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A world of change in 287 days

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's been a year since a healthy majority of American voters elected Barack Obama to change the world. Which is precisely what he's doing.

Like many people who desperately want to see the country take a more progressive course, I quibble and quarrel with some of President Obama's actions. I wish he'd been tougher on Wall Street, quicker to close Guantanamo, more willing to investigate Bush-era excesses, bolder in seeking truly universal health care. I wish he could summon more of the rhetorical magic that spoke so compellingly to the better angels of our nature.

But he's a president, not a Hollywood action hero. Most of my frustration is really with the process of getting anything done in Washington, which is not something Obama can unilaterally change, nimbly circumvent or blithely ignore. One thing the new administration clearly did not anticipate was that Republicans in Congress would be so consistently and unanimously obstructionist -- or that Democrats would have to be introduced to the alien concept of party discipline. It took the White House too long to realize that bipartisanship is a tango and that there's no point in dancing alone.

Step back for a moment, though, and look at Obama's record. His biggest accomplishment has been keeping the worst financial and economic crisis in decades from turning into another Great Depression. Yes, the $787 billion stimulus package has been messy, but most economists believe it was absolutely necessary -- and some believe it should have been even bigger. Yes, Obama continued the Bush-era policy of showering irresponsible financial institutions with billions in public funds. Yes, the administration bailed out the auto industry -- and we actually heard the president of the United States reassure Americans that General Motors warranties would be honored.

But these and other actions convinced the financial markets that the White House would do anything to avoid a complete meltdown. The economy grew at a rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter and, while unemployment may not yet have peaked, the odds of a strong and fairly swift recovery have greatly improved.

Responding to the crisis required creating an enormous fiscal deficit that Obama will spend years trying to reduce. But not even the most conservative economists recommend attacking the deficit before the economy is stabilized on a path of growth. Only Republican demagogues think that's a good idea.

On national security, Obama moved at once to categorically renounce torture -- a big step toward removing the ugly stain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left on our national honor. It looks as if Obama will miss his self-imposed one-year deadline for closing the Guantanamo prison, but a delay of a few weeks or months will be worth it if the administration succeeds in developing a comprehensive legal framework -- consistent with our ideals and traditions -- for bringing terrorism suspects to justice.

Obama should have supported a full-blown investigation into apparent Bush-era violations of national and international law. And, at a minimum, he should allow the limited torture probe ordered by Attorney General Eric Holder to follow the evidence wherever it might lead.

But at least the administration is on schedule in withdrawing combat troops from Iraq. I don't think Obama knows the right answer on Afghanistan; I'm not sure anybody does.

Obama's months in office have been so action-packed that it's easy to forget some of the historic steps he has taken: nominating Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. Going to Egypt and speaking directly to the Muslim world about cooperation rather than conflict. Embracing multilateralism as the template for U.S. foreign policy in the new century. Accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Investing in "green" jobs and education reform as key engines of economic development.

And then there's health-care reform. I've been impatient with Obama's strategy of letting Congress take the lead on writing legislation, but he's brought us to the brink of truly meaningful reform much faster than anyone could have imagined a year ago. We still have some fighting to do over two words -- "public" and "option" -- but it looks like the principle that everyone is entitled to health insurance, a Democratic Party goal for at least six decades, is about to become law.

Quite a record for 287 days: All that, and a Nobel Peace Prize, too.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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