A comprehensive post from the NYTimes asseses how the US president has performed in the past year with videos and more: Assessing Barack Obama
WASHINGTON — For a president elevated to power on the back of history, the tears and euphoria of Grant Park feel like a thousand years ago. It has been just one year, of course, since Barack Obama’s election, a year since that moment when supporters felt everything was possible amid lofty talk of “remaking this nation” and determined chants of “Yes, we can.”
A year later, as a few smaller elections yielded a more critical judgment, the hope and hubris have given way to the daily grind of governance, the jammed meeting schedule waiting in the morning, the thick briefing books waiting at night, the thousand little compromises that come in between. The education of a president is complicated, and as Mr. Obama has spent the last 12 months learning more about wielding power, his country has learned more about him.
Given the enormousness of the crises he inherited and the scope of the economic package he pushed through in his early weeks in office, it might seem odd to suggest that the hardest and most defining choices are only now confronting Mr. Obama.
But as he reaches the endgame in his campaign to remake the health care system and determines whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan, he will have to decide how much he is willing to lead, how much of the political capital earned in Grant Park he will expend to push a nation outside of its comfort zone.
The tough calls could help fill in the emerging picture of just what kind of president Mr. Obama has become. So far, it is safe to say he is an activist with an appetite for transformative ideas even as he avoids defining them, or himself, too sharply.
He is a study in dichotomy, bold yet cautious, radical yet pragmatic, all depending on whose prism you use. He has discovered that the oratory that proved so powerful on the campaign trail does not as easily move votes on Capitol Hill or stir souls in the Kremlin. His faith in his ability to bring people together has foundered in a polarized capital, as has his interest in trying.
After tackling the deepest recession in generations, Mr. Obama now presides over an economy finally growing again but still bleeding jobs and piling on debt. He looks likely to get a health care program through, an achievement that has eluded presidents for decades, and yet none of the options for Afghanistan offer any guarantee of success. Then, beyond those issues loom Iran, climate change, Guantánamo Bay, immigration and financial regulations, among others.
“The central question that emerges after these months is can he make it all work?” said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who in recent years helped lead commissions on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war.
“These problems look simpler when you’re talking to an audience like that” in Grant Park in Chicago, Mr. Hamilton said. “But they’re much harder than that. I think he’s learned that governing is harder than campaigning, and I think he’s learned it with a vengeance.”
In the White House, the wistfulness for the simpler days is palpable. “The day was just suffused with emotion and hope and warmth,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, recalled about Election Day last year. “But it is an emotional peak that you can’t maintain day to day as you do the business of government. The challenge is to maintain that degree of idealism and optimism as you work through the meat grinder.
“Everything about the politics of Washington works against hope and optimism and unity. So you have to push against that every day, understanding that it’s going to be an imperfect end result.” He added: “That night was sublime. And much of what goes on in Washington is prosaic. Or profane.”
In the process, the romanticized, Hollywood-buffed image of Mr. Obama, captured in the HBO movie “By the People” that premiered Tuesday night, has given way to a more conventional picture, of a politician who inspires and disappoints, energizes and irritates. The promise of a different way of doing business has at times looked to many like politics as usual.
“He continues to be a very smart, energetic, charismatic figure that the American people like,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a leading Republican lawmaker. “Clearly I don’t think he inhabits the lofty pedestal he occupied before the election. People are looking at this and thinking, ‘If we voted for change, this isn’t the change we wanted, or this is too much change.’ ”
Or not enough, depending on the view. “If it’s all give and no take, it begins to wear on you,” said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, a leader among liberal Democrats who think Mr. Obama has been too eager to compromise. “Some of the base has begun saying maybe the expectations are too high; maybe this is a first-term agenda. But the base is starting to say, Where are we?”
Little frustrates advisers to Mr. Obama more. They point to a series of mostly quick but largely overlooked victories that advanced Democratic priorities stalled for more than a decade: on children’s health care, tobacco regulation, hate-crimes penalties and pay equity, to name a few.
At the same time, they set the goal of passing legislation on not just health care but also on climate change and the financial industry by the end of the year over warnings that they were pushing too much, too fast — a goal that everyone agrees is now out of reach.
“They’ve seen that Congress can’t digest everything they want to do,” said Steven A. Elmendorf, a lobbyist who was the top aide to former Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri when he ran the House Democratic caucus. “The political system can’t take it. Health care has proven to be bigger and tougher than they thought. It has taken most of the oxygen in the room. You can’t do everything.”
Mr. Obama has rethought not just strategy but substance. As a candidate, he supported renegotiating the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, opposed a legal requirement that individual Americans have health insurance and promised to bolster the war effort in Afghanistan. As president, he has left the trade pact alone, embraced a health insurance mandate and after an initial reinforcement to Afghanistan is now rethinking his whole strategy there.
For the moment, at least, he has also largely abandoned the promise of postpartisan bridge building after running into early and unified Republican opposition to his spending plans. It was an idea that his more seasoned Washington advisers, like Rahm Emanuel and John D. Podesta, never held out much hope for but went along with until the president figured out for himself that Washington is too divided.
In the end, naturally, every president has to learn for himself. “You’re never prepared to be the president of the United States until you’re actually president,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.
William A. Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Obama had yet to define his identity in a vivid way.
“He likes big goals more than bright lines,” said Mr. Galston, who is now at the Brookings Institution. But, he said: “The question of who he is is still very much up for grabs. He genuinely wants to be a transformative president. He doesn’t think he was elected to do small things. Some things may end up being small, but it won’t start out that way.”
ONTDP, where were you that night and how do you feel today?