A year ago, on Nov. 4, 2008, a quarter of a million jubilant supporters jammed into Chicago's Grant Park to hear the wunderkind of American politics give his victory speech as the next president of the United States. Barack Obama did not disappoint. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama said to thunderous cheers. "In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people," he added. ". . . America can change. Our nation can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
It was that rarity in politics, a truly historic moment. Voters had elected the first African-American president, and Obama had constructed a highly unusual majority coalition propelled by young people and other new voters, including blacks, Latinos, and a huge swath of Americans eager for change. And, with his telegenic family and a passel of veterans of past administrations at his side, he got off to a rousing start. In his first few weeks, the new president took aggressive action to stimulate the economy, rescue the financial industry and U.S. automakers, and keep the recession from turning into another depression. He ordered a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and beefed up the American contingent in Afghanistan (and is now considering another surge of 40,000 troops into that troubled country). Initially, 70 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, and his favorability ratings, which measure how much Americans like him, were even higher.
As usual with modern presidents, however, the honeymoon did not last. A year later, much of Obama's initial luster has faded. His job approval ratings now hover at just over 50 percent, polarization in Washington is as bad as ever, and much of his agenda has stalled on Capitol Hill. Unemployment is near 10 percent, provoking widespread anxiety in the middle class. Only 36 percent of Americans say the country is heading in the right direction, while 52 percent say things are "off on the wrong track," according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. All this indicates a more pessimistic attitude than Americans exhibited at the start of the Obama era.
Just as important, the nation is deeply divided over Obama's pushing the government into more areas of national life. Forty-eight percent say government "is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," while 46 percent say government should do more to solve problems, the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found. Many say that Obama's spending programs, which were enacted by the Democratic majority in Congress and have created a $1.4 trillion budget deficit this year alone, are profligate. Most Americans still like their 48-year-old leader as an individual, considering him a good family man and role model, according to the polls, but charisma and good intentions are no longer enough. Increasingly, the public wants results.
"The bloom is off the rose," says Frank Donatelli, former political director for President Ronald Reagan and currently chairman of GOPAC, a conservative political action committee. "He has fundamentally misread the desires of the country." Obama was elected to fix the economy and "grow jobs," Donatelli says, "but he believes he was elected to grow government and change healthcare."
Others have a similarly expansive critique. "Promises made, promises kept—and that's the question that a lot of people are having to grapple with as they deal with unemployment, as they deal with job loss, as they deal with losing their homes and bank closures and government takeover of automobile industries and banks and all that stuff," says Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "And I think a lot of people right now are sitting there going, 'Is this really what we bargained for?' " Steele adds that the country is turning against Obama. "The hope that everyone had about an Obama presidency has turned into a frustration about the direction that presidency wants to take the country," he says.