Obama at One
Looking back at President Obama's first year in office, what do you think the high point has been? And what has been your sharpest moment of disappointment? On this occasion, that's what The Nation asked members of our community, and beyond. Now we want to know what you think. Share your take on Obama's highest and lowest moments in the form provided here.
President Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009, ignited the hopes of millions of Americans seeking real change. One year later, many progressives are worried that the Obama administration's commitment to change is not as strong as it should be. Some of his stalwart supporters feel anguish at what they see as a betrayal or delay of his campaign's promises, while many of his longtime critics feel vindicated in their initial skepticism. Other progressives, however, take stock of the advances that have been made in Washington and urge the left against making definitive pronouncements on his presidency so soon. Here at The Nation, Obama's politics and policies have been at the center of vigorous, persistent discussion and debate among our writers, editors and contributors. How one views Obama's first year is no doubt guided by one's political beliefs, but also by sensibility and intuition. On this occasion, we canvassed an array of opinions from our community--and beyond. We asked the simple question: Looking back at President Obama's first year in office, what do you think the high point has been? And what has been your sharpest moment of disappointment? The answers appear below... from:
Editor, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
In straightforward policy terms, healthcare reform is the best thing Obama has done. Yes, expectations were raised for more, and the process was painful to watch, but the changes in this bill are greater than anything the Clintons tried to do, anything Al Gore ran on, anything John Kerry ran on, anything Howard Dean ran on, etc. It's a big, big, big deal. Assuming it passes.
The civil liberties area has been his worst. This is the one area in which the president's actions don't remotely match the candidate's promises. On everything else, whether you like the policies or not, he's doing pretty much what he said he would do (yes, even in Afghanistan).
In terms of style of governance, Obama has if anything over-learned some lessons of history: it was good that he didn't want to dictate a health bill to Congress, but he ceded too much authority; it was good that he didn't want to mollycoddle Israel, but he alienated even some friendly Kadima and Labour elements, etc. Those who pay too much attention to history are doomed to... well, maybe we'll see.
A difficult but good first year. His fate will be 80 percent dependent on the state of the economy. That's where the effort needs to go.
The overarching attribute of Obama's first year in office was his eagerness to accommodate the various permanent power factions that have long ruled Washington, and one can view both his high and low points through this prism.
His high point came in mid-April, when he announced he would declassify and release four memos from the Bush Office of Legal Counsel that authorized and graphically described torture techniques used by the CIA. He did so in the face of furious opposition from the intelligence community and with the knowledge that he would be accused of endangering our security. Release of those memos revitalized debate over Bush's torture regime and was an all-too-rare instance of courage and commitment to transparency from the new president. American presidents simply do not disseminate to the world memos detailing our national crimes committed in secret, but Obama did exactly that.
Obama's low point was when he got caught in August having secretly negotiated various deals with PhARMA over healthcare reform. Substantively, the deals banned what he long vowed he would institute--bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation. Worse, they were a blatant violation of his pledge to conduct all healthcare negotiations in public (even on C-SPAN), in order to prevent exactly this type of sleazy deal-making with industry interests. Massive giveaways to the most powerful corporations, effectuated in the dark, were what Obama most railed against as a candidate, and what he has repeatedly done as president.
The main hope for any administration is that it will
take the American people's side in the fight against the antidemocratic corporatists who are picking our pockets. During 2009, Obama chose different sides in that fight at different times, forming the lowlights and highlights of his first year.
The most negative example came in mid-December, when Senate Democrats agreed to a Medicare buy-in for Americans aged 55-64 as the compromise of a compromise in the grand fight over a public health insurance option.
Joe Lieberman, who had proposed the idea himself only three months earlier, flipped and swore a filibuster. Later that same day, the White House pressured the Senate to take sides with Lieberman and the health insurance industry, getting the Medicare buy-in stripped from the bill.
However, in October, Obama's FCC appointees began to draw up regulations to ensure net neutrality after Congress refused to restrain telecoms from controlling speech on the Internet. In addition, in December, Obama's EPA began
to draw up regulations to reduce emissions of the six most dangerous greenhouse gases, in the face of Senate inaction. These new regulations will bypass Congress and its corporate lobbyists.
Perhaps these are just glimmers of hope, but at least twice the Obama administration used its authority to circumvent a pro-plutocracy Congress. Those moments were the political highlights of 2009.
Adolph Reed Jr.
Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
In January 1996 I wrote the following about Barack Obama in my Village Voice column: "In Chicago, we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program--the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics."
In 2007 Matt Taibbi described him as "an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can't run against him on the issues because you can't even find him on the ideological spectrum."
In 2006 Ken Silverstein noted Obama's deep financial industry connections. Glen Ford, Paul Street and many others have stressed those and other disturbing connections, including his penchant for supporting more conservative Democratic candidates against more liberal ones.
Obama indicated no later than the summer of 2007 that he intended, if elected, to extend the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan.
The only surprise about his presidency is how many ersatz leftists cling to the fiction that he's anything other than a superficially articulate neoliberal Democrat in the Clinton mold and that his administration would act in any other way.
Senior Editor and Staff Writer, The New Yorker
No-Drama Obama--remember him? Remember that admirable temperament, that ability to peer over the horizon, that poker player's cool? That chess player's sense of where the game will be several moves ahead? That matter-of-fact, unsentimental empathy? That serene immunity to the 24/7 cable/talk-radio/Internet hysteria machine? These qualities of mind and character, which I admired in candidate Obama, I still admire in President Obama. Perhaps that's why I don't see his first year in terms of high points and sharp disappointments. There have been some of each, of course, but he's still up on the bridge, holding a steady course in a violent storm, even as many of the rest of us are clutching the railings and puking over the side.
I seldom miss a chance to bitch and moan about the flaws of our wheezing, rusted-out, barely functioning electoral and governmental machinery. So I haven't been terribly surprised at how difficult it has proved for Obama to get his modest, moderately liberal program through Congress, especially the Senate. These difficulties are not his fault. Blaming him--accusing him of cowardice, of not having "balls," of being a corporate shill, etc.--is infantile. To the extent that the left component of the center-left is indulging in that sort of self-destructive, misdirected petulance--well, I guess that's my "sharpest disappointment" of this president's first year.
Senior Lecturer, Harvard Medical School
President Obama's greatest success has been to show the rest of the world a new face of understanding and cooperation. Still, count me among those who are disappointed in his first year. He seems to lack the courage to push for the fundamental reforms necessary to deal with the enormous problems we face, and instead appeases the very forces that have gotten us into the mess. By appointing Geithner and Summers, for example, he ensured that Wall Street, but
not Main Street, would be rescued. More dismaying, he extended Bush's policy of detaining certain terrorism suspects indefinitely, and he is well on his way to expanding
the self-destructive war in Afghanistan.
As for healthcare, my area of expertise, the reform bill Obama is cobbling together wrongly retains the central role of the private insurance companies and requires millions of people to buy their products at whatever price they charge. True, some of the industry's discriminatory practices would be outlawed, but if that adds to their costs, they can simply raise premiums. The pharmaceutical industry can also continue to charge whatever it likes. If the bill is fully implemented (which I doubt), it may restrain the growth of government health spending, which is all the CBO cares about, but it will surely increase inflation in the rest of the system. Obama knows that a single-payer system is the only way to provide universal care while controlling costs, but he was unwilling to throw his weight behind it. All he seems to want now is the political victory of getting a health bill passed--any bill, no matter how untenable.
My sharpest moment of disappointment came when the administration supported the prohibition against buying lower-priced drugs from Canada and Europe. During his campaign, Obama promised to end this absurd restriction, but now he's siding with the pharmaceutical industry.
It's not enough to understand what needs to be done; the president has to be willing to fight for it and, yes, take political risks.
Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
For progressives who supported John Edwards--before his personal implosion--the first year of Obama's presidency has been, more or less, what we expected. The symbolic victory of our first African-American presidency gave way to disappointment over his centrism, which comes as no great surprise, since Obama never advertised himself as a man of the left. And indeed, he isn't.
Accordingly, we should not be surprised that Obama did not bring to heel the Bush administration's Great Giveaway to the nation's banking sector. This is a travesty of the highest order, a betrayal of millions of taxpayers whose savings have been swallowed by those well-heeled Wall Street tycoons busily doing "the Lord's work." Thousands have seen their savings go up in smoke, their homes fall into foreclosure and their jobs evaporate, only to witness the spectacle of stratospheric year-end bankers' bonuses. Efforts to bring the wildcat financial industry back under strict regulatory control appear to have taken a back seat to the "needs" of the industry to retain the best and the brightest. Why not let them go job hunting on their spectacular record of institutional collapse?
On the plus side of the equation, and with a nod once again to the erstwhile Mr. Edwards, we have to count the deeply flawed but nonetheless historic healthcare bill. It is
no panacea and may even drag the Democrats down if its benefits do not kick in before 2014. But the extension of health insurance to millions who were previously left on
their own is a social policy victory.
Professor of International Relations, Boston University
As a conservative who voted for Obama, I hoped his election would signal a clear repudiation of his predecessor's reckless and ill-advised approach to national security policy. A clear break from the past just might create the space for a principled debate about the proper direction of US policy after the cold war, after 9/11 and after the passing of the neoconservative moment. Out of that debate might come a more prudent and realistic appreciation of the capabilities and limitations of military power. Washington might wean itself from its infatuation with war--at least so I fancied. This has turned out to be a great illusion. Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan indicates that he will not break with the existing national security consensus. The candidate who promised to "change the way Washington works" has become Washington's captive. Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009, was truly a great day, for all sorts of reasons. But it's been all downhill since then.
Former National Security Adviser
I think Obama's greatest moment was his speech rejecting the "war on terror" as an excessive and dangerous way of responding to the kind of terrorism that has been directed at the United States, because it was increasingly pitting the United States against the entire Islamic world. I think that was a wise course of action, I think it was a wise speech, I thought it was a wise redefinition of America's foreign policy. And the disappointment doesn't come with a single moment. I think it comes with the fact that his efforts to get the healthcare plan adopted have consumed so much of his time that he has slowed down his efforts to change American foreign policy.
Surely, even if there were no conditions for deep, radical transformations, we could have done better. I am most disappointed, in foreign policy, not by Afghanistan (I expected a surge of sorts, no matter how disastrous) but by the woeful mishandling of the Honduras coup, a botched chance to ensure that such adventures were a thing of the past. The best, internationally: Iran has not been bombed (yet!), the interceptor missiles in Poland were canceled, the radar in the Czech Republic was not deployed. And Obama's speech in Cairo was inspirational. Words still matter!
Nationally, his highest points may be the rejection of the F-22 bomber, his energy initiatives and all the people (not enough, but each of them is important) who are working because of the stimulus. I was distressed by how easily Van Jones was sacrificed, not only because we need wonderful men like him in the White House but because it is symptomatic of a lack of leadership and fighting spirit on far too many issues--healthcare being perhaps the most salient. Finally: I sent an open letter to Obama (through Amnesty International) asking that those who ordered torture in the name of America be brought to justice--and there has been, up till now, no reply. Lack of words also matter!
President, William C. Velasquez Institute
Naming the first Latina/o to the Supreme Court was definitely the highlight of Barack Obama's first year in office. Both symbolically and substantively meaningful, Justice Sonia Sotomayor's appointment will reverberate for years to come
in the consciousness of Latinas and Latinos, who have long yearned for that all too rare commodity in American society--respect. Furthermore, and perhaps more important, Justice Sotomayor will add a common-sense, ethnically aware perspective to the "out of touch" highest court in the land.
An equally obvious choice for lowlight of Obama's
first year is his continued delay of a push for justice for
12 million undocumented "indentured servants" in our midst. Having committed to immigration reform that "included legalization" in Obama's first hundred days, the administration shifted that promise to "first year" and now to the spring of 2010. But to repeat the well-known civil rights-era slogan, "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Even the most loyal of Latino Democratic leaders know that facing Latino voters empty-handed on this priority issue in November is a risky proposition.
Glenn C. Loury
Professor of the Social Sciences, Brown University
From where I sit, the high point of President Obama's young administration was its inauguration. Much seemed possible on that glorious day, but it has been downhill since. Hope, it would appear, is more easily inspired than it is justified. And those eloquent speeches about change during Obama's historic and euphoric campaign look now to have been precisely what the candidate's detractors said they were--just words.
Specifically, my hope had been that elevating a progressive African-American Democrat to the nation's highest office would do two things: help to bring about an effective engagement with America's unresolved problems of racial inequality, and begin to reverse our headlong march toward a Hundred Years' War with radical Islam. I did not expect these things to happen overnight, but I did expect to see movement in this direction. This administration has shown scant inclination to do either, which is disappointment enough. But worse--far worse--is the likelihood that Obama's failure even to attempt such changes will discredit the very idea that these are worthy objectives for any Democrat.
Obama has said little of substance about racial inequality since moving into the Oval Office, and what he has said leaves much to be desired. His speech to the NAACP convention was a rehash of his by now familiar "family values" homily. His comments on the arrest last summer of a black Harvard professor were shockingly inept. Our black president seems eager to address the American public with passion about the race issue when his "friend" has been mistreated by the police, but not if it means stressing policy reforms that might keep tens
of thousands of troubled black men out of prison.
As for the new American militarism, Obama has not really changed the direction in which we are headed. Indeed, and ironically, his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize attempted to justify American military hegemony as the necessary precondition of global security and prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century. His conduct of the "war on terror" and, most distressing, his escalation of our involvement in Afghanistan's civil war is eerily reminiscent of the approach of his immediate predecessor.
This is not change of any kind, let alone of the kind that we can believe in.
Executive Director, Center for Community Change
The healthcare bill is, for all its flaws, a momentous accomplishment. It is the first major expansion of the federal safety
net since the 1960s, and not only extends coverage to more than
30 million Americans but reverses the conservative string of successes in shrinking the role of government. In light of the economic crisis, President Obama had an easy excuse not to pursue a grand healthcare agenda. Indeed, reports are that some of his close advisers told him to play small ball; that he ignored their advice is a credit to his leadership. Though I wish the president had fought harder for key progressive priorities, holding him solely to account for the realities of the Senate (and a closely divided country) is to forget that he is a president, not a magician. Progressives and community organizers can be proud of the role we played. Had we not outmatched the tea-baggers in our advocacy, and pushed hard for the public option, we would have ended up with a thin gruel or perhaps nothing at all.
On the downside, the president has put together an economic team that has delivered for Wall Street but not for hurting communities. Their caution in light of the unfolding unemployment crisis has created the conditions for a right-wing populism that could be the undoing of a progressive agenda for a generation. Unless we force Washington to reverse course and pursue a bold full-employment agenda, the window for big change could close very quickly. The president's odd decision to demobilize his base in 2009 in favor of an insider approach to governance was a colossal mistake, and underlines the critical role for independent movements to create political space.
County Councilwoman, Greenwood, South Carolina
My greatest moment of excitement was when Obama was given the oath to be the president, not just the black president but the president. He's not just some people's president but president of all of us, commander-in-chief of all of us.
My low moment has been the stimulus. In South Carolina, the money did not get down as far as it should have gotten. We are thankful for what we did get, but it is not as much as
I thought we should have gotten. I was hoping we could have done better job-wise.
I still have not, will not, give up on him as president, because I know he came into a lot of challenges from the outset, and it's going to take him a while to correct much of what was there when he became president. I still believe that we're going to get through it. And it's not going to take him alone. It's going to take his staff, and the House and the Senate working with him, as well as people down on the state and local level. As I told President Obama during the campaign, we all be "Fired Up and Ready to Go." We're going to work together and do what we have to do to move forward. And that will be what will get us through this recession.
The highest points have been his incarnation of the fight against racism, still alive after the long battle for civil rights and his plan for healthcare reform.
The sharpest disappoints:
§ Guantánamo, a universal disgrace
§ Afghanistan, a poisoned chalice, accepted and celebrated
§ His raising of the war budget, still called, who knows why, the defense budget
§ His nonanswer to the climate and yes-man answer to Wall Street, a contradiction captured perfectly on a poster outside the Copenhagen conference: "If the climate were a bank, it would be saved"
§ His green light to the authors of the military coup
in Honduras, betraying Latin hopes for change after
a century and a half of US-fabricated coups against democracy in the name of democracy
§ His recent speeches praising war, hymns to the ongoing butcheries for oil or the sacred cause of racketeer governments, so utterly divorced from the lively words that put him where he now sits
I don't know. Perhaps Barack Obama is a prisoner. The most powerful prisoner in the world. And perhaps he cannot notice it. So many people are in jail.
Former Field Staff, Obama for America
As a medical student, I am most thrilled that health insurance reform is closer to being a reality now than at any point in generations. When the House announced that it had passed a bill, it was an emotional moment as I began to think of the many people on the campaign who told horror stories about their experience with health insurance. I thought of the young mother of two who, lacking health insurance, ignored a pestering stomachache until it presented as a ten-inch tumor. The end of discrimination against pre-existing conditions and the insidious process of rescission is nearly at hand. Reform would expand coverage to include 94 percent of Americans.
This reform is not perfect, and I am sure improvements can and will be made. Current proposals lack a public option, and I am skeptical that pilot programs and comparative effectiveness research alone
will yield necessary reductions in healthcare expenditures. Despite imperfections, the president and his team have kept the complicated and unglamorous topic of health insurance reform at the forefront of public discussion and made monumental reform a real possibility.
Disappointment struck me most at a moment that should have been joyful: the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in December, just days after he announced troop escalation in Afghanistan. This paradox highlights the great gulf between the idealism of politics and the reality of government. Just as we had unyielding faith in the campaign, I hope Obama is right on Afghanistan. I hope that 30,000 additional troops can ensure the safety and security of Afghans and Americans. I fear the consequences of his being wrong--for Afghans, for Americans and for our brave men and women in uniform.
I was saddened because the symbol of the peace prize represents for me unambiguous good without the burdens of being politically correct or viable. It is an award of ideals. The presidency is an office of problem solving and pragmatism. Watching great ideals settle into the compromise of legislation and governance is a sobering reminder that Obama is no longer a hopeful symbol for so many of us but someone with an incredibly difficult job before him.
I' ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.
As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican--as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people--and that's been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.
I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.
I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
Executive Director, Sunlight Foundation
The president has established a new, very high standard regarding the use of technology for greater government transparency. He set a high-water mark on his second day in office, and now his early pledge has been followed by the Open Government Directive. It represents a fundamental shift in government's role in making information public, reversing decades during which government held its information close and conducted its policy-making almost entirely behind closed doors. The directive orders each cabinet-level agency to create plans and protocols for the release of government data online in tech- and citizen-friendly formats. It also charges the agencies to begin making data sets available to the public within a short period of time. Already the administration has established data clearinghouses such as data.gov and recovery.gov and dramatically strengthened lobbyist disclosure of contacts with the executive branch. There are positive harbingers.
But the president hasn't invested himself personally in the fight. And it will take his involvement to truly turn the culture of secrecy around. If this unfolds, it has the potential to dramatically alter the way Americans interact with their government. It can break the chokehold that insiders have on Washington, as information is put directly into the hands of citizens.
The administration clearly understands that "public information" means that it's online. This can mean nothing else in the twenty-first century. Now it's our job to hold the administration to its promises.
Barack Obama came to Washington riding a wave of movement activity that had been building for many years. It culminated in his successful insurgent primary battles and presidential campaign. The power of that surge has carried our nation forward on many fronts, including: stemming massive job losses, increasing women's ability to ensure fair treatment in the workplace, rebuilding the Justice Department's ability to protect Americans' basic individual rights and setting the stage for what appears to be the imminent passage of major healthcare reform.
The greatest victory of Obama's first year, in other words, occurred months before it began. It happened when he decided to stitch together the dreams of many stripes of American idealists into one powerful force for change.
The greatest failure of his administration's first year rests
in the hands of all of us who are committed to manifesting
our nation's dream of liberty and justice for all. In too many instances in the past twelve months we have powered down, left the field for the bleachers and chosen to play armchair pundit rather than continue leading.
Like every great wave, the one that brought change to Washington must be regenerated or it ebbs. More important, our communities' and families' fortunes, which in so many instances were already in perilous condition, will ebb with it. Real change emerges from the collective power of a robust and inspired movement. 2010 must be the year we begin to fight at scale again.
Instead of a high point or a low point, how about a too-early-to-tell point? This is where I think we are during the first year of a four- or eight-year presidency.
President, American Federation of Teachers
What stands out in the president's first year is his tremendous leadership on the economy. While there is still a long way to go, his actions helped put us on the right track. From the start, he recognized the need to act quickly to save and create jobs. That's why he worked with Congress to enact the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided an infusion of funds into state budgets, thereby helping states avert draconian cuts in education, law enforcement, healthcare and other critical services. Further, by investing ARRA funds in our schools, the president helped protect a generation of young Americans from the harmful effects of disastrous school-budget cuts.
I haven't agreed with every action of the administration this year; no doubt, even among allies there will always be disagreements on aspects of policy. Through it all, though, we'll continue to respect this president because of his stewardship of the economy, his tangible support for public education and the respect he has shown us--even when we disagree.
Ilyse G. Hogue
Campaign Director, MoveOn.org
It's hard to separate 2009 from 2008, because MoveOn's staff and members never missed a beat after the election. Despite being exhausted, we--like millions of progressive Americans--recognized that the window for transformational change could be brief and that seizing this moment required redoubling our efforts. What amazes me most is the sense of individual and group claim that people had on this new government. Millions of those who turned 2008 into a referendum on our entire system of governance went on to demand accountability from bank CEOs and insurance industries. From directing outrage at bank CEOs to account for missing TARP funds to insisting that legislators address the grave need for real health reform instead of pandering to the insurance industry, the renewed sense that government must protect its citizens from corporate abuse and greed was visceral. And to a degree, it was successful in cutting through the political gamesmanship.
What disappoints is that all this collective effort simply has not been enough to overcome the unfettered corporate influence that has governed our country for so long, or to move our new president to reject incrementalism in favor of more bold progressive change. The systems that govern Washington politics are too deep-seated to be overturned by a single election or a single president--even one more inclined toward radical reform than this one. Despite the tidal wave of momentum demanding accountability and change, progress proves to be modest and gradual. While this frustrates, I am buoyed by the fact that, having tasted their ability to affect their individual circumstances, people haven't stopped fighting for what they believe is right. Our 5 million members are proof of that.
Chief Operating Officer, National Community Reinvestment Coalition
President Barack Obama's election promised a fundamental policy shift away from the interests of America's wealthiest toward the needs of working families and historically disenfranchised communities. In his first year, Obama successfully steered the nation away from a second Great Depression. But the pursuit of fundamental change has not yet lived up to the inspirational pre-election rhetoric. The administration's reluctance to tackle adequately the foreclosure crisis that claimed 2.8 million additional homes in 2009 and will likely claim millions more in 2010 is disappointing.
Worse, however, is the reluctance to address economic challenges directly that are facing the most vulnerable communities and acknowledge the indisputable connection between race, injustice and economic outcomes. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color are experiencing foreclosures and unemployment at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Yet people of color will represent more than half of the US population within thirty-five years. Targeting economic resources to communities most in need is not only just and humane; it is critical to the future competitiveness of America. Many argue that expectations for the president are unrealistically high. But candidate Obama set the bar, and those expectations sealed his victory. The question remains, Will he rise to the challenge of this tumultuous economic time for America?
President, The Atlantic Philanthropies
The high points of the past year were not so much a moment as a steady series of them: seeing the country led by a gifted, progressive, eloquent, centered figure moving the ball forward each day on a range of huge, untended-to problems without allowing himself to be distracted too much by a virulent, nihilistic right or by elements of the left who seem not to have the stomach to fight their enemies for too long without turning fire on allies. The stimulus and coming healthcare bill represent massive advances for social welfare--something the right seems to understand better than we do, and we will pay a big price for that if we don't come to our senses and own our victories soon.
The disappointments have also been many. I don't believe many of us anticipated how fragile and fleeting the "transformational" moment might be, or how deeply sown the hostility to government would be, as a result of concentrated right-wing attacks over thirty years. Neither Hurricane Katrina or, it turns out, the financial meltdown, was enough to overcome it. Whatever the state of the "real" economy--which ought to be our primary focus, in human and political terms--the easing of the Wall Street crisis took the air out of the supposed Rooseveltian moment, and the president finds himself almost apologizing for each extension of government into a sick economy. If the president doesn't turn his considerable teaching talents toward making an overarching case for positive, strong, democratic government, and if progressives don't support and elevate that narrative, the next three years will be even tougher than the first.