The global exultation that we saw a year ago, as the news of Barack Obama’s election became irresistibly clear, was in a way a problem for the administration that dawned that day. How could anyone live up to expectations like these? On countless fronts, the Obama team has not, as we see from the exasperated gasps of the left, furious that lobbying and war and corporate bailouts have not been expunged from the historical record. But for the vast middle of this country, and the even vaster populations that lie beyond it, it has been a relatively good year. Many problems have been addressed; many more were, if not addressed, then at least mitigated; and most important of all, Americans have a feeling that they are being told something like the truth about their government.
Most important of all, Americans have a feeling that they are being told something like the truth about their government.
A year ago, the most dire problem facing Americans was the collapse of the economy. The hold-your-nose solution may have been ugly, but the Apocalypse was averted. Jobs are coming back very slowly, and not much in Michigan or my state, Rhode Island, but still, things might easily have been worse. Health-care reform has been predictably messy, and the results are not yet in—but no president was ever going to simply impose a solution; even FDR could not. Foreign policy has been brave at times (a decision to reverse course on missile defense in Europe), skillful (the Honduran crisis solved this week), and occasionally inspirational (a bold speech in Cairo to the Islamic world). That being said, we all know the biggest problems lie ahead, in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And of course in the Middle East, where there has been little progress and mixed signals on issues like Israeli settlements. Decisions there will alienate large swaths of Obama’s shifting constituency—it can’t be avoided, even if the decisions are correct. But the first year gives reason to think that the decisions will be well thought out, and well explained to the people who elected this still-evolving president. You can’t ask for much more than that. At least not at this early moment to be asking.
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton.