As we look back on a tumultuous first year for President Barack Obama, three questions matter. What have we learned about him? What has he learned about his job? And how much does the first year foretell about the Obama presidency?
In many ways Obama in office has acted much as advertised on the campaign trail. He is methodical, cerebral, professorial, and unusually focused. “No Drama Obama”, as he is called, isn’t given to angry outbursts, emotionalism of any kind, or snap decisions. Many people prefer this kind of governing style, though it limits his effectiveness at times of national anguish and prevents him from employing populist tactics that could aid him politically.
Obama trusts and follows his instincts even when he pays a political price. He took months to formulate a clear approach on Afghanistan, and the more criticism he received for the length of his policy review, the more determined he seemed to dot every “I” and cross every “T” before announcing his plans.
The Afghanistan decision-making also showed us something else. Despite his image as a political liberal, Obama is usually cautious to a fault, splitting the difference whenever necessary. He is no revolutionary, as the disappointed left-wing of the Democratic Party has now learned. From Guantanamo to the health-care public option, Obama has compromised whether his party base is happy or not.
Like every new president, Obama has been forced to accept the unpleasant realities of the Oval Office. His soaring campaign rhetoric suggested easy solutions to intractable problems. The first twelve months have shown him just how unyielding those problems are. An economy the size of the United States’ does not quickly respond even to a massive $800 billion stimulus bill. The unemployment rate, a lagging indicator, has climbed rather than fallen on Obama’s watch.
Barack Obama, the candidate of “hope” and “change,” had expected his gestures of friendship to tame hostile world leaders. Instead, he could not even secure from allies the Olympics for his home city of Chicago. A Nobel Peace Prize brought him more ridicule than congratulations.
At home Obama genuinely believed he could initiate a new era of bipartisanship, with Democrats and Republicans working together on at least some major initiatives. In fact, with his own popularity dwindling from the 70s last January to the 40s today, Obama has further polarized the American electorate.
The president has been tagged a big spender, taxer, and debt accumulator—a damaging image that is likely to stick with him and his party for some time to come. Republicans are in the ascendancy again, and they are likely to do well in this fall’s midterm elections for Congress and state governorships.
The recent, nearly successful airliner bombing attempt jarred Obama. He had hoped to focus more on domestic policy, but on Christmas Day he was reminded that terrorists never take a holiday. The administration’s painfully slow response to the old/new threat has also reminded Obama that presidents do not get real vacations, no matter how much they may need or deserve them.
A year is a short time but a fourth of a presidential term. Year one is usually the most productive period for any chief executive since the electoral mandate is fresh. Obama has had a remarkable advantage since Democrats have controlled Congress by a huge margin—a 40-seat majority in the House of Representatives and fully 60 of 100 seats in the Senate. So controversial have many of Obama’s bills been, he has needed every vote available. Even on health care reform, his top priority, Obama has had to struggle at every turn to find a possible legislative compromise—and the work is still not done.
This week’s Massachusetts contest for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat has demonstrated how much opposition exists to Obama’s programs even in a liberal state that he carried in 2008 with 62% of the vote. Skittish Democrats, facing a difficult election, will now be far less willing to cast tough votes for Obama. Even if he serves two full terms, Obama is unlikely ever again to have anything approaching the current Democratic numbers in the legislative branch. With less congressional and voter backing, Obama is facing a far more difficult phase of his presidency.
Historically, presidents are rarely made or broken by their first year, and in that sense it is not a good barometer of how they will fare for reelection. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush had splendid first years and enjoyed high popularity; they lost in landslides after a single term in office. By contrast, two-term presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had troubled first years and didn’t hit their strides until much later.
Like his predecessors, Barack Obama’s future depends less on what we have seen so far and more on the circumstances of history awaiting him. The shape of the economy and the vagaries of terrorism are likely to shape Obama’s fate. Only now is this young, vigorous president truly realizing how little he controls either one.
His second year will continue the education, and one suspects it will take place as much in the school of hard knocks as in the comfortable confines of the White House.