Obama's year in power: Healthcare was tough, but the future is tougher

With energy policy, financial regulation and immigration on the agenda, it will be a daunting second year, writes Rupert Cornwell

It's been tough, and in the short term it's probably going to get tougher still. That, in a nutshell, is the road ahead for Barack Obama as he embarks on the second year of what, 12 months ago, was the most eagerly anticipated American presidency in half a century.

The mood, a week before Mr Obama delivers his first State of the Union address to Congress next Wednesday, could scarcely be more different.

His Democratic Party faces losses in November's midterm elections, and the only question is how large those losses will be. Whatever the result of yesterday's special Senate election in Massachusetts, growing doubts surround his ambitious legislative agenda. Republican obstructionism on Capitol Hill is only likely to grow.

The most immediate challenge is healthcare reform. One way or another the measure's fate will be decided in the next few weeks, maybe days – and it must be. Mr Obama was elected on the promise of bringing real change. Yet his other priorities, of overhauling the country's energy policy, the regulation of its financial markets and immigration laws, have all been stalled by the unrelenting focus on healthcare.

Somehow the President must re-invigorate his troops. But even before the spectre of defeat loomed in Massachusetts, dozens of Democrats facing tough re-election battles in November were wavering.

In the months ahead, the pressure to break rank on legislation unpopular in their home states and congressional districts will only grow, further jeopardising Mr Obama's ability to deliver on his promise of tackling problems ignored during eight years of Republican neglect.

At least the legislative agenda is, to a degree at least, within his control. The economy, the biggest domestic cloud over this presidency, is not. Mr Obama's flagging poll ratings, and the sour and obstreperous national mood, reflect the loss of jobs and wages in America's worst recession in 75 years.

The recession may have originated when George W Bush was in office but, – fairly or unfairly – this is Mr Obama's economy now. And while statistical indicators may have turned up, every sign is that recovery will be slow. Technically the recession may be over, but for most of 2010 it won't feel like it. That alone bodes continuing difficulties for the White House.

The foreign policy outlook is equally tricky. Mr Obama may be winding down US involvement in Iraq, but that war has been replaced in the headlines by the equally unpopular conflict in Afghanistan. Having decreed his own surge in Afghanistan, that war unquestionably now belongs to Mr Obama. If US casualties continue to increase, and no perceptible progress is made – either on the ground or in the quality of Hamid Karzai's governance – he will come under fresh pressure.

The toughest problem though is the entwined dilemma of the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, and Iran and its nuclear programme. For the Obama administration, even more than for its predecessor, the military option against Tehran represents the very last resort.

But if tougher sanctions have no effect, its hand could yet be forced by Israeli action. That, however, would almost certainly draw a retaliation from Iran, perhaps disrupting global oil supplies and sparking new attacks from Hamas and Hizbollah against Israel, possibly sparking a new regional war.

Complaints about Mr Obama are many, even from supposed allies. He is too cerebral in office, they say, too analytical and too solipsistic. He does not "feel the people's pain" as visibly as he should. The criticism, however, ignores a basic truth about the modern presidency: the campaign to win it requires a candidate to promise far more than he can possibly deliver.

In Mr Obama's case, the mismatch between words and deeds has been greater than usual. One reason has been the ferocity of a Republican opposition whose only ambition is to block every piece of legislation he proposes. The other is an ever more dysfunctional system of government that makes it easy for them to do so.

But at least the absurdly high expectations of 12 months ago are over.

In 2010, and for the rest of his term, he will have to grind out his successes – some of which will not be seen as such at the time. He will have to move on past the inevitable failures. As the healthcare battle has proved, perfect solutions are impossible.

In politics however, nothing is ever quite as good or as bad as it appears. Suppose the Democrats do lose Massachusetts, and with it their health bill. Mr Obama will look rather like another young Democratic president who failed in a bid to overhaul healthcare in his second year, and was then humiliated in the 1994 midterm elections – to the point of pleading that, despite everything, his office was still "relevant".

Yet Bill Clinton came back from the depths to win a second term handsomely. Today he is generally regarded as a successful president. Whatever the likely travails of his second year, the script for Mr Obama could be similar.

The Independent panel one year on

Mary Beth Ray, Republican, Washington DC lawyer

Has Obama lived up to expectation?

He's exceeded my expectations. He's tried to tackle a broad range of impossible topics domestically and abroad. And in this hostile and partisan climate, he has shown a willingness to compromise.

What has been his crowning achievement during his first year?

Reaching out to the Muslim world in the Cairo speech, and therefore demonstrating a new spirit of American understanding and cooperation, and a radical sea change from the Bush years.

What was his worst mistake or low point?

Jumping into the racial dispute between Professor Gates and Officer Crawley before he knew all the facts. The beer summit was genius, however.

How do you rate his handling of the economic crisis?

Technically speaking, we are out of the recession so I would say he has been successful so far, but it will take time for unemployment to catch up with the stock market.

What's your verdict on the healthcare bill?

Something has to be done and I admire Obama for trying to push it through, but I think he could play a stronger role in crafting the bill itself.

What about Afghanistan and Iraq?

It's a completely impossible situation, and he does not seem to have made it worse so far. However, with elections coming up in Iraq, we could be in for another disaster. Somebody has got to get the Arab world to step up to the plate, and maybe Obama will be able to do it.

Has the world's view of America changed?

Yes. See Exhibit A: the Nobel Prize

Would President McCain have done better?

His handling of Iraq/Afghanistan would be pretty similar to Obama's, but because of his military past, he would have got more respect for his decisions.

How would you characterise the current state of the Republican party?

Absolutely a disaster. The right-wing has hijacked the party, and now Fox News will help push their extreme agenda and sway mid-term elections. Very depressing and I am seriously considering changing my party affiliation to 'independent'.

Joseph McManus, Republican, Washington DC lawyer

Has Obama lived up to expectation?

He's exceeded my (quite low) expect-ations. He's done a good job on foreign relations, the wars, and national security. On domestic matters, I'm neither disappointed nor surprised. He's a government-knows-best guy, and a long term fiscal disaster.

What has been his crowning achievement during his first year?

Figuring out how to handle the Afghan war. Very deliberate. He reached the best option – out of all bad ones – and delivered his message to the American people very well

What was his worst mistake or low point?

Worse mistake is letting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi get away with too much power. We're not at the low point yet, but we are close.

How do you rate his handling of the economic crisis?

So-so. Yes the stimulus package was needed, but there was too little up front, and too much in 2011 and 2012. Banking reform is a zero – to his and Congress's shame.

What's your verdict on the healthcare bill?

The bill, to the extent one even knows what is in it, is a true disaster. Nothing to contribute to controlling healthcare costs which is the problem. Reform is needed, but not the kind being rammed through by appealing to every special interest group that squawks.

What about Afghanistan and Iraq?

He has done as well as could be reasonably expected, certainly as well as Bush did, and probably as well as McCain would have done.

Has the world's view of America changed?

Nice words but I see no difference in the behaviour of our enemies, allies or competitors.

Would President McCain have done better?

With Democrats in control of Congress, the only thing McCain could have done better is fashion a better healthcare bill.

How would you characterise the current state of the Republican party?

The Republican Party is near death, and given its performance, it should be put out of its misery. However, there is always rebirth.

Laura De Busk, Democrat, Virginia Housewife

Has Obama lived up to expectation?

Yes. My hope in voting for him was that we would, after eight long years, have a President who was thoughtful, intelligent, and a good communicator. With the enormity of the problems our country is facing, I believe he has demonstrated all of these qualities.

What has been his crowning achievement during his first year?

Getting a healthcare bill passed through both the House and Senate. It's something politicians have been talking about for 40 years and he was able to make it happen. It's not perfect, but it's a start.

What was his worst mistake or low point?

The August healthcare town hall meetings. It was disappointing to see elected officials misleading US citizens. I think the Administration let the debate get away from them.

How do you rate his handling of the economic crisis?

While we are starting to see glimmers of hope, I definitely think we have a long way to go. He was successful in blunting the crisis with the stimulus package, but only time will tell if the policies he has pushed will bring the economy back.

What's your verdict on the healthcare bill?

It was historic when it passed both Houses of Congress. I understand the bill is not perfect, but, as a country, we have to stop talking about it and actually do something. I hope it will be a building block towards making healthcare affordable and available to all.

What about Afghanistan and Iraq?

I'm glad that Obama has changed our focus back to Afghanistan, where it should have been for the last eight years. I'm confident that he has an excellent understanding of the complex issues and I admire him for his due dillegence before deciding on strategy.

Has the world's view of America changed?

The Nobel Peace prize was a resounding statement of how much he has done to change many countries' perceptions.

Would President McCain have done better?

I personally don't believe that McCain could have done anything better this past year.

How would you characterise the current state of the Republican party?

It continues to move further and further to the right. Their conservative base has basically eliminated any moderates in the party and they have made it virtually impossible for any member of their party to work with the President, which I think will hurt them moving forward.

Renee Van Vechten, Democrat, California Academic

Has Obama lived up to expectation?

Admittedly Americans like me hope for too much out of one mere mortal, but I was hoping for a clearer, faster way out of Iraq, and less accommodation of corporate and union interests. My disappointments are offset by his intelligence and reasonableness

What has been his crowning achievement during his first year?

Installing an administration that is helping to rehabilitate the US's image abroad, especially in the area of climate change.

What was his worst mistake or low point?

Perhaps not weighing in sooner to help calm the hysteria over health care last summer.

How do you rate his handling of the economic crisis?

As well as anyone could have done, or better, given the morass created by the previous administration. It has been clean-up time, nearly all the time.

What's your verdict on the healthcare bill?

The system badly needs surgery, but no president is capable of performing it on a body politic that refuses to admit the problem, distrusts the diagnosis, is confused by the prescription, and terrified of changing habits. He's pragmatically handed it over to Congress.

What about Afghanistan and Iraq?

Considering terrorist threats from the Middle East, there's hardly an easy "out" that Obama could have found. He's had to tread a middle way that doesn't inflame the right and also quiets the left, a compromise that's hardly noble but again eminently pragmatic.

Has the world's view of America changed?

Yes, but not definitively, and certainly not in the Middle East.

Would President McCain have done better?

He would have gotten Sarah Palin considerably more invitations to meet with actual world leaders.

How would you characterise the current state of the Republican party?

It is lacking a leader and a centre; moderates are mostly unwelcome. Those in Congress are revelling in their obstructionist role, capitalising on economic uncertainty to boost their 2010 chances, but without a positive programme to deal better with today's problems.

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