President Barack Obama's victory walk down Pennsylvania Avenue after his swearing-in last January was probably the last time he's been able to breathe easy and just enjoy himself.
Since then, the 44th president of the United States has been on a roller coaster ride even more turbulent than the usual collision with reality experienced by his predecessors in their first years. Though Obama remains popular with a majority of Americans, he's been battered by obstructionist Republicans, vilified by Tea Party activists and condemned by disappointed progressives. And his biggest legislative agenda -- health care reform -- has been stripped of its essential elements on its way through Congress.
Obama's fate will largely be determined by the state of the economy, with rising unemployment and the bailout of the country's biggest banks fueling bipartisan outrage. By continuing Bush's unpopular TARP program to give trillions to financial institutions that helped cause the financial crisis and surrounding himself with economic advisers allied with Wall Street, the president has angered both conservatives and liberals. And since his stimulus and mortgage modification programs have failed to stem, respectively, the unemployment and foreclosure rates, a growing number of Americans feel that Obama's policies favor Wall Street over Main Street. The president's push for financial regulatory reform, including the creation of a consumer finance protection agency, is in danger of being substantially weakened in Congress.
The other major issue that looms over the administration -- and it's also one inherited from the previous administration -- is the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and the president's decision to increase the amount of U.S. troops in that lethal conflict. As American and Afghan casualties mount, more voices in both parties are raising concerns about the necessity of the war and express the fear that the U.S. will be doomed to fighting in Afghanistan for many years to come.
In addition, in the wake of the national security system's failure to prevent the botched Christmas Day airline bombing by a Yemeni-trained jihadist, national security concerns are taking on a bigger role in the fate of the administration. Though Obama has succeeded in changing the tone on national security and outlining a new multilateral approach to foreign affairs, his administration's decision to continue many Bush-era policies -- from warrantless surveillance to refusing to release information on past detainee policies -- has raised eyebrows among those who voted for him. This Friday marks the date by which Obama promised last January to close Guantanamo, but the facility remains nowhere near being shut down.
Yet Obama has undoubtedly created a different climate in Washington -- one based on reasonable discussion and debate -- and expressed a desire to work with the international community, as he has eloquently articulated in his speeches abroad. On national security, the president has largely made decisions through thoughtful consideration of the different perspectives rather than the stubbornly instinctive decisions of his predecessor. On the environment, his administration represents a radical change from the Bush era and has resurrected important regulations that were dismantled by the previous president. Despite criticism that health care reform has been watered down by industry interests and political deal-making, the very fact that the issue is being taken seriously in the Oval Office after years of inertia and is on the cusp of insuring millions of low-income Americans is, in itself, a victory.
Will Obama fulfill the promise of his presidency, learn from his rookie mistakes and have the courage to make the tough decisions needed to move the country forward? Or will he favor compromise over leadership, squander his popularity and cave to the powerful interests gathered against him? It's all up to him -- and to Americans to push him to make the right decisions.