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Obama’s first year in office examined

Liz O'Donnell | Thursday, January 21, 2010

The first year in the Oval Office has featured the best of times and the worst of times for President Barack Obama.

On the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, Obama is faced with slipping approval ratings and the unforeseen bump in the legislative road after Republican Scott Brown won the vacant Massachusetts Senate seat.

In order to appreciate what lies ahead for America’s first-ever black president, it is important to understand the accomplishments and shortfalls of his first year in office.

Political science professor Peri Arnold said Obama’s first year in office should not be examined through a singular perspective.

“You must assess it through two different lenses, the first being a policy or substance lens, and the second a political lens,” he said. I would give him a higher grade on the first dimension of the presidency than on the second.”

Arnold said Obama has a “natural talent for executive leadership and administration” that has helped him in his first year.

“This is arguably one of the most fit people [for the presidency] we’ve seen in the 20th century. He is a very talented, smart, well-educated person,” he said.

Political science professor David Campbell said while many of Obama’s agenda items are still unfinished, he’s accomplished feats comparable to many of his predecessors.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and say he hasn’t gotten health care, hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay, etc., but more importantly, he has done what all presidents need to do, which is assemble a political team,” he said.

The president assembled a fairly moderate administration, which has received criticism from both sides of the aisle over issues such as the stimulus package and health care legislation.

Arnold said part of this comes from his desire to make centralist decisions.

“He has an administration that has made good, economic decisions that were very much middle-of-the-road decisions. This lead to him being attacked by both sides for not doing enough,” he said. “Obama has a propensity to want to center himself in politics; for what he does is prudent and careful, maybe even too cautious sometimes.”

Late last month, Obama’s administration issued a self-report card, where they awarded themselves a “B+” for his first year in office.

Campbell said this was an appropriate grade given his accomplishments.

“From a political perspective, that was the right answer,” he said. “You don’t want to give yourself an ‘F,’ especially because he has accomplished a decent amount. You also don’t want to come off arrogant by giving yourself an  ‘A.'”

Despite the comments of his critics, however, both Arnold and Campbell said they thought Obama’s expedient passage of the economic stimulus bill was one of his greatest achievements this year.

“By and large people genuinely agreed that we were on the brink of disaster and the stimulus bill pulled us back from it,” Arnold said. “We avoided the cataclysm economically.”

Campbell also said Obama’s desire to reach out and give America a better image to the rest of the world was something the administration prioritized.

Obama’s successes in his first year in office enabled the president to become the first current U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize since Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

With Tuesday’s turnover of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, however, Obama will have greater difficulty completing health care reform, an item that has garnered arguably the most attention out of any issue on his agenda.

“On one hand, the enormous amount of progress made was extremely impressive, the item has been on the agenda since Truman’s administration,” Arnold said. “Now, I don’t know where we are today because of the Massachusetts election.”

Campbell agreed with Arnold, but also said he believes the president has had a plan in case the initial reform fell through.

“Health care hasn’t gone the way President Obama was hoping, but I would be willing to bet at the beginning of the administration this was one of the scenarios they planned for,” he said.

While the passage of the health care reform bill has become more difficult, it appears there are still a number of ways for Obama to pull up his waning popularity in the polls.

“With approval ratings below 50 percent, which is not different from Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, some of it is recession-related,” Arnold said. “That said, Obama could have done a better job shifting the blame of the recent economic status. His moderation and coolness have led him to be less powerfully aggressive and is making him sell himself less than he could have.”

Campbell said critics of Obama who have said he’s “washed up” already are wrong in their assessment.

“People are wrong who say he’s washed up already,” he said. “It doesn’t mean he’ll recover, but it also doesn’t mean he won’t recover.”