged US image abroad and a nation divided ideologically after eight years of a controversial president. His policies have been shaped not by the need to reshape the way Washington does business, as he had promised, but by what he believes will work. On Iraq, this has worked to his favour. On Guantanamo Bay, this has earned him the ire of both human rights groups and the Muslim world.
This is of course what every president does, but people do not want Mr Obama to be like every other president. The people who voted for him want him to be something more, and the people who did not, gloat. But should Mr Obama continue on his current course, he may survive his critics and may even do some good in the world.
The concern is that the expectations of the people will come back to haunt him. His first test comes in Massachusetts where a long-time Democratic Senate seat is threatened by a Republican upstart. Should the Republicans win, it could be a dire portent for the November legislative elections. Mr Obama was in the state to rally support for the Democratic candidate: “If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election.” The problem is that the fire seems to have gone out of Mr Obama’s message. He is no longer the young visionary candidate who inspired rapturous crowds; he is now a president, and so far an unimpressive one at that. This should worry him more than most who have held the office for one year.
As ordinary as Mr Obama has been as president, he is not an ordinary president. History has conspired with his race and his message to propel him into the White House. The world was tired of the way things were, they were looking for a change and Mr Obama promised it. What he has delivered instead is competent management.
It would be a mistake to misjudge Mr Obama’s style of politics as a betrayal of his ultimate goals. The essential problem facing Mr Obama is that Washington, the US and the world not only do not want change, they do not need it. What is needed is a better health care plan and a better role for the world’s most powerful nation in global affairs. These are massive undertakings, but they hardly constitute a revolutionary new way of doing things.
But a revolution is what was imagined by his wide-eyed supporters and what his detractors are preparing to defend against. Mr Obama may very well have become the hero in a Greek tragedy of his own creation. And given the scope of the expectations placed on his presidency, Mr Obama may still be a failure in four years, regardless of what polls might say.