Obama, One Year On

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yes, we did. And the millennium did not arrive. So what showed up instead?

After a few sorely, sorely needed moments of exulting and exhaling, more rounds in the unceasing fight between the forces of progressive reform and the forces of rollback and retrogression. There are battles won, battles lost, battles still in overtime, and positioning for battles not yet begun.

Many of us were galvanized last year by Barack Obama's suppleness of mind, his eloquence and ease, his all-around thoughtfulness, policy mastery, and the care and subtlety of Dreams of My Father--an actual writerly book! (Has anyone else ever rendered the arduous labors of community organizing, or the shadings of racial identity, as plausibly as he did there?) It was natural to envision him rallying stadiums full of besotted masses to cow the forces of reaction whenever they reared their stony walls. It was easy to neglect, in the artfulness of his campaigning, and then his inaugural, the dead weight of political reality that would push back when he promoted his program. The pushback arrived. The good news is that he can learn and lead, as when he bounced back from the dismal August of "death panels" with his fine September 9 speech to a joint session of Congress.

At this writing, a version of health care reform is likely to come to fruition soon. Obama had a plausible strategy for dividing the opposition--mainly, peeling the drug companies away from the insurance companies. This scheme was more successful than not, but Blue Dog Democrats in cahoots with a solid front of Republicans in the flagrantly undemocratic Senate were able to come to the rescue of the insurance companies, as if they had exalted constitutional standing. The result will be less than the desirable single-payer system (never politically in the cards), less even than a robust public option, but still a prologue to that, a close shot at universality, some cost-cutting, and a precedent for later improvements. Even if he had amped up his rhetoric against the insurance companies, and twisted arms for the public option, it's hard to see how a better result was possible.

Having navigated the health waters well, and demonstrated that he can win big, Obama will now redeploy for climate change legislation--a harder case, since so many more interests will fight tooth, nail, and lie to stop it. Green industry is picking up momentum but there's a long way to go. Obama himself has to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Whether he'll pull out the stops and try to fill the stadiums with rallies of now-dormant environmentalists, your guess is as good as mine. The campuses, where green is supposed to be good, have been largely inert.

Economically, the regulators haven't yet showed their stuff. Having gotten a lot of mileage out of stimulus spending, they're in a strong position to curb some of the buccaneer practices of the financial markets. But to create jobs, they'd better act soon: the best predictor of Democrats' fate in 2010 is the state of the economy, for which jobless figures are the best proxy; and Christine Romer, Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, anticipates that official unemployment will remain "at or above 9.6 percent through the end of 2010." Translation: lots of pain. More foreclosures, weak consumer spending, more demoralization, more state fiscal crises. Even if almost all the fault is the Republicans', Americans have short memories. Republicans stand to pick up in congressional districts where Obama's coattails jammed the usual circuits. This will make major reforms, and necessary further stimulus, all the harder to get.

The outlook for social-egalitarian reform is good. "Don't ask, don't tell" is dead meat, though the sequel is still blurry. Gay marriage will gain.

On civil liberties, at least Obama's Justice Department will investigate torture committed under Bush-Cheney, but in other respects Obama fails to make a clean break with Bush's policies. He has yet to explain convincingly why the remaining Guantanamo prisoners can't be tried publicly. He refuses to end indefinite detention. Conditions for detained immigrants remain barbaric.

Abroad, the hemorrhage in America's global position is staunched, but then what? Iraq remains bloody and it's hard to see what direction things are moving. Life in Afghanistan seems mainly to be worsening, and Obama's talent for deliberation, his willingness to listen to all parties, eliminates neither the rock nor the hard place. Obama is trying to make up for the Bush default in Afghanistan but can neither wipe out the Taliban nor manage the Pakistan side of the border. None of the AfPak options is good, as all honest people admit. Obama's Middle East intentions are excellent, as he demonstrated in Cairo, but Netanyahu is stonewalling, thinks he can wait out Obama's initiative, and it's not clear what Obama's next move is. My face isn't smiley.

The Obama operation proved its mastery at campaigning, looks pretty good at the inside game, but outsider politics--movement campaigns--haven't kept up. The White House lost the initiative in August, as the crazies took over town meetings and, with them, the overarching story. Countermobilizations by MoveOn and the HCAN (Health Care for American Now) labor-based coalition seem to have paid off, though the outlook for labor movement rescue is not awfully auspicious. The great outpouring of the youth vote in 2008 bespeaks strong openings to come but demobilization followed, and no one has quite worked out how the anxieties so widely felt can be sublimated into steady investments of energy toward an ongoing movement to push the limits of foreseeable reform.

So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.