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In Obama's first year, successes outweigh missteps

President Obama speaks about U.S. relief efforts after last week's earthquake in Haiti.
President Obama speaks about U.S. relief efforts after last week's earthquake in Haiti. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
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By Fred Hiatt
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Wednesday one year will have passed since President Obama's inauguration. Much of the tidal wave of assessments has been negative: Falling poll numbers. Unfulfilled promises. Disappointed supporters, disillusioned independents, angry opponents. He's been too cool or too egotistical, too left-wing or not left-wing enough. And if voters repudiate his policies in a special Massachusetts Senate election on Tuesday, as is quite possible, the tidal wave will become a tsunami.

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So before that happens, I'd like to interrupt the anniversary-bash-Obama-fest with a simple proposition: Obama has done a good job so far.

I've had my share of complaints. I harbor my share of misgivings. But on the issues that mattered most in his first year, Obama got things right.

Begin with something that didn't happen: financial collapse and great depression.

It's easy to forget, but Obama came into office facing a frightening situation. He assembled in short order an extremely competent economic team and took -- or, in many cases, continued -- the drastic measures needed to stave off disaster. And those measures succeeded.

White House political aides knew that, no matter what they did, the economy would still be reeling one year later and that Obama would be unfairly blamed. They knew that little credit would be awarded for jobs that weren't lost or bankruptcies that were averted, and little credit has been. But credit is due.

The other primary responsibility facing a president is to keep the country safe, and there, too, Obama has gotten things mostly right. He again assembled, through judicious retention and new hires, a solid team, and for the most part it has shaped reasonable policies to defend against terrorism.

You could wish that his support for Iraq weren't accompanied by such teeth-gritting reluctance. You might have hoped that his commitment to Afghanistan would come with less public ambivalence. But in both cases, he has put national interest ahead of political consideration and committed the United States to success. He has assigned skilled generals to the missions, given them adequate resources and set reasonable goals.

At the same time, he has restored a balance between security and liberty in his handling of terrorists and alleged terrorists. He was right to end abusive treatment of detainees; he was right also to reject an ACLU mind-set in their handling.

Inevitably, in such a minefield of complex moral questions and simpleminded political demagoguery, he's made choices I disagree with. But he has sent a clear message to other nations that the United States is committed to its values and its self-defense, and he's gone a long way toward backing up both with his actions.

In my book, reasonable success in these two broad areas would be enough to earn more than a passing grade for a first, turbulent year. But -- and even setting aside the now uncertain prospects of health-care reform -- there's been more.

Obama has acted, within budget constraints, on his promises to make college more affordable, and he has taken small but promising steps to bring new thinking and more accountability to the schooling of poor children. He named and won confirmation for a well-qualified Supreme Court justice. He returned climate change to the center of national debate and executive policymaking. And from Cairo to Oslo, and now to Haiti, he has sought to chart a path for America between arrogance and isolationism, neither denying nor boasting about the burdens of global leadership.

In each of these policy areas, there were shortcomings and missteps, and I reserve the columnist's right to resume criticizing them as soon as the second year gets under way. The extent to which Obama can stand up to Democratic interest groups remains a worry: Why is tort reform missing from his health-care legislation, and trade enlargement from his economic policy? He's put off a lot of tough choices, on the budget and in other fields.

But other tough choices have come rushing at him, and in most cases he's chosen well. It's worth picking up our heads from the latest poll and even from the Senate election, at least for a moment or two, to acknowledge as much.


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