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Feb. 5, 2010

Freshman year: Obama's report card

by Eli Okun, Print Managing Op-Ed Editor
In November 2008, shortly after an exuberant American electorate chose him to lead the world's foremost superpower, Barack Obama told an interviewer, "The first hundred days is going to be important, but it's probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference."

He's about one-third of the way through that journey - the Obama administration celebrated its first birthday on Jan. 20. And so far, Obama's accomplishments ensure that his presidency will leave behind lasting improvements for the country.

Obama has breezed through one of the most sweeping legislative agendas of any first-year president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He's salvaged the economy from the brink of collapse, strengthened America's foreign standing with an ambitious new outreach and achieved a number of quiet triumphs that the mainstream media have conveniently ignored. Outside the White House, the president accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, rightfully acknowledging that moving toward peace and fighting just wars are not mutually exclusive. Inside the White House, he steered Sonia Sotomayor through Congress to make her the first Latina Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.

Despite harsh criticism from ruthless right-wing politicians and the public they misled, Obama has kept the dreams of his election and inauguration intact. So it's too bad that his greatest failing has been self-promotion.

The administration's inability to fully win over the American public materialized during 2009's two biggest political debates: the economy and health-care. Misplaced conservative criticism too often obscured the necessity of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which resuscitated the economy and set America on the slow path to recovery - both the Dow Jones industrial average and the NASDAQ composite closed out 2009 at their highest levels since October 2008. And despite compromises that threatened to undermine reform, Obama handled the health-care mess well and squeaked important bills through the House and Senate at the end of last year. Both measures signaled an unprecedented level of federal intervention, and both reinvigorated the forgotten concept of government as a positive force for change.

This executive assertiveness dominated most of the administration's actions last year and was also responsible for a number of lesser-known domestic achievements. The first bill Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which eliminated shameful equal-pay-for-equal-work legal gender disparities. Aided by Congress, Obama continued with more reforms, including a hate crimes prevention act and higher taxes on tobacco. Both pieces of legislation discreetly pushed the country toward greater safety and social justice.

Obama has succeeded on foreign policy and national security, as well. His mere election was enough to bolster America's political standing in much of the world. But, to his credit, he hasn't hidden behind a knee-jerk "I'm not Bush" defense. Instead, he has worked to eliminate the "leader of the free world" attitude and promote a more pluralistic worldview. His landmark Cairo speech on June 3 extended an open hand to the Muslim world, and he improved relations with China with a mid-November visit and an expansion of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (a framework for economic discussions between the two countries). According to Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the think tank The Brookings Institution, "[Obama] has set a new tone in the fact that he has consulted widely with both friends and adversaries." Those discussions led to level-headed decisions to withdraw from Iraq and temporarily surge in Afghanistan. The pragmatism that escaped Senate Republicans preoccupied with smearing Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's leadership abilities has almost always manifested in Obama's practical approach to the war on terror.

That said, the administration has had some first-year failings. Obama's goal to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay was admirable, but his follow-through wasn't: His one-year deadline has passed, but 200 inmates remain. His failure to emphasize human rights abroad - which the absence of Tibet talk on the China trip exemplified - has been disappointing. And the fact that Scott Gration, Obama's envoy to Sudan, declared the ongoing genocide in Darfur finished was a travesty.

But, by and large, Obama's achievements are remarkable, particularly in light of the domestic hurdles he has faced. Those hurdles have been pretty high, chief among them a stubborn Senate whose divided Democrats and insolent Republicans have become more of a hassle to appease than a conduit for bipartisan reform. The grandiose expectations of an electorate buoyed by overuse of the catchphrases 'change' and 'hope' have, predictably, forced a 53 percent approval rating in The Washington Post's latest poll.

It turns out that Obama's inability to promote himself has overshadowed his accomplishments. Dynamic oratorical campaign skills faded into speeches that were no match for Glenn Beck's bluster. Obama's no-drama persona proved ineffective amidst an American public far too mesmerized by vocal extremists. But luckily, that quality has given us sensible policies that are a far cry from the fiery rhetoric swirling around him.

So let right-wing pundits and crazed protestors have their say. We can sleep sound knowing that, within the walls of the White House, pragmatism and calm prevail. His rational decisions have bettered the nation, but moving into year two, Obama should adopt one more resolution: Sell them better.



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