2010: a new, tough year dawns for Obama

2nd January 2010, Comments 0 comments

Obama, recharging mind and spirit in his native Hawaii, will welcome 2010 knowing that political strife and threats abroad are sure to deepen.

Honolulu -- As a new year dawns, President Barack Obama is poised for a momentous victory over health reform, which defied Democrats for generations, even if his rocketing political star slowed in 2009.

Obama, recharging mind and spirit in his native Hawaii, will welcome 2010 knowing that political strife and threats abroad are sure to deepen.

Mid-term elections, in which his Democrats fear big losses, will dominate his domestic calendar, along with the struggle to revive the slowly mending US economy and tackle massive unemployment.

Within days, Obama must also confront a decision on Iran, with Tehran convulsed by domestic political strife, likely to reject his end-of-year deadline to make concessions on its nuclear program or face more sanctions.

And the thwarted Christmas Day attack on a US airliner underscored the festering threat to the US homeland posed by terrorists.

After 11 months in power, Obama is greyer, drained by Washington's acrimony and no longer an untested source of hope for millions, but a commander-in-chief who agonized, then escalated the Afghan war.

Once soaring approval ratings are now under 50 percent in some polls -- dangerous territory for any president. Obama endured a chastening learning curve abroad, and saw an ambitious domestic agenda slow in Congress.

In the dying days of 2009, the Senate finally mustered the required 60 votes to pass health care reform, and a final bill, merged with an already passed version by the House of Representatives could be on Obama's desk within weeks.

While this represents the kind of transformation the president promised as a candidate, the bitter struggle to pass the bill has harmed its popularity, and it is not clear if Obama will reap a huge political boost.

But the bill does represent the most sweeping social reform in the United States in more than 40 years, and will help Obama argue his debut year in office is the most significant of any recent US president.

A freshly minted Nobel Peace Prize also sits on Obama's shelf. Many believe he did not deserve it, but the accolade symbolizes his rebranding of the US image abroad.

If Obama's year is judged by massive and unrealistic expectations which greeted his election, it can only be termed a failure.

But viewing 2009 in the context of recent US politics, and the bleak inheritance bequeathed by George W. Bush, offers Obama more credit.

On the downside, Obama will not meet his one-year deadline to close Guantanamo Bay and he has struggled to work through the legal thicket left by Bush-era anti-terror policies.

Unemployment is crippling at 10 percent, the budget deficit is over a trillion dollars and fears persist of a "double dip" recession and jobless recovery.

Hopes Congress could pass a cap-and-trade bill before the Copenhagen climate summit, from which Obama fashioned a questionable, non-binding accord to fight greenhouse gas emissions, also foundered.

The idea that Obama alone could cleanse Washington's partisan swamp always seemed fanciful -- and so it has proven.

Abroad, Obama's attempt to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now looks clumsy, and the Middle East peace process is again stalled.

Obama's critics complain he has made global "apology tours." Iran meanwhile appears to have spurned his engagement push and a nuclear showdown deepens.

The president has however launched a promised draw down of troops from Iraq.

Critics also accuse Obama of not taking a firm stand on key issues.

On Afghanistan for instance, he decided to throw 30,000 more troops into the fight, but said they must start coming home in 2011.

On health care and the 787 billion dollar stimulus, Obama let Congress draft the details. The result: bloated bills that satisfy neither supporters on the left nor enemies on the right.

Practicing politics as the art of the possible may however may be a smart strategy to push change through a slim political window.

Obama faced what might be the toughest year for a president in 70 years, a traumatized economy on the cusp of depression and worsening war in Afghanistan.

But the second Great Depression never happened, and Obama claims credit for returning growth and the rate of jobs lost has slowed to a crawl.

He also pocketed incremental political achievements, extending health care for children, outlawing pay discrimination by gender and lifting the ban on government funding for stem cell research.

A massive reform of financial regulations is slowly moving in Congress.

Abroad, he sought dialogue, reset relations with Russia, and embarked on the tortuous progress of engaging China and got more NATO troops for Afghanistan.

A big foreign policy victory may be overdue though, and the stripped-down realism of Obama's Nobel address defending war, seemed to augur a new tone.

Looming in November are congressional elections, which usually wound a first-term president and could hurt the ruling Democrats.

Obama must seize control of the debate on jobs and the deficit before the rival Republicans, branding him an old-style big government liberal, can exploit the economy themselves.


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