'Change is hard:' Obama one year on from election

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Nov 01 2009 09:59 PM | Updated as of Nov 02 2009 05:59 AM

WASHINGTON - The tale of the turbulent year since Barack Obama's historic election win is told by his evolving political theme: once he promised "Change We Can Believe In" and now he warns that "change is hard."

On November 4, 2008, Obama bathed in the adoration of a crowd of tens of thousands in a Chicago park, after beating Republican John McCain to the presidency in an election that promised to reshape his nation.

They chanted "Yes we can" on that clear hope-filled night in Obama's hometown, and tears streamed down thousands of cheeks as the president-elect proclaimed America was still a place where anything was possible.

"It's been a long time coming," Obama said. "But tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."

A year on, the historic promise of America's first black president is being tested by the grim grind of governing a divided nation humbled by the worst recession in decades.

Abroad, Obama's policy of engaging US foes has so far yielded few breakthroughs, and the president who came to power vowing to end one war, in Iraq, must now decide whether to escalate another -- in Afghanistan.

Obama is battered, his political magnetism is dimmed and he stands accused by opponents of masterminding a disastrous government expansion.

But despite everything, he is still standing, with his approval rating above the crucial 50 percent barrier that defines a viable presidency, and some historic reforms tantalizingly within reach.

Before the end of the year, the president may be celebrating a landmark health care reform bill and a foreign policy victory with a US-Russia deal to trim nuclear stocks.

He can take comfort in shepherding the US economy back to growth -- though rampant unemployment presents a grave political threat. His Nobel prize suggests he made good on a promise to rescue the US image abroad.

"He has delivered more than most presidents, and more quickly than most," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

Had it not been for the huge expectations in the United States and abroad, Obama's first 10 months in office might seem more of a success.

"Change is hard," Obama said as he signed a bill slashing wasteful defense spending last week.

"Change isn't supposed to be easy," he said in Florida a few days earlier.

"Change doesn't happen overnight," he told Democrats the next day in Virginia.

Promises made in the monumental election campaign have proved tough to meet.

Obama's political program, the most ambitious in decades -- with plans for landmark health reform, financial regulation and a battle against climate change -- has stumbled in Congress.

The ugly political mood he promised to quell meanwhile rages louder than ever and dictated that only three Republicans voted for the 787-billion-dollar economic stimulus bill passed in February.

For now, passing that rescue package stands as one of Obama's top domestic achievements. Democrats say it revived the economy and created a million jobs. Republicans call it a colossal waste of money.

Hanging over the Obama presidency in the next year, ahead of elections that could test Democratic control of Congress next November, is unemployment running at nearly 10 percent.

Hopes for a swift rebound are tempered by tight credit markets, a massive deficit and a lingering mortgage crisis, and Obama must somehow divest the government of its huge crisis-induced role in the economy.

Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp within a year. But that deadline will likely be missed.

Where change has come, it has been incremental, not the stuff of a glorious presidential legacy.

Obama lifted curbs on federal funding for stem cell research, banned torture, outlawed pay discrimination for female workers, reined in predatory credit card companies and launched a push for a green energy economy.

On the international front, he has transformed the climate for US diplomacy, and promised a "new beginning" with the Muslim world during a powerful speech in Cairo. But Republicans said he was on a global apology tour.

Nuclear talks with Iran are on a knife edge and the Islamic Republic has snubbed Obama's "open hand."

His efforts to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace hit a brick wall, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and Afghanistan has deteriorated.

But Obama's promise to pull all US troops from Iraq still seems on track, though it may take longer than supporters hoped.