WASHINGTON - When he took his hand off the Lincoln Bible on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol and the cannon boomed the traditional first salute one year ago today, President Obama seemed to have the political world at his feet.
Supporters forecast transformative change, renewed faith in government, and a growing Democratic majority.
But Obama enters his second year having suffered the sharpest decline in job approval for a first-year president, with most polls putting him at 50 percent or just below. Millions remain anxious over the economy and angry at growing federal spending, and many analysts framed yesterday's special Senate election in Massachusetts, with its threat to his signature health-care overhaul, as a referendum on his presidency so far.
Taking stock in a question-and-answer session with reporters yesterday, David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, said the administration had succeeded in stabilizing the economy from free-fall and in repairing the U.S. image in the world.
At the same time, Axelrod sought to distance Obama from the much-criticized campaign run by defeated Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley for the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and signaled that the White House and the party would approach the "troubled environment" of the 2010 midterm elections with a more populist message.
"There's an awful lot of anxiety among middle-class Americans - it's not exactly a revelation for us," Axelrod said. "I think that it is not enough to articulate that anger and come here to stand with the insurance companies, stand with the financial industry, and with the special interests to maintain the status quo. That's basically the posture of the Republican Party in Washington."
'My hat's off'
Axelrod said "there were local issues at play" in Massachusetts that hurt what had been expected to be an easy election for Coakley, arguing that her troubles did not indicate an outright repudiation of Obama. Winning Republican Scott Brown, who opposes Obama's health-care plan, ran a "very clever" campaign as an everyman in a battered GMC pickup, Axelrod said.
"As a practitioner of politics, my hat's off to him," Axelrod said.
The strategist pushed back against suggestions from some in the Democratic Party that Obama should have done more than make an eleventh-hour trip to Massachusetts on Coakley's behalf, given the stakes for his agenda.
"The White House did everything we were asked to do," he said. "If we had been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier."
'We had to'
Weeks after taking office, Obama pushed through a $787 billion stimulus package, as well as bailouts for financial firms and the auto industry, which many economists argue have helped stabilize the economy. Yet unemployment remains at about 10 percent nationwide, and Americans report seeing little evidence of improvement in their situations.
"These were not the things we wanted to do - they were things we had to do," Axelrod said. "I think history will look back on those as a series of fateful decisions in terms of saving the country from an even deeper catastrophe."
In addition, Obama has been able to win troop-support commitments from NATO allies for his escalation of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, and the "world is more united" against Iran's nuclear ambitions, Axelrod said.
"It is undebatable that America's standing is stronger today," he said.
The administration's Republican opponents have a different perspective on Obama's initial months in office.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said last month: "It's been a long year for the American people. We've seen American families and small businesses struggling all year in a very difficult economy, and all that they've gotten from the Democrats here in Washington is more spending and more debt piled on the backs of our kids and grandkids."
The president's next big chance to try to shift the political conversation comes next Wednesday with his State of the Union address. Last week, Obama used muscular populist rhetoric in proposing a new tax on big financial institutions to recover the bailout money.
Other presidents in modern times have faced anemic poll numbers in their first years and recovered. Slow starts, it seems, are less the exception than the rule for new presidents.
Republican Ronald Reagan, for instance, had approval ratings at about Obama's level at the end of his first year in office, and they dipped further into the 40s as a recession deepened in 1982. Reagan vowed to "stay the course." Some Republican lawmakers lost in that year's midterms, but the economy rebounded, and in 1984 Reagan was elected in a historic landslide.
And Democrat Bill Clinton got his first budget passed by a one-vote margin and was dismissed as a likely one-term chief executive as 1993 ended. Republicans took over Congress the next year, and Clinton had to proclaim his own relevance on national television. But his poll numbers recovered, and he, too, was reelected.
In other words, a year is short.
But the White House knows it has to turn the politics around after independent voters in New Jersey and Virginia turned against the Democrats late last year, helping to elect Republican governors.
One thing that might help the Democrats, Axelrod argued: Republican infighting between conservatives and establishment forces. He noted that 16 GOP congressional incumbents face primary challenges; that county party committees in South Carolina recently sought to censure conservative Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham as too moderate; and that moderate Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, now running for the Senate, faces a strong primary challenge from conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.
"You have to wonder," Axelrod said, "if that's a party that's moving into the mainstream or moving away from the mainstream."
Counting Up Obama's Year
7,949.09: Dow Jones Industrial Average close
on Jan. 20, 2009.
10,725.43: Dow Jones Industrial Average close yesterday.
13 million: Americans 16 and older unemployed as of January 2009.
14.7 million: Americans 16 and older unemployed as of December 2009.
7.7 percent: Jobless rate, January 2009.
10.0 percent: Jobless rate, December 2009.
$10.6 trillion: Outstanding public debt, Jan. 20, 2009.
$12.3 trillion: Outstanding public debt, Jan. 14, 2010.
$296.4 billion: Federal spending from the financial crisis bailout fund before Jan. 20, 2009.
$173 billion: Federal spending from the bailout fund after Jan. 20, 2009.
$165 billion: Bailout funds repaid by banks and automakers.
139: Bank failures
between Jan. 20, 2009, and Jan. 14, 2010.
274,399: Properties that received foreclosure-related notices in January 2009.
349,519: Properties that received foreclosure-related notices in December 2009.
34,400: U.S. troops in Afghanistan, January 2009.
70,000: U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as of Jan. 12, 2010.
319: U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan from January 2009 to Jan. 15, 2010.
139,500: U.S. troops in Iraq in January 2009.
111,000: U.S. troops in Iraq as of Jan. 12, 2010.
152: U.S. military deaths
in Iraq from January 2009 to Jan. 15, 2010.
539: Appointments to top federal policy positions submitted to the Senate.
352: Appointments confirmed by the Senate.
180: Appointments in top positions carried over from the Bush administration.
12: Formal news conferences.
21: Other countries visited.
29: States visited.
SOURCE: Associated Press