Obama’s awful year

Barack Obama’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year got off to a
terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start.

There he was, on New Year’s
Day, on vacation with his family in Hawaii, stuck on a secure phone with
counterterrorism officials, trying to figure out what screw-ups had allowed a
would-be terrorist to board a Christmas Day flight with explosives in his

Things only got worse for
Obama when he returned to Washington in between a pair of epic winter storms.

From the start, 2010
delivered a string of setbacks that built up to an electoral shellacking come
November, to use the president’s own word.

No matter that the recession
was officially over. That sweeping health care changes at last had been
enacted. That combat operations in Iraq ended. That General Motors was making
money and hiring again. That banks paid back most of the billions they’d
borrowed from the government. And that Obama worked out a December tax cut deal
with Republicans and scored a surprising victory in persuading Congress to end
the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces.

“This is what change looks
like,” Obama said proudly, after the health care law passed.

But. The economic recovery
was too slow. The oil gushed for too long. The health care law was too
complicated. The unemployment rate too high. The political discourse too raw.
The tea party too loud.

Americans were in a foul
mood, and Democrats got the blame.



Unemployment rate: 9.7
percent. Presidential approval rating in Associated Press-GfK poll: 56 percent.
Congressional approval: 42 percent.

The Jan. 19 election to fill
the Senate seat vacated by the death of Obama’s ally and friend, Ted Kennedy,
delivered a jarring result. Republican Scott Brown’s victory, in liberal
Massachusetts no less, deprived Democrats of their 60th vote in the Senate, the
number needed to overcome Republican delaying tactics on legislation.

The consequences rippled
through everything, recasting the already bruising health care debate, dimming
hopes for climate change legislation and exposing animosity from voters over
joblessness, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and the
toxic ways of Washington.

Obama recognized what was
obvious, yet remarkable for a man who just one year earlier had embodied the
restless mood of voters who swept him into office. He was losing touch.

“Do they really get us and
what we’re going through?” Obama wondered aloud.

He meant that extraordinary
circumstances had forced themselves on the presidency and the country. “I hated
it, you hated it,” he said of the bank bailouts, for example. “It was about as
popular as a root canal.”

His State of the Union
speech was in part a soliloquy about the expectations he’d raised. “I
campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan
went,” he said. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure
if they still believe we can change. Or, at least, that I can deliver it.”



Unemployment rate: 9.7

Bipartisanship came briefly
into fashion, as lip service. Early in the month, Obama invited Republican
leaders to the White House for the first time in two months, even as the
capital was all but shut down by snow and ice. The meeting simply made clear
Washington was polarized to the point of paralysis — in government as well as
on the streets.

“Bipartisan cannot mean
simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful
of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things,
and then we have bipartisanship,” Obama sniped.

House Republican leaders
John Boehner and Eric Cantor told Obama in a letter: “’Bipartisanship’ is not
writing proposals of your own behind closed doors, then unveiling them and
demanding Republican support.”



Unemployment rate: 9.7
percent. Presidential approval rating: 53 percent. Congressional approval: 22

It was a month of passion
and poison, a cry of “baby killer” from the House floor, roiling tea party
protests, ugly shouts at lawmakers and sometimes by them. In the fierce
maneuvering for a health care law, Democrats rained favors in back rooms to
placate deep-pocketed special interests and wavering lawmakers. Spring arrived
like streaks of mud on the carpet.

It was a mess.

And it placed Obama squarely
in the history books as the president who achieved what Teddy Roosevelt,
Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton could not — a path to nearly
universal health care. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,
despised insurance company practices would be forbidden and Americans would
finally get the help they need to afford health insurance as well as an
IRS-enforced mandate to obtain it.

“We proved that we are still
a people capable of doing big things,” Obama declared after the crucial House
of Representatives vote late the night of March 21.

Boehner steamed from the
House floor in the final throes of debate. “Can you say it was done openly,
with transparency and accountability, without back-room deals?” Boehner
demanded. “Hell, no you can’t!”

Obama summoned exhausted
aides to the Truman Balcony in the midnight hour for champagne.

“Fired up! Ready to go!”
Democrats exulted at the signing two days later. Vice President Joe Biden
remarked to the president, a little too close to the microphone, “This is a big
f—— deal.”

Obama took his victory on
the road. In Iowa he dared Republicans to try to repeal the law. You could say
he taunted them.

“Go for it,” he said. “Be my

“If they want to have that
fight, we can have it. Because I don’t believe the American people are going to
put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat.”



Unemployment rate: 9.9
percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28

At first, it was just
another tragic accident. On April 20, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater
Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 crewmen and injuring 17 as the massive
structure sank into the Gulf of Mexico.

Four days later, oil was
found leaking nearly a mile below the surface.

Another circumstance had
forced itself upon the presidency and the nation.



Unemployment rate: 9.7
percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28

The oil slick was massive
and growing. Americans were becoming conversant with terms like blowout
preventer, static kill and top kill. A live video feed from the ocean floor
constantly reminded Americans that the government and the industry could not
staunch a disaster unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

“This man is working hard,”
Michelle Obama told a meeting of Democratic women early in the month.

“Did you plug the hole yet,
Daddy?” Malia Obama asked her father late in the month.

In Utah, the
ultraconservative tea party movement unseated Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at a
state convention, signaling to both parties that a new political force was in
play. The conservative grass-roots activists scored a succession of upsets in
Republican primaries from Alaska to Florida. But could those people win widely
in a general election? That was the burning question for the fall.

GM, rescued by government,
reported its first quarterly profit since 2007.

Overseas, just before
Memorial Day weekend at home, a roadside bomb pushed the U.S. military death
toll to 1,000 in Afghanistan, the war that Obama decided to fight with
escalating force while withdrawing combat boots from Iraq.



Unemployment rate: 9.5
percent. Presidential approval rating: 50 percent. Congressional approval: 24

Where’s the outrage? If
coolness in a crisis is a virtue in the Oval Office, people also want to see
leaders channel their anger and frustration.

Obama absorbed that lesson
as the oil still gushed. He told Americans his talks with Gulf fishermen and
oil and environmental experts were “so I know whose ass to kick.”

An Associated Press-GfK poll
during the crisis found that Americans had become just as dissatisfied with
Obama’s work on the Gulf oil spill as they had been with President George W.
Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.

“He’s certainly moved from
seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if
you will,” Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar, told
AP. “He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles — things that are out there
and that are intractable.”

In an extraordinary
loose-lips episode, Obama’s Afghanistan war commander and his aides unloaded on
senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone magazine profile. Obama
swiftly fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and summoned his Central Command leader,
Gen. David Petraeus, to step back from that plum post and run the war effort.
The episode revealed continuing frustration over what some front-line officers
see as micromanaging by Washington.



Unemployment rate: 9.5

The administration called it
“Recovery Summer” but people didn’t seem to be buying it.

Yes, economic growth was
coming back from the year before. But the $814 billion stimulus package was
supposed to wrestle down unemployment, and that was still perilously close to
10 percent. Democrats who had gone to the wall for the health care overhaul
were hearing voters tell them to fix the economy.

The vastly complicated
health law may be as far-reaching as the creation of federal Social Security
pensions in the 1930s or Medicare health care in the 1960s. But it is
different. Most people aren’t suddenly getting a check from the government in
the mail. The promised gains unfold in many stages spread out over years.

Joblessness is now.



Unemployment rate: 9.6
percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 24

Vacations are rarely just
vacations for a president and his family. This year was no exception.

Michelle Obama’s five-day
trip to the south of Spain with daughter Sasha touched off a mini-firestorm stoked
by questions about the wisdom of such a glamorous trip and over-the-top
speculation about who was footing the bill. Suddenly the popular first lady was
being labeled a “material girl” sponging off taxpayers.

Later in the month, the oil
spill finally choked off in advance of the final kill of the well, the Obamas
symbolically vacationed in the Gulf to show the world that beaches were safe,
clean and open for business again. Playing in the Florida Panhandle, the
president and Sasha swam out of public view in Saint Andrew Bay off of
Alligator Point, technically not the Gulf.

August produced “a good day”
for Obama, the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and a
milestone in Iraq as the last combat troops came out, leaving 50,000 to try to
help Iraqi forces maintain security. “It’s time to turn the page,” he said.

GM, recipient of a nearly
$50 billion bailout, reported another quarterly profit, $1.3 billion, and began
the process of shedding government ownership. The automaker stayed profitable
in the fall and raised $13 billion for taxpayers in its initial stock sale to
the public. Like Chrysler, also out of bankruptcy protection, GM has been
hiring thousands more workers.



Unemployment rate: 9.6
percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 26

Restive voters were not
waiting for November to have their say. Republican nomination races gave them
their bullhorn and they were using it with dramatic effect.

In one of the year’s biggest
upsets, Joe Miller, backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, defeated
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska primary, adding her to a column of
incumbents pushed aside. Murkowski conceded a week after the Aug. 24 primary as
the ballot count went against her. She later set about a long-shot campaign to
win as a write-in candidate in November.



Unemployment rate: 9.6
percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 23

Obama campaigned largely in
urban areas in liberal states, his unpopularity such that many Democrats wanted
to keep their distance from him in the home stretch. Former President Bill
Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to fight for the cause in
places where the president could not.

If Democrats used the health
care law in their campaigns, it was to dissociate themselves from it. Some
labored equally hard not to be tied to Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker
demonized by Democrats’ foes.

“Republicans are on offense
and Democrats are running for cover,” Boehner said. Democrats used every
opportunity to remind voters of the bitter fruits of Republican governance.
“They’re offering more of the past,” Biden said, “but on steroids.”

Democrats had little doubt
they were in for a drubbing Nov. 2.



Unemployment rate: 9.8
percent. Presidential approval rating: 47 percent. Congressional approval: 26

Obama was reflective the day
after. He was not looking for asses to kick. Republicans won the House from the
Democrats, shaved the Democratic majority in the Senate, picked up
governorships and surged in state legislatures.

“You know,” Obama said,
“this is something that I think every president needs to go through.”

“Now,” he went on, “I’m not
recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did
last night. You know, I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.”

Said Pelosi:
“Nine-and-a-half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event.”

The tea party demonstrated
both its potency and its limits. Republican House candidates backed by the
activists are coming to Washington by the dozens. Yet some Republicans are
quietly convinced they would have won the Senate, too, if not for a collection
of flawed candidates chosen with tea party support.

Tea party favourites won Senate
seats in Florida, Kentucky and Utah, but lost in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.
In Alaska, Murkowski’s improbable write-in campaign succeeded.

Obama blew off some steam at
a pickup basketball game, coming away with a gashed lower lip needing 12 stitches.



The year drew to a close
with the government in a defensive crouch against the drip-drip-drip of
WikiLeaks disclosures. The first hundreds to be released, in a cache of more
than 250,000 State Department cables coming out, proved a huge embarrassment
for Washington in its dealings with other nations, and followed the leak of
nearly half a million documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But Obama moved aggressively
to achieve an arms control treaty with Russia in the waning days of the lame-duck
session, an effort bound to strengthen U.S. credibility abroad if it succeeds
this week.

A burst of bipartisanship
came back, this time with teeth. Democratic leaders found enough Republican
support to repeal the military gay ban. After 17 years, the so-called “don’t
ask, don’t tell” rule on the sexual orientation of troops is giving way to one
that says it doesn’t matter.

Although Obama has probably
called the Republicans’ bluff on their vow to repeal “Obamacare” — they won’t
have the votes — he has to deal with them on a broad front now. He compromised
on tax cuts in the lame-duck session, agreeing to extend lower rates for the
rich as well as the middle class before their expiration at year’s end. The
agreement, now law, is expected to add $900 billion to the deficit.

Has harmony come to the
capital? Hardly. Obama likened the Republicans to hostage-takers.

But it’s a new world now. He dealt.


In this Feb. 9, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with bipartisan House and Senate leaders to discuss the economy and jobs, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. From left are House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the president, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Photo: AP

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