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President Obama’s first year: Expectations and Results

27 Jan 2010

Jill Farrelly

In January 2009, during his first few days in office, President Obama’s approval rating among the American public stood at 68%. At the start of January 2010, the President’s approval rating had dropped to 50%. Ordinary Americans identified with his promise of change, his belief in the power of hope and his inaugural commitment to begin the work of remaking America. Many observers and voters consigned the problems of the previous four to eight years to the outgoing administration and anticipated the enactment of President Obama’s campaign commitments. In his inaugural remarks, the President stressed that America was in the middle of a crisis, with a war against hatred and violence and a badly weakened economy.  

In the course of 2009, as President Obama took ownership of these crises, according to the polls, his approval ratings dropped. Americans began to associate his administration’s policies with stubbornly high unemployment rates, continuing threats to homeland security, an unpopular process of healthcare reform and rising numbers of military casualties among U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In times of economic recession and high unemployment, the President’s handling of domestic issues receives a lot of scrutiny. Campaign rhetoric was starting to come face-to-face with reality and some analysts observe that reality now has the edge. Another looming reality is the approach of the U.S. mid-term elections in November 2010, which will test the loyalty of the wave of independent voters who swept Obama to power in 2008. If they turn out to vote, which way will they vote?  

Republican Scott Brown’s recent victory in Massachusetts is alarming for the Obama administration, and for the Democratic Party, for a number of reasons. The first of these is purely mathematical, the loss of a Senate seat means that the 60 votes required by Democrats in the Senate to “proof” a bill against filibustering by Republican Senators are no longer secure. This may have an impact on the Obama administration’s efforts to pass healthcare reform legislation, which is currently at a critically important stage. The second reason relates to independent voters. In an analysis of the Massachusetts vote in the Irish Times (Thursday 21 January 2010), Kevin Cullen argued that the outcome was decided by independents, many of whom were also responsible for Barack Obama’s victory in Massachusetts during the presidential election. Independent voters constitute a majority in Massachusetts and a year after his inauguration, it appears that President Obama cannot rely on their support.  

In 2009, the President expended a lot of political capital by focusing simultaneously on economic recovery, health-care reform, legislation to tackle global warming, refocusing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and setting a challenging new agenda to achieve global disarmament. The scale of the global financial crisis, the urgency of the climate crisis and the security situation in Afghanistan did not afford him the luxury of picking and choosing his battles. Many of these are strategic battles, the results of which the American public may not feel in the short term. Has the administration successfully laid the groundwork so as to reap the benefits of these long-term policies?   

President Obama succeeded in refocusing the spotlight on Afghanistan in 2009. A lengthy review of the U.S. strategy took place, albeit, quite late in the day. The review process was damaging for the President in that it exposed weaknesses and divisions within the administration, as evidenced in the disagreement of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry on the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan. There is a sense of eagerness in the administration, for an exit from Afghanistan. While committing 30,000 extra troops towards the end of 2009 on the one hand, President Obama also committed to a withdrawal date. In addition, General Stanley McChrystal and Defence Secretary, Robert Gates expressed their belief in January 2010 that a power-sharing arrangement could be reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, despite doubts about the credibility of the Afghan government and increasing insurgency in Afghanistan. If the security situation improves in 2010 however, Afghanistan could be the greatest legacy of Obama’s presidency.  

The on-going debate on the reform of healthcare reached boiling point in late Summer 2009, when the President faced challenges from citizens in town hall meetings, confused about the effect that proposed reforms would have on them. Every year, thousands of Americans die due to their inability to access the necessary healthcare. Therefore the passage of this legislation would not only be a victory for the administration but would also greatly increase America’s moral standing in the world. As January 2010 draws to a close, it seems unlikely that even a diluted version of the legislation will be passed. 

From an economic perspective, at the start of 2009, the U.S. faced fears of a second Great Depression, as unemployment in March 2009 reached 12.5 million. By introducing the Recovery Act, President Obama aimed to create jobs, spur economic activity and growth and foster accountability and transparency in government spending.  While job losses have slowed, unemployment remains high and the U.S. has not made the return to economic growth early in the first year of Obama’s presidency as predicted by George W. Bush before leaving office. Negative predictions were made at the Annual Conference of the American Economic Association in January 2010, in particular that U.S. GDP would expand by less than 2% over the next ten years. Others questioned whether the financial system could survive when government support is removed.  

President Obama is starting 2010 on the back foot. Despite a lot of activity in 2009, many tough decisions remain and to tackle these, the gloves need to come off. There is still great anger in the U.S. about the bail out of Wall Street, by a President who, until the announcement in January 2010 of a $90 billion levy on U.S. banks and a series of proposed reforms to U.S. financial institutions dubbed the “Volcker Rule”, came across as reluctant to clamp down on the largest financial institutions. There is also scepticism in many quarters about the “hand of friendship” extended by Obama to the Muslim world, a gesture that seems, to date, to have generated little progress. Both at home and abroad, Obama’s reputation has been tarnished by his failure to pass healthcare reform and a climate change package through Congress in 2009.  

Obama himself admitted, “change doesn’t happen overnight”, however if the Democrats are to recover from defeat in Massachusetts and regain the support of the American public before the mid-term elections in November 2010, President Obama must do more to convince the public that he is on their side and that the change he promised is a work in progress.  

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

Comments 1-5 of 5

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Iftikhar ahmad Swati says: 09 Feb 2011 16:36

So far as i think,America can be a world tiger,if its political leaders think of itself and did not take any part in International political issues to destroy others and so obama has also to keep his policy on the same track,and i think first of all he has to change his policy for muslim world.

jerry sullivan says: 18 Dec 2010 16:14

the problem for obama is that the usa in world terms has peaked economically and the only way is down. so he has to manage this down as best he can.

Concerned says: 29 Jan 2010 16:17

I know that you would tend to disagree with my theory, but I think the agenda that Obama's is pushing towards is the agenda of the World Leaders' America do we have feet made of iron or clay? I think that he is trying to put a lot of unnecessary weight on our country so that our feet will eventually crumble.

Rai Tonn says: 27 Jan 2010 16:21

Obama for Taoiseach!!

John Dillon says: 27 Jan 2010 16:17

End year one is not the worst time to be unpopular if Obama's thinking two terms. Eisenhower was similarly unpopular at the same stage and he went on to serve two terms.Obama should stick to his principles and avoid negative politics as advocated by Paul Krugman in last week's NY Times-http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0120/1224262712446.html

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