Downhill After His Election
Obama’s victory in November 2008 set the bar for historic achievement. But nothing so heady has happened since.
I think his inauguration is a gold-star day in the annals of American history. If in fact it's true that slavery was America's original curse, then the fact that we've elected an African American will be remembered hundreds and thousands of years from now. It's one of those moments, the inauguration, that no amount of other successes or failures can take away.
But I don't think anything more important has happened since his election this year. He came in and inherited a recession and has been working to try and dig the country out of it, with middling success. Far too often we blame presidents for the economic condition, even while sometimes there are forces behind White House control. Nevertheless, history is a cruel maiden. It will blame Bush and then blame Obama for this stale period in our economy.
Where Obama deserves high marks is in American foreign policy. He has made great appointments with Hillary Clinton at State and by keeping Secretary Gates at Defense. It took awhile, but he seems to have at least put a sensible war-on-terror strategy in place. Most importantly, the world seems to feel America has re-entered the community of nations and he has done a good job of projecting America's image around the world in a positive light.
I think Obama came out of the gate with a lot of momentum, which was very exciting in early 2009. It also had the "watchers of the presidency" pointing out warning signs about public expectations being sky high with media claims that a new New Deal was coming. Or that a new era of progressivism was upon us. The truth of the matter is that with the Great Society in 1964, Lyndon Johnson had a much greater mandate in the Electoral College and had 67 senators.
I've felt for a long time that President Obama would have been better served in 2009 in trying to be more Theodore Roosevelt than Franklin Roosevelt. By that I mean recognizing the reality that there is a huge blue-red divide in the country and that you're probably going to have to lead with a lot of executive orders and an iron fist. Instead, President Obama wanted to be mediator in chief. It was a very noble goal, but as we can see after one year, I don't think that divide has been closed at all.
• More Daily Beast opinion on Obama’s first year So much still rides on Obama being able to claim even a watered-down health-care victory, even something with too many of Joe Lieberman’s fingerprints on it. If he can get that deal and claim a legislative victory, I think it will make 2009 not seem like a waste. But if that fails, it would be very hard for any historian to say Obama had a good first year in regard to his legislative record.
Overall, the good news for Obama, the silver lining, is that I think most Americans think Barack and Michele Obama are smart, honest, hardworking people. I don't think his brand as a human being has been tarnished.
Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, is the author, most recently, of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.