Barack Obama's first year


A YEAR into his term, notwithstanding the utopian hopes of his admirers that he could in Tom Paine’s words “begin the world again”, it must be conceded that Barack Obama does not walk on water. As anniversaries go, it could not have been much worse.

In Massachusetts, which he took in the presidential election with a 26-point majority, a humiliating Senate byelection defeat on Tuesday night put in doubt his flagship healthcare reform package. It was all the more galling for being the seat held for more than four decades by that package’s greatest proponent, the late Ted Kennedy who called it “the cause of my life”.

It would be illusory to believe that the loss of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate compounds perceptions that Mr Obama was a naive newcomer, unable to complete any of his great projects. But, it presages ill for the autumn’s mid-term elections where the most vulnerable seats are almost all Democratic, notably in the Senate.

It is easy to depict the candidate who had thrived on perceptions that he would usher in a transformational agenda – his presidency, he said, would be “the moment when ... our planet began to heal” – as a prisoner of what one writer calls “voracious pragmatism”. The constant management of expectations, the brokering of compromise after compromise in Congress over health, the recommitment to the war in Afghanistan, the deferral of action on jobs while bankers were “rescued”, and delays in closing Guantánamo, have contributed to his gradual alienation from his Democratic base.

He is taking fire from left and a reinvigorated though often incoherent Republican right, while independent voters – a majority in Massachusetts – desert him in droves. Some of it relates to middle-class concern about the costs of his health plan. Much of it is about what Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution sees as a more generalised national “inchoate fear and anger and unhappiness”. Polls show Mr Obama’s approval rating averaging about 49-50 per cent, down from the 75 per cent at the time of his inauguration, and pundits are already beginning to write his political obituary ... “this failed presidency”.

Yet such impatient verdicts are utterly premature both in terms of his electoral prospects in 2012 and delivery on his political agenda. A decline in public support for first-year presidents is normal and by no means terminal – he can look back to Bill Clintons remarkable comeback to win a second term after the 1994 mid-terms when the Democrats lost control of both houses.

Any judgment on his delivery must take account of the horrendous Bush legacy he inherited and the ludicrous expectation that his programme of work could be done in a year. He has restored America as a player with respect on the world stage. The US is seen in a different light internationally. He moved on healthcare in his first year when his mandate was strong. There are now the first signs of shoots of economic recovery. The long view of history will view him more kindly than the voters of Massachusetts.