Wednesday, January 20, 2010
This amazing article was in my national paper (in Australia) written by their Washington correspondent - Alex Spillius. For you haters - some food for thought - for us supporters - some hope.
President Obama's First Year
We all know that honeymoons come to an end, and even on that sparkling January day a year ago when Barack Obama made it official with the American people, both sides realised that bliss could not be eternal. But no one foresaw that the honeymoon would end so soon, with the bride of public opinion packing her bags in the holiday hotel, leaving the groom to plead: ''I never said this would be easy . . . come back, I can still bring change.''
Americans have fallen out of love with their charming President at a fast rate, even as his popularity has remained high abroad. As early as October, his approval ratings had tumbled from 65 to 70 per cent to the high 40s. Obama's inheritance from George Bush was two wars, the worst recession for 70 years, unemployment heading for 10 per cent and a $US1.2 trillion deficit. It guaranteed a first year of unprecedented challenge.
Not content with that, Obama decided to tame the monster of health care, tackle energy reform, sign a global green treaty, embrace the Muslim world, bring peace to the Middle East, establish a universe free of nuclear weapons and talk sense to the Iranians. Americans have baulked at the mind-boggling sums involved in his domestic reform: a $US787 billion stimulus bill, a $US1 trillion health-care bill and plans for carbon emissions trading that will cost industry dearly.
In Congress, his fellow Democrats are fretting about losing seats in November's mid-term elections. The party has already lost the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia in the first major post-Obama votes. And the President has confessed to disappointment at breaking his vow on changing the political culture. ''What I haven't been able to do in the midst of this crisis is bring the country together in a way that we had done in the inauguration,'' he admitted to People magazine. ''That's what's been lost this year . . . that sense of changing how Washington works.''
Overseas, Obama may still be seen as the great anti-Bush, but at home the standard narrative is that he has taken on too much, lost the ability to inspire, can't impose his will on Congress and been too soft abroad. That said, it has been a remarkable first year. Obama is on the verge of seeing reforms passed that will for the first time provide health insurance for every American. Plenty of presidents have talked about that since 1947; none have done it.
He has propped up the economy, albeit with an inflated and, in places, misdirected stimulus bill. The housing market has bottomed out, and consumer confidence is returning. The possibility of a double-dip recession remains, but if most forecasters are right, unemployment should begin to fall. Belatedly, Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have acknowledged popular outrage over the bail-out by proposing a special bank tax, a start towards easing resentment over Wall Street's preferential treatment.
Contrary to Obama's big-spending image, he has cut more superfluous spending programs in Congress than his Republican predecessors, and Congress has passed more legislation supported by a president than any before him.
Furthermore, he has banned torture, ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and sent the 9/11 suspects for trial in the civilian courts. Federal funding has been restored to stem-cell research, women's rights to equal pay have been improved, and new emissions standards have been set for vehicles. This is not a president who can't get things done.
Critics have lambasted his foreign policy for appeasing terrorists, kowtowing to China and bowing to monarchs of far-off lands. With all this negotiation and reaching out, they want to know where the results are. But who seriously expected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-il to respond to overtures when their existence depends in part on vilifying America? In his Egypt speech last June, Obama said: ''I've come to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.'' Those are powerful words. In time, they could come to mean something.
He has made mistakes in foreign policy. Allowing his speech to students in China to be suppressed by the authorities should not happen to American presidents. Nor should arriving at the Copenhagen summit without a climate deal. And his decision to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan while setting a deadline for withdrawal could prove a disastrous lack of incentive for allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the heady early days leading to his inauguration, Obama's admirers forecast greatness. Would he be a Lincoln or a Kennedy or a Roosevelt, they pondered fondly. Such talk was grossly premature - and remains so. But who knows? Ronald Reagan is regarded in the US as one of the best presidents of the post-war era. He came into office in 1981 with ratings just above 60 per cent, but by 1983 they had plummeted to below 40 per cent as the economy slid into recession. Less than two years later, he trounced Walter Mondale.
Obama does have some defects to correct. He needs to stop blaming Bush for his problems and to find some of Bush's fire in the belly when it counts. There were encouraging signs of the latter when he delivered a forceful reaction to the Haiti disaster.
The good news for Obama, and for all of us dependent on his success, is that he has shown he can learn from his mistakes. There was a long period at the start of the marathon 2008 campaign when his performances were lacklustre and his debating skills blunt. Possessing a self-awareness rare in politics, he identified his problems and corrected them.
Obama's first year has not been nearly as bad as the received truth in Washington would have it. Having swooned for him in the campaign, the media has overcorrected its earlier collective abandonment of balanced reporting. But if he wants to win back those Americans he has lost, Obama needs to appreciate that, as he often said on the stump, their relationship isn't about him, it is about them.