Obama's Second Year: Less Rhetoric, More Realism


Obama's Second Year:
Less Rhetoric, More Realism

A host of new challenges confronts a changed president. Obama will have to settle for much less than he campaigned for.

A sobering reality is settling in as President Obama prepares to begin his second year in office. The president who promised fundamental change in Washington and inspired millions of new voters has instead been changed. Par for the course in a sharply divided nation’s capital.

2010 will bring far less soaring rhetoric and presentational flourish. That’s been replaced by less ambitious goals, and succeeding even with a smaller agenda will require herculean efforts.

The economy and the war will dominate the White House’s attention and policy debate, and even efforts to deal with those issues will be constrained by sluggish growth and towering deficits. That was vividly on display in Obama’s recent jobs speech. His push for a bill -- a second stimulus of sorts -- came with a recognition that the government can do only so much to help.

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Obama begins the year in a weaker position. His public support is steadily eroding. His job rating is below 50%, and he gets even lower grades when voters are asked specifically about his stewardship of the economy. Liberals feel he hasn’t followed up on campaign promises, while many independents think he is tacking too far to the left with his agenda.


Assessments of Obama’s first year are decidedly mixed and depend almost entirely on who does the judging and the talking. Most of Obama’s record to date is like a glass half full. The stimulus limited the recession’s depth but fell short of the grandiose promises to save or create 3.5 million jobs. The president is working to close down the terrorist prison at Guantánamo, but he failed to meet his own deadline for doing so and still doesn’t have a workable plan for it. Most other initiatives remain works in progress, with the outcomes far from certain.

The 2010 legislative agenda will be crowded, but most of it will go unfulfilled. After taking action on a jobs bill and likely wrapping up health care in January, the president and congressional Democrats will find slow going on other issues:

-- Financial regulatory reform. Probably. The Senate will take its time on Obama’s plan, with action likely to drag on until summer. Odds of passage are better than even, but the final bill giving Washington more regulatory power won’t be all Obama wants. He’ll have to live with criticism that he did not entirely fix one of the main problems that fueled the recession.

-- Climate change. Out of the question. The House-passed cap and trade bill will never make it through the Senate, no matter what gets decided in Copenhagen. The timing for the legislation also could not be worse. The fragile economy will weigh down legislative efforts, perhaps for years.


-- Immigration overhaul. Very unlikely. Obama and Democratic leaders will push hard next year, with support from a few Republicans and some business groups. They’ll seek a bill with tough enforcement, more legal immigration and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants who pay fines and back taxes and get in line. But winning 60 votes in the Senate for what will be called amnesty will be very hard. A Kiplinger executive poll is telling. Still, the administration will push hard to fulfill promises to Hispanics, who flocked to the Democrats in the 2008 elections.

-- Card check. No way. Labor will have to settle for a compromise. It’ll have safeguards for workers from undue employer pressure. The secret ballot for union elections will be preserved. Keeping labor on board is crucial for Democratic hopes in the 2010 elections.

The pile of unfinished work has Democrats nervously eyeing those elections. Their biggest concern by far is the economy and the need to create more jobs. Democrats know they face election losses no matter what, but the losses may be huge if the rate of unemployment stays high. They’ll do what they can to create jobs, but they know they can’t do much. Mostly, they’ll be waiting and hoping for progress.

Longer term, Obama’s presidency depends on the war in Afghanistan. Congress has little choice but to support his troop surge, despite GOP grumbling about his decision to couple it with a declaration that he wants to begin withdrawing in 18 months. Obama aides insist there’s plenty of flexibility on the timing, but Obama must show real progress by the middle of 2012 or he’ll lose the support of both parties.


Other foreign crises also loom big for Obama. His policy of engagement has yet to yield positive results in Iran, where the regime is hardening in its quest for nuclear weapons. The effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is stuck. And Russia and China continue to take hard-line stances in dealing with the U.S.

If Obama has one high card going into 2010, it may be the lack of galvanizing leadership in the Republican Party. The GOP has every reason to expect gains next year, but there remains a vacuum at the top, and it could be a couple of years yet before the vacuum is filled. The internal struggle to pick leaders and find a unifying vision that appeals to more than the party base is a political plus for the president as he begins his second year.

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