So, one year on, has Obama delivered?

US editor David Usborne explains how unrealistic expectations and the realities of power have weighed on the President
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The first-year record of President Barack Obama has come under a harsh spotlight as members of his own party faced up last night to the mortifying possibility that a special election due in Massachusetts today to fill the seat of the late Senator Ted Kennedy could end in a monumental upset win for the Republicans.

A comparison of the tally of promises made in 2008 and what the 44th President of the United States has actually managed to deliver since his inauguration helps to tell the tale. Mr Obama took a lot onto his plate, but a year on, he hasn't managed to wrap up any of the main dossiers, whether that is closing down Guantanamo, completing healthcare reform or making measurable headway on immigration, gay rights or green energy. His foreign agenda, for which the rest of the world had such high hopes, has been stop-start.

A deeply nervous White House knows that defeat today for the Democrat candidate in Massachusetts today would be seen as a searing repudiation of all that Mr Obama has done – or failed to do – in the 12 months since his inauguration one year ago tomorrow. "The people of Massachusetts are angry, like they should be," Michael Capuano, a Democrat congressman from Boston, commented, before adding: "They need to focus that anger in the right direction – at the people who put us in this position."

The Democratic flagbearer, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, and her opponent, a conservative member of the state senate, Scott Brown, hurtled back and forth across the north-eastern state in search of vital last votes with polls suggesting they were neck-and-neck. Given little chance of prevailing until a week ago, Mr Brown has tapped the winds of frustration and anger with the perceived lack of progress in Washington and a widespread feeling of disappointment, itself fuelled by both the stalling economic recovery and the rhetoric of conservative media commentators.

The Coakley campaign was due last night to release one final primetime television advertisement featuring Mr Obama making a final appeal to voters to side with her and against Brown. This came as a poll released yesterday put the Republican five points ahead, although within the poll's margin of error. "If Brown wins this election, it will be the shot heard around the world," said Colleen Conley, president of the Rhode Island Tea Party. "This will be a clear indictment of the Obama presidency and the Democratic Congress overreaching."

Mr Brown, who pitches himself as the underdog fighting the elitist Democrat forces, is benefiting from the support of the Tea Party Republicans – a loose but increasingly potent coalition of right-wing conservatives that is giving voice to popular anger with big taxation and big government. While it targets Mr Obama particularly, it is barely more respectful of the Republican hierarchy in Washington.

Victory for Mr Brown would give the Tea Party movement, which was only born after Mr Obama came to office, new momentum to protest expanded government and the healthcare reform effort in particular. It is due to have its first national convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in two weeks with Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska, set to appear as the keynote speaker.

The growing influence of the Tea Party coalition, which takes its name from the 1773 ditching of taxed tea from Britain into Boston Harbour by rebellious colonists, is unnerving Democrats and even some Republicans.

But the struggle for votes in Massachusetts is underscoring the political frailty of Mr Obama a quarter of the way in to his four-year term. Recent Gallup polls show him with a favourability rating of just 50 per cent, one of the lowest for any president in modern times at the 12-month mark.


Promise: Barely had Obama arrived in the Oval Office than he had promised that he would close the American prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba within a year, calling it the best recruitment tool that al-Qa'ida could hope for.

And? The most infamous hostelry in the world is still open and taking care of its reluctant guests. It wasn't long before the White House was backing away from its self-imposed deadline when it became obvious that shuttering the camp was not going to be easy. Obama pleaded with foreign lands to take its inmates, but no one exactly threw open their doors. And if some of the detainees were to end up on US soil, how would they be housed and tried?

Triumph or Failure? Give him a little more time, it will be done. A prison in a far-flung corner of Illinois will be spruced up to receive some detainees. The accused 9/11 plotters, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are to be tried in federal court in Manhattan, although it will be a while before the trials start. Most of the others are to be tried at military commissions with the procedures modified to improve the defendants' legal rights.

What are they saying? "After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September 11 will finally face justice," said Eric Holder, US Attorney General.


Promise: Another way that Obama sought to separate himself from the policies of his predecessor George Bush, below, was to bring the US in to line with mainstream international opinion and take serious steps to curb greenhouse gases. He promised to set emissions reduction targets for 2020 and 2050 and to heed the advice of scientific experts.

And? He did go to Copenhagen and the disappointment that the environmental lobby felt when all the delegations had gone home was – for a change – not all the fault of the US. Obama was behind the last-minute pact among a group of large nations promising to make public any progress towards meeting new emission ceilings. It looks like that pact may grow into something serious.

Triumph or Failure? Obama's contributions in Copenhagen can't shield the disappointing progress at home. He took office promising that a cap-and-trade bill would be passed by Congress within a year to introduce for the first time binding limits on emissions. It was passed by the House of Representatives weeks ago, but has become seriously bunged up in the Senate. A new push may be possible when healthcare reform is finally done.

What are they saying? "If anything was clear at the Copenhagen talks, it's that the world is waiting for the US to act. When it does, President Obama can knit together the historic breakthroughs," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defence Fund.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Promise: Obama's campaign thrived on his pledge to end the war in Iraq, which he termed "the wrong conflict". The right war was the one in Afghanistan, which, he said, had been neglected by Bush.

And? It is hard to fault Obama as far as keeping his word on America's two major conflicts goes. In Iraq, the current plan remains to bring the number of US troops down from 120,000 to 50,000 by the end of August, with a full withdrawal scheduled for 2011. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, six weeks ago the President reiterated his support for the war against the Taliban by sending in 30,000 more troops. Meanwhile, the US drone efforts over western Pakistan have been stepped up.

Triumph or Failure? There is plenty that could still go violently wrong in Iraq, with the elections in March presenting the first likely hurdle. As for Afghanistan, there has been little good news lately, and casualties among US and Nato forces in the country continue to escalate. Obama says he will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in mid-2011. Really?

What are they saying? "In general the American people, while obviously this is very difficult financially for us, will continue to support the troops that are there," said Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


Promise: On the stump in 2008, the Illinois senator promised that there would be a new atmosphere in Washington, where cronyism would wither, lobbyists would have to find new jobs and partisan gridlock would be swept away for good. It was going to be bipartisanship all the way.

And? Progress has not been overwhelming and that is part of the reason his approval ratings have been slipping. The healthcare issue has been all about lobbying by special interests and deals cut behind closed doors. Newly transparent, Washington is not. As for a new bipartisan spirit? Actually, the atmosphere in Washington may be more toxic than ever before. No one is saying that it's all Obama's fault. Note the bipartisan team he sent to Haiti.

Triumph or Failure? It's hard to claim a breakthrough on cross-party co-operation when the entire raison d'être for the Republicans for now seems to be to stop Obama's agenda in its tracks. Not one Republican voted for the healthcare compromise that came out of the Senate. There are lots of American voters angry that Washington seems more distant from them, the real people, than ever before.

What are they saying? "That's what's been lost this year ... that whole sense of changing how Washington works," Obama admitted last week on his failure to bridge the partisan divide.


Promise: Obama began to surge past McCain in the final stretch of the 2008 campaign because he was more reassuring on economic issues and seemed better equipped to get the economy moving again.

And? Some economists would argue that Obama's $787bn stimulus bill, which the White House pushed through Congress early in the President's term, saved the US from a far more serious recession than it was already experiencing. But the recovery is slow. It is likely that Obama and Congress will have to do more – and quickly – to seriously improve the one statistic that everyone cares about: job numbers.

Triumph or Failure? Nobody could pretend that the economic situation offers anything to cheer about, even if the number of jobs being lost every month in the US is far smaller than a year ago. However, measures he introduced to give relief to homeowners facing foreclosure have had a negligible impact. His move this month to levy a special tax on the banks is meant to counter the perception that Wall Street got bailed out while Joe Public didn't.

What are they saying? "Thanks to what you did, we can say now what we could not say a year ago," Obama told Democrats in Congress this month. "America is moving forward again."


Promise: Reforming the US healthcare system has been a goal that has eluded American presidents for decades. Obama, however, made it the centrepiece of his campaign, promising that all Americans would have coverage.

And? Would he really have embarked on this formidable project if he had known what else would be on his plate? Well, maybe, but it has sucked oxygen from just about every other issue in Washington and, 12 months later, a bill is still not there. True, House and Senate have passed their own versions, and a joint bill may be on Obama's desk to be signed by early next month. But a Republican win in Massachusetts today could still throw a spanner in the works.

Triumph or Failure? Ask a conservative – any conservative – and they will tell you that what is likely to come out of Congress is a key to a special kind of hell called socialism. Ask any liberal and they will bemoan how the package has been watered down to the point of near-uselessness. But if it gets through, that itself will constitute a miracle and while it will not be comprehensive reform, it will be a very big step towards a saner system.

What are they saying? Obama's healthcare reform is "good old socialism, raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor", railed Glenn Beck, on Fox News.

Foreign policy

Promise: Obama mined a rich foreign policy seam during the campaign: Bush had alienated the rest of the world and it was time America was nice again. That would extend to talking to old enemies, including Iran, and persuading Israel and the Palestinians to see new reason, too.

And? He won the Nobel Peace Prize, didn't he? All right, no one was quite sure why. The fruit of the Obama approach smelled so damn good, even if it hadn't ripened yet. Certainly, the atmospherics of global diplomacy are a lot sweeter since Bush left office. But where are we on Middle East peace and Iran, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and North Korea? Nothing catastrophic has come of Obama's efforts on these fronts, but that's not saying much.

Triumph or Failure? A lot of Democrats watching Obama's handling of the Haiti calamity saw a new steel in his posture – and they liked it. And there was a sense of gravity in his reaction to the bomb that didn't quite go off on the plane to Detroit on Christmas Day. But the main foreign dossiers, including Israel and Palestine (Netanyahu snubbed him on new settlements) are still unresolved.

What are they saying? "Engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," Obama said in Oslo. "But no repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."