One year later assessing Obama: Testing the promise of pragmatism

President Barack Obama marks his first year in the White House this week. The good feelings that surrounded him in the months after Inauguration Day a year ago have faded. Since January 2009, Obama has signed an economic stimulus bill, pushed Congress to pass health-care reform, traveled overseas and upheld traditions like the White House Easter Egg roll and a State Dinner.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

A month before he was inaugurated, Barack Obama pinpointed one of the biggest challenges he would face as president. Could he restore confidence in government, even as he was proposing the biggest federal intervention in the domestic economy in a generation?

At the time, Obama said he did not think his victory marked an abrupt end to the skepticism ushered in by President Ronald Reagan toward top-down government and social engineering by Washington.

"What we don't know yet is whether my administration and this next generation of leadership is going to be able to hew to a new, more pragmatic approach that is less interested in whether we have big government or small government; they're more interested in whether we have a smart, effective government," he said on that day in December 2008.

As Obama marks the first anniversary of his inauguration on Wednesday, that question remains one of the most politically charged of his presidency -- and central to the politics of this election year -- and will hinge on how Americans judge Obama and his policies.

Will the public conclude that his policies worked, however much they may cost and however much they may entail more government intervention in the economy? Or will they regard his agenda as intrusive and ineffective big government? What steps may Obama take to alleviate public discontent over these first-year decisions?

The stakes are sizable, with an early referendum coming Tuesday in a special Senate election in Massachusetts. Democrats are fighting to hold the seat once occupied by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a dramatic turnaround in a contest previously seen as an almost certain win. A Republican victory would imperil the administration's health-care initiative and cast a pall over already-nervous Democrats, who fear considerable losses in November's midterm elections.

Obama receives mixed reviews for his first-year performance, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. His approval rating stands at 53 percent, with 44 percent disapproving. Among independents, 49 percent approve, the lowest of any of his recent predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Majorities disapprove of his handling of the major domestic issues -- the economy, health care and the federal budget deficit. But more approve than disapprove of his handling of terrorism and Afghanistan, and he has broad support for his response to the attempted terrorist bombing on Christmas Day.

The good feelings that surrounded Obama in the months after Inauguration Day have faded. The week he was inaugurated, just 19 percent of Americans said the country was heading in the right direction; by April, that had risen to 50 percent. Today it has slipped to 37 percent.

The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country's problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.

White House advisers maintain that many of Obama's actions are temporary and not a permanent enlargement of federal power at the expense of private industry. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said such actions as the bailouts of the banks and auto companies "were emergency interventions to stabilize" an economy on the edge of a depression.

The promise of change, which echoed so powerfully during his campaign, is now another source of division. At the time of his inauguration, three-fourths of the country said Obama would bring needed change to Washington. Today the nation is evenly divided on whether he has. Three-fourths of Democrats say yes; three-fourths of Republicans and a majority of independents say no.

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