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Obama Faces Major Political Challenges at End of First Year

The 2010 congressional elections in November will be a major test for the president as voters judge his record on the economy, health care, Afghanistan and many other issues.

U.S. President Barack Obama marks his first year in office on January 20.  Politically, Mr. Obama has had a tumultuous first year marked by efforts to revive the U.S. economy, enact health care reform and shore up domestic support for the war in Afghanistan. 

As the nation's 44th president, Barack Obama came into office eager to meet the public's demand for change.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," said the president.

But the good will and high hopes so evident in January quickly gave way to the realities of trying to achieve results in politically polarized Washington.

Nathan Gonzales is a political analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report. "He came in with high hopes of a lot of Americans and with a lot of support, and legislating some of those goals has been difficult," said Gonzales.

Domestic challenges

The early emphasis was on stabilizing the faltering economy and pushing health-care reform.

But the drive for health-care reform ran headlong into opposition Republicans eager to regain their political footing after suffering defeat in the 2008 election.

The president won a major victory on health-care reform in the Senate near the end of the year.  It will be up to lawmakers to reconcile two competing versions of reform approved by Congress and get a final compromise bill to the president's desk early in 2010.

Republicans like House leader John Boehner continue to fight the health-care plan as too costly and too much government intervention.

"And the biggest problem that we heard from our economists with regard to why employers are not hiring, it is all the job-killing policies that are being offered by this administration and this Congress," he said.

Public approval

Barack Obama entered the presidency with strong public approval ratings.  But the president's image has taken a hit in recent months as the opposition has gained traction, and his approval rating in some polls is now under 50 percent.

"They like him.  Personally, Americans like Barack Obama," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "They are a good deal less supportive of his policies.  What he needs to do is convince voters that his proposals are in their best interest."

War in Afghanistan

While Republicans oppose his efforts on the economy and health care, several Democrats have raised concerns about the president's decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Robert Borosage is co-director of the liberal group, The Campaign For America's Future.

"And like Lyndon Johnson he has this really ominous problem, which is if you escalate in Afghanistan and we end up in that swamp that will over time be a kind of constant drain on support and enthusiasm among young people, among minorities, among liberals, among progressives and it will really sap the president's ability to continue to energize this broad agenda," he said.

Republicans have generally welcomed the additional troops, and some conservatives have been surprised by the general direction of Mr. Obama's foreign policy.

David Frum is a conservative commentator and former speech writer for President George W. Bush.

"For people who were looking for a dramatic break in American foreign policy it is rather hard to identify it," he said. "In Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Guantanamo, in the handling of terrorism, in China, in India.  There has been much more continuity with the Bush presidency than I think anybody expected."

Political challenges ahead

Presidents historically lose congressional seats in the first midterm election, and analyst Nathan Gonzales says President Obama has a challenging political road ahead.

"The president needs to pass significant legislation and sell it to the American people in order to help Democratic senators and representatives in their re-election bids," he said.

Even Obama supporters like Robert Borosage acknowledge he will have to show some solid results in his second year to blunt a Republican resurgence.

"When he speaks he lays out the clearest discussion of where we ought to go as a country," he said. "It is quite an extraordinary gift.  I think that has all been a strength.  I think in terms of implementation and his strategy in terms of trying to pass things, it has been a weakness."

The 2010 congressional elections in November will be a major test for the president as voters judge his record on the economy, health care, Afghanistan and many other issues.

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