Too early to condemn
President Obama has used his first year in office to introduce historic healthcare legislation, provide a financial stimulus package of almost $800bn in order to rescue a collapsing economy, and broker a deal on climate change which unites both the US and China for the first time ever. And he has managed this despite the fact that, in January 2009, America’s future was looking bleaker than it had for many years.
George W. Bush’s legacy to his successor was America’s involvement in two difficult and expensive wars, a crumbling automotive industry and a financial system on the brink of total collapse.
Obama has had only one year to attempt to resolve problems which have been years in the making. If McCain had won the election, he would have met with the same challenges and probably faced much of the same criticism which has been levelled at Obama.
The recent opinion polls which show Obama’s approval rating to be hovering around 50%, having dropped from about 68%, suggests that the American public is disappointed with
their president. But if there was the belief that Obama would be able to revolutionise the country and save it from financial crisis within just one year, there was bound to be disappointment when that didn’t happen. Barack Obama cannot be blamed for failing to live up to unrealistic expectations.
Another reason for the low approval rating is that Obama has had to implement unpopular policies in order to help stabilise the economy. The banking bail-out faced heavy criticism and accusations that the President was trying to introduce socialism by stealth. This opposition came despite the fact that economy experts all over the world were advocating such policies as the only way to avoid entering another worldwide depression.
A 50% approval rating after one year is not unusual considering the economic climate — Ronald Reagan faced a similar popularity slide during his first year, but this improved as the country recovered financially. There is no reason to think that the same will not be true for Obama.
Obama was elected precisely because he offered a radical change from the previous administration but once the initial tide of enthusiasm died down, so did support for some of Obama’s more controversial campaign promises. The most prominent example of this is the debate over proposed healthcare reforms. It was months before agreements were reached and despite the fact that Congress has voted in favour, the differences between the House of Representatives’ reform bill and that passed by the Senate have still to be reconciled. If signed into law, Obama will be responsible for the most significant healthcare reform in the United States in decades. Surely this cannot be considered anything other than a success, considering the intense opposition to any kind of reform at all.
Obama has not managed to fulfil all of his campaign promises yet, but there are still three years left of his term — plenty of time to prove to his doubters that he can build upon the successes of this year and deliver what the American public voted him in for: meaningful, lasting change.
Failure to deliver
Apart from those few awkward contrarians and obstinate racists, we all invested something, emotionally, in the presidency of Barack Obama. His election in November 2008 was the defining political event of the age, bringing a spark of light to the closing moments of a dark decade.
Obama pledged real change. He was going to deliver, like Roosevelt and Johnson had done, legislation that would permanently alter America’s social and ideological and economic landscape.
Principally, he promised a programme of health care that would extend coverage to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay, the immediate closure of Guantanamo, a market that served the people, not a people that served the market. He was given an unqualified mandate by the American people, disclosed in a huge Congressional majority and buffeted by a margin of eight million votes.
But twelve months on from his January inauguration, there is no question that Obama has failed to live up the expectations of his supporters, and his own, self-imposed, standards of governance.
In Massachusetts, the absurd former centre-fold model and unreconstructed conservative Scott Brown has just won Teddy Kennedy’s old Senate seat. Or rather, the Democrats have proved themselves incapable of holding onto a constituency that has for forty years consistently re-elected one of America’s most high profile liberal politicians, in one of the most progressive states in the Union.
Why? Because Obama buckled on healthcare reform. His original proposal — which he outlined during his first two or three months in office — would have required the state to provide health insurance for 30 million un-insured Americans — Americans too poor to provide for themselves. This was, predictably, denounced by his Republican opponents as the first step in a socialist usurpation of American liberty.
Over the following summer months, the Republican machine — still bitter and reeling from its loss — rumbled into action, engineering an aggressive anti-healthcare, anti-Obama campaign.
The President was, comically, branded both a Marxist and a Nazi, and in town hall meetings across the country Democratic Senators and Representatives were confronted by hordes of spoilt and over-fed GOP operatives, howling that Obama’s plans were un-constitutional.
How did Obama respond? Did he say, “Listen, I just won the presidential election by a landslide and with all the odds stacked against me. The American people want and need better and more comprehensive health coverage, and elected me to deliver it to them — and that’s what I’m going to do. So sit down and shut up”?
No. Obama conceded ground, allowing the Republicans in Congress to strip his bill, piranha-style, of all its vital features. And then he conceded some more ground. And then he conceded some more.
It is Obama’s obsessively conciliatory nature that’s to blame for the healthcare capitulation; his strange desire to be seen as a ‘healer of the nation’, a cross-party, bi-partisan, all-things-to-all-people kind of president.
He is now no longer free to act uncompromisingly on his other campaign promises. Guantanamo continues to function, with more than twenty inmates still languishing in its cages, waiting to be charged. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have posted multi-billion dollar profits in the last couple of weeks, and are subject to only a miniscule windfall charge.
The vast reservoirs of belief and enthusiasm that carried Obama to the presidency haven’t completely dissipated, despite his depressing poll ratings..They are, however, dwindling. He has to begin to stand his ground if he is to stop them disappearing all together.