Last week marked the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s election victory. It was a significant moment for millions of Americans, the crest of a wave that built steady momentum amid a season of fear and uncertainty. When the President-elect spoke to a cheering throng in Chicago’s Grant Park about “a new dawn of American leadership,” many wanted badly to believe him, to cast aside the cynicism that had calcified during eight years of war and corruption, to embrace the buzzwords—hope, change—that catapulted the Hawaii-born Junior Senator from Illinois to the nation’s highest office.
Of course, the Obama Administration is still young. In that same speech, Obama warned that “the road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term.” But it’s not too early to begin to judge the President’s accomplishments, to hold his promises up to the harsh light of reality.
Here’s a look at six key issues Obama pledged to tackle (a small sampling: overall he made 510 distinct campaign promises according to the fact-checking organization PolitiFact) and where his efforts stand.
Stabilizing the economy
The promise: “The middle-class need a rescue package…It means we are helping state governments set up projects that keep people in their jobs.” – October 7, 2008
The reality: The Obama Administration claims that the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has created or saved more than 600,000 jobs, and estimates that number will be more than 3 million by the time all the money has been paid out. Multiple examples of numbers-fudging have been uncovered (last week The New York Times reported that a $1,047 ride-on lawnmower purchased for a cemetery in Arkansas was being credited with creating or saving 50 jobs). In the end, it’s simply too early to tell what the long-range effects of Obama’s economic policies will be. The mess he inherited was deep and wide and the result of multiple factors. One thing is certain: as long as unemployment keeps rising, any temporary gains made by the stock market won’t lift the spirits (or the bank accounts) of most Americans.
Ending the war in Iraq
The promise: “When I am commander in chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war. I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq.” – March 19, 2008
The reality: Thousands of troops have been pulled out of Iraq, but about 120,000 remain. And even after the planned “withdrawal” is complete in August 2010, the President has said between 35,000-50,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in the country at least through 2011. Meanwhile, Obama is considering shifting as many as 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, meaning open-ended Middle Eastern occupations will likely define his presidency almost as much as they did Bush’s.
REFORMING HEALTH CARE
The promise: “I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American…” – June 23, 2007
The reality: Some argue that passing any health care reform will be a significant victory. But by abandoning a single-payer option at the outset, Obama allowed the insurance companies and his political opponents to set the parameters of the debate. Despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and supportive opinion polls, the best we can hope for now is a watered-down version of the already watered-down bill passed by the House, which may not even include a public option. This obviously can’t all be pinned on the President, but he is guilty of ceding more ground than he had to and entrusting the details to the lobbyist-ridden sausage factory that is Congress. He clearly wanted to avoid another Clinton debacle, and in a way he has. But that won’t help the millions of Americans who will still be without health insurance even if this “reform” limps across the finish line.
The promise: “We’re going to close Guantanamo. And we’re going to restore habeas corpus…We’re going to lead by example—by not just word, but by deed.” – June 24, 2007
The reality: Shortly after taking office, Obama made a splash by signing an executive order to close the controversial detention center. Then reality set in. The prisoners would have to go somewhere, and none of the options (releasing them to their home countries, moving them to facilities within the United States) were politically popular. The effort is still in progress, but like most things in Washington it’s been slow going. Give the President points for ambition, but, in his desire to make a symbolic break from his predecessor’s War on Terror tactics, he trumpeted this “success” prematurely.
Dealing with climate change
The promise: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all…My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.” – November 18, 2008
The reality: After eight years of oil men in the White House, having a President who admits climate change is real and is the result of human activity is a breath of fresh air. But acknowledging a problem and taking the necessary steps to deal with it aren’t the same thing. Most scientists now agree that dangerous, perhaps irreversible tipping points are approaching (or have already passed us by) and that drastic action to reduce CO2 emissions is needed now. A cap-and-trade system was included as part of Obama’s February 2009 budget. But even if it’s enacted, it may be nothing more than a Band-Aid on a gaping wound—in a June New Yorker article, NASA scientist James Hansen called cap-and-trade a “sham” that doesn’t come close to addressing the problem, and he’s not alone in that sentiment. There’s still time for Obama to get serious and start making bold decisions, but not much.
Strengthening international alliances
The promise: “Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe…Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” – July 24, 2008
The reality: To say the Bush Administration set back diplomacy is like saying Hurricane Katrina left a few puddles in New Orleans. As others have pointed out, simply being “not Bush” gave Obama a head start in international relations. But his eloquence, natural charisma and respectful, at times humble, rhetoric have helped repair damaged relationships with key allies. Whether that will foster meaningful multilateral action on any of the issues mentioned above remains to be seen (the Nobel Committee is betting a Peace Prize that it will). Yet having a President who walks onto the world stage without a swagger and speaks without mangling his native tongue is a step in the right direction.