Fresh off spending the last month writing Best of 2009 and/or Best of the Decade lists, political commentators will now begin for at least the next week writing their evaluations of Barack Obama's first year in office.
The president himself is weighing in, admitting to People magazine in their issue released on Friday that he's failed in his mission to bring the country together.
The pollsters are getting busy asking voters their thoughts on the 44th commander in chief in the country. According to an L.A. Times survey, the country is mixed on what they think of the president, with half of those surveyed saying he's too liberal.
One criticism that came relatively early in his first year was his sheer omnipresence. As comic Bill Maher cracked, "I want a president, not a 'Law & Order' re-run."
But though Obama shows up frequently to make statements and announcements (such as his back-to-back appearances regarding the humanitarian crises in Haiti this week), believe it or not, it's been nearly half a year since his last formal news conference.
That prime-time event was conducted in July, if you'll recall. It dealt substantially with health care, and was actually somewhat of a snoozer. That is, until nearly the end of the night, when he was asked to weigh in on the burning question of the moment: the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates after his confrontation with a white Cambridge police officer. Obama called the arrest "stupid," a somewhat inelegant response that some of his (white) critics hold against him to this day.
In any event, this week I began reading the Atlantic Magazine's January/February issue, which features several different perspectives on the president. The most comprehensive review is by historian David Greenberg, called "The Honeymooners." In the climax of his essay, Greenberg compares (favorably, he insists) Obama not with Lincoln or Ronald Reagan, two presidents that he's spoken of admiring as leaders, but with the man whose ghost he tried to exorcise during the campaign, Bill Clinton. Read this excerpt:
Obamas successes and struggles in his first year bear striking resemblances to Clintons. Both men were elected with similar mandatesClinton won 370 electoral votes, Obama 365and majorities in both houses of Congress. Both opened their first years well by signing a few queued-up executive orders and billsincluding the Family and Medical Leave Act, for Clinton, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the expansion of the Childrens Health Insurance Program, for Obama. And both made economic revival their first priority. Both men also entered office facing tooth-and-nail resistance from a right wing that had just lost the presidency. The right imagined Clinton, as it does Obama, to be far more radical than he really was, and it thus tried to delegitimize him. A short line connects the Who shot Vince Foster? conspiracy theories to those surrounding Obamas citizenship.
Republicans also forced Clinton to pass his first economic plan without their support, much as they tried to scuttle Obamas stimulus package. And despite losing the legislative battle, they succeeded in shaping public perception of these economic bills after their passage. Clintons 1993 budgetwhich not only set the government on course for a record surplus, but also cut taxes for millions while raising them on very fewwas nonetheless portrayed, and viewed by most Americans, as a tax hike. In parallel fashion, economic evidence suggests that Obamas spring stimulus bill has already done some appreciable good. But according to an August Gallup poll, Americans consider it too big and are uncertain about its benefits. And while Obama seems likely, as of this writing, to emerge from his first health-care fight with more to show for it than Clinton did from his, the final bill probably wont be more than an incremental step or two forwardless like Medicare than like the 1996 Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, a now-forgotten consolation prize that Clinton garnered later in his presidency.
The reassertion of political limits and the deflation of campaign-season euphoria make it unlikely that Obamas presidency will be transformational in the sense that he spoke of on the campaign trailLincolnian in its boldness, Rooseveltian in its activism, or Kennedyesque in its uplift. More likely, it will resemble Clintons presidency, with eight years of muddling through, frequent bouts of sharp partisan opposition, fluctuating poll ratings, and dashed hopes.
What do you think? I believe that what Greenberg writes about, the fact that Obama may not be the transformative president that his supporters desperately hoped he would be, has led to great disappointment among the progressive community. But a year later, will those progressives continue to wish for something that Obama cannot, or will not be? Do they desert him, or do they stay with him? Obviously, that will determine his re-election prospects, but also whether he can get back into the upper 50s poll-wise, which would allow him a stronger hand with Congress. With a National Journal poll suggesting that the majority of Americans would vote against him today, the president obviously doesn't own that upper hand today.