It was the best of times, and the worst. Barack Obama did what Democratic presidents have been trying and failing to do since Harry Truman: deliver the policy Holy Grail of health reform that will extend insurance coverage to most of the millions of Americans who don’t have it. No longer will Americans lose their coverage if they get sick, or go without it on account of a pre-existing medical condition, to name just a few changes the new law introduces. When Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, he used 22 different pens so they could be handed out as historic souvenirs and archived for posterity. “Today we are affirming that essential truth, a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself, that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations,” he declared. An open microphone caught Vice President Joe Biden summing the occasion up more succinctly, as he turned to the President and said, “This is a big f–king deal.”
Obama had other successes: getting Congress to pass financial reform legislation to protect credit card users and people seeking mortgages, and to oversee risk in the financial system and prevent another collapse. He successfully confirmed his solicitor general, Elena Kagan, to be a Supreme Court justice, giving the nation’s highest judicial body three sitting women judges for the first time in history. He pushed through an overhaul and expansion of federal student loans.
But his health-care reforms passed the Democratic-controlled Congress without a single Republican vote. Republicans tarred the legislation as yet another big government power grab by the Obama administration—and their version of events seems to have stuck. Coming soon after the bailouts of Wall Street, the government takeover of GM, and interventions in the mortgage markets, the health-care debate helped fan the flames that led the Tea Party movement to boil over, helping the Republicans regain power in the House of Representatives.
As early as January there were clues that the political landscape had shifted beneath Obama’s feet. Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts for the Senate seat long held by the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy. Elsewhere, Republican primary voters turfed establishment Republican candidates, including in some cases sitting lawmakers, in favour of more conservative candidates backed by Tea Party groups and Sarah Palin.
The battered U.S. economy began to turn around in the spring, but for the rest of the year growth was so anemic that to most Americans, suffering under nearly 10 per cent unemployment rates, it still felt like the Great Recession. The White House argued it saved or created three million jobs, but it barely registered with the public.
Obama also disappointed his own supporters on more than one front. He failed to carry out campaign promises like closing the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; dropping the ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military; reforming America’s immigration system; or passing climate change legislation. Comedian Jon Stewart, an ostensibly friendly party, told Obama that the “audacity” of his campaign promises had given way to the “timidity” of his government.
Obama’s approval ratings reached a new low of 41 per cent over the summer. The Nov. 2 elections were in Obama’s own words a “shellacking.” Republicans gained at least 63 seats in the House, enough to give them control. In the Senate, they took six seats, leaving the Democrats barely clinging to a majority.
Internationally, Obama’s superstardom waned as well. It’s almost hard to remember that only a year earlier Obama was bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, he ran into criticism for Washington’s large deficits and the Federal Reserve’s decision to print money to keep interest rates low. On his trip to Asia, Obama had aimed to rally international opposition to China’s currency policy. Instead, he met criticisms that America’s cheap money policy threatened to create financial bubbles abroad. In Lisbon for a NATO meeting in November, he was criticized for driving around in a diesel-fuelled monster limousine while other leaders travelled in electric cars. After the election, Obama took to arguing that his was a communication problem: he had not made the case well enough that the big-government moves were emergency responses to emergency situations—which arose under his predecessor. Indeed, even after financial institutions paid back more than half the money borrowed from taxpayers in the financial bailout, only 16 per cent of Americans were aware of this, according to a Pew poll. Historians will debate whether his problems were in communicating, or whether he had overreached by pushing policies that were simply too liberal for the country—or if he did as well as anyone could have, given the mess he inherited.
As Obama heads into the second half of his term, he faces an even greater quagmire in the Senate and an obstructionist House whose Democratic caucus will still be led by Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal not known for compromise. All signs point toward two years of political gridlock, Republican-led investigations into his administration, and lingering economic misery.
Amid post-election murmurings that Obama is destined to be a one-term president, Republican presidential-wannabes are suiting up for battle. As the year 2011 begins, Mr. President, welcome to 2012.