Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Obama's first year

When I was in Washington last month, one couldn't escape the TV ads for the Virginia gubernatorial elections taking place today. And it was pretty clear that the Republican Bob McDonnell, was wiping the floor with the Democratic candidate State Sentator Creigh Deeds. A shrewd mix of clever policies on issues like transport gridlock, combined with relentless attacks on Deeds, seemed to be getting little response from the hapless Democrat. No wonder Barack Obama passed on getting too involved in his campaign - even though it was in a state that Obama took last year. By contrast, Obama has been lending his weight - no pun intended - to Democratic Governor Jon Corzine to Republican Chris Christie. Corzine's attack ads were certainly the stronger, including dubious attacks on his opponent's girth, but faces a tough battle tonight.

If the Democrats lose both states, a lot will be written about Obama's failings. Indeed much has already appeared on these lines. And it is true that the healthcare legislation has fallen victim to a combination of sharp politics by the private healthcare industry and some pretty inept early responses by Obama and his people. Moreover, the shrillness of the Conservative Repubican media and political opposition have made it hard to become the unifier he might have been. But the reasons for defeat today may have more to do with the candidates in both states and less to do with Obama than critics allow.

No account of the first year of this President could fail to recognise how much he has tried to do, and how far things have advanced in a year domestically. The US is now far stronger on climate change than before, and is ready to accept targets, even if they are less than the Copenhagen summiteers might wish. He has successfully revived the American economy, which is now back in growth. He has embarked on ambitious and very New Democrat education reforms. And he is now within striking distance of major health reform, even if the limited public option may still limit its scope. What he has largely avoided, to his credit, is getting sidetracked by second order issues (unless declaring a brief war on Fox News counts).

Internationally, good relations have been restored with Russia - at least, to a point. He has made bold speeches in the Muslim world. Hillary Clinton's appointment has proved astute in associating his administration with important foreign policy achievements, including her Northern Ireland mission recently. His Afghan policy may not be settled, and is suffering from the large casualties recently, but he is gaining more credit for careful consideration on military numbers than criticism for dithering.

All in all, that's not a bad record for a first year. And I have never pretended I didn't have my doubts about Obama. Of course, it won't be enough this time next year, by which time healthcare must be up and running, and the economy must have been showing serious continued growth, with unemployment starting to reverse. But significant credit is still due one year on.

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