Obama: Twelve months on, the star falls back to earth

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Last year he could do no wrong. Now he is on the stump in a desperate bid to avert a Republican fightback. David Usborne reports

If there was a degree of déjà vu for fans of Barack Obama crammed inside a university athletic arena in Hackensack, New Jersey, the other evening, it was entirely deliberate. They only had to close their eyes and listen to the deafening chants of "Yes We Can" to imagine they had been transported back to the heady days of a year ago when their candidate was on the verge of seizing the White House and making history.

Even with open eyes they could have felt some of that old frisson. Event organisers wandered the hall wearing shirts proclaiming "Yes We Can 2.0", as if they were selling the latest Windows update, and a giant banner stage-right gave top billing to Obama. The name beneath his, Corzine, might almost have been an afterthought.

This was not a re-election rally for Mr Obama – not yet, please – but for Jon Corzine, the former boss of Goldman Sachs and now governor of New Jersey. He had invited the president to speak because, when Jersey voters go to the polls next Tuesday – New Jersey and Virginia are the only states where governorships are in play this year – it is not at all clear that they won't ditch him in favour of his Republican opponent, Chris Christie. The latest polls say it's too close to call.

That's better than in the summer when Christie had a double-digit lead. But, in the final stretch, Corzine needs to remind Democrats of the fervour of 12 months ago when they overwhelmingly chose Obama over John McCain. "One more time", the disco beat booms before the two men arrive on stage in front of a crowd of about 3,000 eager supporters. "One more time. We're going to celebrate. Oh yeah. Alright." Once at the microphone, Corzine promises to be brief. "I know who you came to see," he says.

Obama does what is required of him with his usual eloquence, speaking for 30 minutes. He looks happy to be campaigning again, relieved of Oval Office responsibilities for an afternoon, his stump oratory uncaged. But selflessness and politics do not go together. He is in New Jersey because what happens here next week will matter to him. This is an off-year for congressional races, so, rightly or wrongly, the outcome of these two gubernatorial races will be viewed by some as a first referendum on his presidency.

The President has already suffered a slow, but steady, decline in his approval ratings, so it cheers no one in the White House that the outcome in Jersey is so uncertain. In Virginia, where the President campaigned this week, the outlook is worse with most polls suggesting that the Democrat candidate, Creigh Deeds, will be walloped by his Republican rival, Bob McDonnell.

If Republicans seize the governors' mansions in both states, the embarrassment will be acute. That is just what happened in both New Jersey and Virginia back in 1993 before the Republicans seized control of the US Congress the following year, dealing a crippling blow to the newly minted Democratic president of the time, Bill Clinton.

But even losing one of them next week will scratch the sheen of President Obama, who seems, one year on from his election, to be hovering in the view of most Americans between competent and fumbling, notwithstanding the high esteem in which he is still held abroad and, of course, in the minds of the Nobel committee.

What is certain is that the almost-mad expectations placed on Obama that unusually warm night in Chicago's Grant Park when he delivered his victory speech last November, have given way now to a general unease about his performance in office. For sure, he has mostly avoided calamity. Not getting the Olympics for Chicago doesn't count. Nor is his administration in disarray or anything close to it. (Mr Clinton had barely arrived in office before he was instantly engulfed in mini-scandals.) But the Obama magic that should be working to protect Democrats like Corzine and Deeds seems mostly to have leaked away.

New Jersey is a state that naturally belongs in the Democratic column. Moreover, since 1947, only two Jersey governors have failed to win a second term. But Corzine is unpopular in the state, thwacked by raising property taxes and the effects of the economic recession. "The New Jersey governor's race is going down to the wire," predicted the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Virginia had been a red state – as far as the presidency was concerned – since 1964, but it turned blue for Obama and Democrats hailed it as a sign that their party was breaking the virtual lock that Republicans had long enjoyed on the South. Keep Virginia, they said, and the Democrats will keep the White House.

The plight of Deeds – 11 points down according to a recent poll in the Washington Post – is being interpreted as a measure of how far the pendulum is already tracking back to the Republicans in that state, and probably elsewhere. Just as Mr Obama's victory was powered in part by his success in winning over independents, it is now the independents who are feeling disappointed and fleeing back to the other side.

"This is a state that Obama won by seven points," said Nick Ayres, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "They don't want this to be their Olympics, Part II."

McDonnell, the Republican candidate, will be the first to put the blame on the President if he wins the Virginia race. "There are blocs of independent voters that are being driven over because they are very concerned about these federal policies: its spending and the new intrusions into the free enterprise system," he said. "Those voters probably leaned toward President Obama in the last cycle. But when voters see specifics... I think some bloc of voters said: 'This is not the change we thought we were getting'."

Back in Hackensack, Carrie Wilkins, a 44-year-old hairstylist, is exasperated by the bad press the President has been getting. "He has a very tough job," she says, arriving for the Corzine event with her 14-year-old son, Troy, whom she has taken out of school specially. "I don't think he has had a chance to do anything yet. He is trying, but it was such a mess when he came in. I kind of feel bad for him, actually."

Indeed, the attacks on Obama have become fiercer. Wisely, or otherwise, the White House has called out Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, saying that it has abandoned all pretence of objectivity in the daily ear-boxing it gives Barack. Saturday Night Live, which last year so brilliantly skewered Sarah Palin, is getting sharper in its weekly skits on Obama. Meanwhile, the usual media stars of the conservative right, notably Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, continue to grow their Obama-bashing brands. The Nobel Prize was a gift to them from heaven.

They know what they think, and would probably think it whatever the president did. A broader picture, and a much prettier one, is provided by the polls. According to the Real Clear Politics poll of polls, the President's approval rating is still hovering above 50 per cent, but only just. Sometimes we forget, however, to measure Mr Obama against his opponents. Little fuss was made over a poll by CNN last week, which showed the Republican Party with just 36 per cent approval – the lowest it has been in a decade.

A more reliable observer of the scene may be Troy, the schoolboy. Asked if he thought Obama had done a good job so far, he paused for a second and then delivered a rolling shrug of the shoulders. "I guess so." Meaning he, like many Americans, is not quite sure yet.

A lot of things are in the pending tray in Washington. Pending is the economic recovery, for instance. While the signs of recovery seem to multiply almost daily, so do the warnings that this will be a largely jobless one, at least for the time being. The breaking of the 10,000 mark on the Dow Jones Industrial Average this month looks encouraging to economists, but it is galling to the almost one-in-ten Americans out of work.

Pending also is the grinding effort on Capitol Hill to pass healthcare reform. This has been much more of a struggle than the Obama team – many of whom came to Washington with scant experience of its labyrinthine ways – ever expected. The success or failure of the healthcare push could change the perception of Obama profoundly. While momentum towards a deal seems to be building at last, a wise person would not bet on its passing just yet.

The debate has also exposed what some now see as a naivety in Obama's candidature: his dream of creating a new spirit of bi-partisanship in Washington has hardly come to pass. So far, only one Republican has stepped forward to support just one of the versions of healthcare reform to have surfaced from five congressional committees.

Healthcare is one of several areas where Obama has displayed characteristics that his supporters call patience and a preference for conciliation, but which others brand as dithering and betraying an absence of the kind of toughness that was typically personified by Lyndon B Johnson, 45 years ago. "Healthcare could be his hammer," argues Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "If he gets it, he will have proven that his style works, that you don't have to be an in-your-face LBJ type to get significant healthcare reform. But, if it falls apart or he gets a tiny piece of it, then there will be criticism that he is ineffective and not tough enough."

The narrative of a President who is too pliable has been growing in volume since the summer, much to the chagrin of the White House. Nor is it coming only from the right. There are those on the left who feel let down by Obama and are infuriated by his "political pragmatism". They object, for instance, when he refuses to push aggressively for the so-called "public option" to compete with private insurers in a new healthcare system, or when he declines to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington because his agenda with China is more important to him. They even don't like it when he brushes off a member of Congress openly calling him a liar as being unimportant.

That's the way Obama is, but some contend it is unhelpful. "Obama has created an atmosphere of no fear," Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and political biographer, told the National Journal. "Nobody is really worried about the revenge of Barack Obama, because he is not a vengeful man. That's what we love about him; he is so high-minded, and a conciliatory guy, and he tries to govern with a sense of consensus – all noble goals, but they don't get you very far in this Washington knifing environment."

As Obama takes his time deciding whether to send as many as 40,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, he has again come in for attack, not least from Dick Cheney, who brooded in the shadows while in power but prefers daylight in opposition. "What ... Cheney calls dithering, President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, shot back. "We've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously."

The truth is that when Obama has played it tough, it has usually been in ways almost designed to infuriate the conservatives who call him lily-livered. He fired the CEO of General Motors earlier his year before bailing the company out and, just last week, his administration took extraordinary steps to force banks and lending institutions to scale back previously outrageous pay deals for their executives. Both things were bold and in-your-face. But they also represent severe cases of interfering in the private market, which the right abhors.

Obama knows he is still on probation. In his speech in Hackensack, he asked the crowd "to cast aside the cynics and the sceptics and prove to all Americans that leaders who do what's right and who do what's hard will be rewarded and not rejected". It was meant as an appeal to Jersey voters to show mercy to Corzine and give him back his job. But, with the 3 November polls being seen by some as the first verdict on Obama's infant presidency, he might too have been asking for a little understanding for himself.

Dwindling fortunes: Obama's approval rating

12pts

The percentage drop in Obama's approval rating since he became president.

65,000

The number of US troops currently in Afghanistan. Obama is considering a request from his top general for another 40,000.

280

The number of US troops killed in Afghanistan since Obama's election victory.

$787bn

The size of the Obama adminstration's fiscal stimulus programme.

$2.5m

The amount Obama earned in royalties from the sale of his books last year.

3

The number of presidents, including Barack Obama, to win the Nobel Peace Prize while in office.

24

The number of rounds of golf played by President Obama this year.

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