Tags: Tough | Reviews | Obama's | First | Year

Tough Reviews for Obama's First Year

Wednesday, 20 Jan 2010 09:44 AM

By Stephen Dinan

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A year ago, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of anti-war protest group Code Pink, was seated on the Capitol's West Front, 100 feet from the inauguration stage, watching Barack Obama be sworn in as president.

On Wednesday, she and other progressive leaders will rally outside the White House to decry the record of that first year.

Mr. Obama's hope-and-change coalition has frayed under anger from the right and dissatisfaction from the left — reflecting a seismic shift in the political landscape in just a few months.

"This is not the change we believed in," Ms. Benjamin said. "Instead of peace, we got more war; instead of health care reform, we have an industry bonanza; instead of environmental leadership, we've got 'clean coal'; and, of course, Wall Street firms got record profits and bonuses [while] unemployment is at double digits."

Republican Scott Brown's victory in a Senate special election in Massachusetts on Tuesday to fill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat only deepened the despair.

"The reason Ted Kennedy's seat is no longer controlled by a Democrat is clear: Washington's inability to deliver the change voters demanded in November 2008. Make no mistake, political paralysis resulted in electoral failure," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

While Mr. Obama himself remains popular, his job approval ratings have slid on issue after issue, and his party has taken a beating in off-year and special elections.

The furor on the right is easy to explain. Republicans, in the distinct minority in both the House and Senate, concluded early on that Mr. Obama would not incorporate their ideas, and instead prepared for battle.

But the anger on the left with Mr. Obama is more complicated and stems from a combination of half-won victories and battles left for later.

In Congress, Democrats approved a $787 billion stimulus bill and expanded the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but they have been unable to pass the president's ambitious agenda of strengthening financial regulations, addressing climate change, overhauling the health care system and revamping immigration policies.

Even though Mr. Obama has taken unilateral steps to strengthen unions, increase transparency at the White House and lay the groundwork for reining in greenhouse gas emissions, he has been unable to meet his one-year deadline for closing the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs asked for patience and said Mr. Obama has learned during this first year "that change is never easy, that change takes time, that change has to go through Congress."

He said Mr. Obama does not view the one-year mark as a special time to take stock of progress.

"I can assure you the president never thought that we'd wake up at 11:59 a.m., Jan. 20, 2010, and he would think, 'Wow, I've finished it all and now what am I going to do?' We always knew we'd have plenty to do," Mr. Gibbs said.

Still, with health care reform hanging by a thread in Congress and leaders vowing to push forward, it's unclear how much patience there is among rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers, particularly given the party's track record in elections over the past year.

While they captured or held some congressional districts, Democrats fared badly in statewide elections. In Virginia, Republicans swept the top three state offices, led by Robert F. McDonnell's 18-percentage-point victory in the governor's race. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie unseated incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine.

Mr. Obama won both of those states easily in 2008, and he won Massachusetts by 26 percentage points. But personal appeals in all three states couldn't rescue the Democratic candidates.

Lawmakers said voter discontent is palpable.

"I don't need the Massachusetts race to tell me the psyche of the American people. I just need to go to the grocery store," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. "People are angry."

Republicans, though, are not certain to benefit, and some party luminaries have warned against misreading the results of the election as an endorsement of Republican alternative policies.

Polling backs up that wariness.

A survey by Democracy Corps, run by former political operatives for Bill Clinton, shows that Democrats remain more popular with voters than Republicans.

"Voters have not rushed to the Republicans, because they still blame George W. Bush and the Republicans for both the state of the economy and the deficits," the group said in its analysis.

Still, the danger for Democrats is that enthusiasm spurs Republicans to the polls in November while discouraged Democrats stay home.

"We're not up in the front lines standing up and cheering. So that means a lot of us won't be putting our energies and our resources into supporting Democrats in the next election, except maybe for the more progressive ones — we'll pick and choose," Code Pink's Ms. Benjamin said.

Not all of the one-year reviews are bad for Mr. Obama.

The League of Conservation Voters said Mr. Obama earned a B-plus for his first year in office by winning House passage last summer of a bill to address climate change and having the Environmental Protection Agency declare carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that is dangerous to public health.

President George W. Bush earned a D-minus for his first year in office, and President Clinton notched a C-plus.

Mr. Obama got mixed reviews from the American Civil Liberties Union, which criticized his failure to roll back "the privacy-invading domestic security policies enacted by the Bush administration," but said he has made strides on open-government initiatives, free-speech issues and pro-choice concerns.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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