One year ago, I was in attendance at the closing rally of the Obama campaign, where close to 100,000 supporters packed the Prince William fairgrounds in Manassas, Virginia. As the participants left the grounds, there was an almost Zen-like atmosphere. Few doubted that the next day, November 4, 2008, their fellow Americans would for the first time pick an African-American to be their president. The question was no longer when, but by how big a margin? The Obama-Biden ticket swept into power with 365 Electoral College votes to 173 for the McCain-Palin ticket, garnering 53% of the popular vote in the process. It was a clear mandate and the best popular vote performance by a Democrat since LBJ in 1964. Particularly interesting were Obama’s victories in key southern states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. By the eve of his inauguration, the president-elect was riding high in the polls, hitting a plateau with a 65% approval rating. Obama had not yet begun his first year in office and it had become obvious that the eyes of the world were on this new president.
Since then, America has witnessed quite possibly the most exciting presidential entrance since the Camelot days of JFK in 1960. From the outset, it was clear the new president wanted to hit the ground running. In order to do so, he would have to assemble a diverse and select team that included his main primaries rival, Hillary Clinton, respected Republicans like Defence Secretary Bob Gates and General James Jones, who took over as National Security advisor, and Clinton stalwarts like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Vice-President Biden was given a premier role as principal counsellor. Add to this a stellar White House staff led by Rahm Emmanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, and all expectations were that this would indeed be a team that could make Obama’s a truly transformational presidency. Hopes were high back then and change was in the air. A year later, however, Americans are not as enthralled with their charismatic president.
Obama wasted no time acting quickly on Guantanamo and the issue of torture, followed by a significant address in Cairo to the Muslim world. He put in motion key initiatives in hotspots like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. On the economy, Obama got Congressional approval for the biggest stimulus package in history and proceeded to increase government support to key financial institutions and the auto industry. Facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it became evident that Obama would have to be audacious to prevent disaster. Most economists now maintain the financial abyss was avoided, but the economy remains fragile and the jobless rate is flirting with 10%. The last quarter showed a 3.5% growth rate, but it was largely the product of government-inspired spending. Still, the threat of doomsday scenarios has receded. At the same time, Obama established four legislative priorities: health care reform, new financial regulations, changes to energy policy, and a focus on climate change. Finally, the Obama administration has adopted student-centric reforms in education which have attracted bipartisan support. His approval rating is down from the inaugural period, but remains a respectable 52%. Americans may be divided on the policy directions of their new president, but they seem to maintain their confidence in him.
This being said, there are legitimate concerns about the style and the direction of Obama’s policies. The left is impatient and feels the White House will not deliver significant healthcare reform unless it includes a public option. On gay rights, some activists are openly critical of the president’s go-slow approach. And on Afghanistan, Obama will likely opt for greater involvement, to the displeasure of the more militant faction of his left-wing base. Recent polls also show Obama has lost significant support among independents who now make up the largest electoral group in the nation. This can be attributed to the slow recovery of the economy, the increases to the government’s deficit and debt, and the uncertainty surrounding Obama’s real intentions on healthcare. Some critics within his own party complain that Obama is prolonging the shelf-life of Bush-inspired policies and others feel that his cautious and incremental style is not quite what they expected or what they voted for.
Obama has shown that campaigning and governing are two different realities. To some, he may seem to be tackling too many issues and spreading himself too thin. With government involvement growing under his watch, the hope among conservatives and the Republican party is that people will reject his agenda as too ambitious and out of step with the mood of America. This has led right-wing commentators to suggest Obama is vulnerable and could lose control of Congress to the GOP in 2010, and become a one term president. But Obama is usually at his most surprising most when his detractors begin to write his obituary. He is extraordinarily resilient and resourceful. If he succeeds in getting meaningful healthcare reform within his first year in office, makes some progress in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, and the economy continues to show signs of revival, then it will not be surprising to see Obama climb in the polls.
With the first anniversary of Obama now approaching, we are seeing a leader who is far from flawless, but has the capacity for growth. We see a leader who, while appealing to the liberal end of the ideological spectrum, is far more complex than a simple ideologue. He has demonstrated a penchant for compromise in a polarized political world and shown a capacity to face adversity with aplomb. Cool and cerebral, he is a pragmatist able to stir crowds of followers while at the same time appealing to uncommitted voters. On the campaign trail, Obama was both sure of himself and audacious. In office, he has been more deliberate, but seems as resolute as ever to achieving his goals. The enthusiasm that brought him to power may have waned if we judge by the election results in Virginia and New Jersey, and he will soon have to assume greater responsibility for the economy and the wars he inherited. But, despite the setbacks, Obama has brought an air of optimism to politics in America and the world with the promise of a transformational presidency.