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Progress Report: Obama’s First Year

It’s been one year since Barack Obama was inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol building. USC professors Ange-Marie Hancock and Jane Junn review his 2009 obstacles and achievements — both symbolic and concrete — and consider what lies ahead for him in 2010.

Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science at the USC College, is an expert on African American politics, Barack Obama, and black-Latino relations.

President Obama has had a steep learning curve over the past year. While 2009 began with his victory in getting an economic stimulus package through Congress, which included very limited bipartisan support, the roadblocks to health care reform efforts in the summer and fall dampened his public approval ratings, as did the growth in unemployment despite the stimulus.

One key Obama tactical error in pursuit of health care reform was not using reconciliation as a process to move legislation through Congress. Many previous overhauls of social welfare policy (such as welfare reform in 1996) were passed by reconciliation, which requires a simple majority rather than a 60-vote majority in the Senate. Because reconciliation was avoided, the final piece of legislation will fall far short of what the Obama administration sought, because many conservative Senate Democrats were able to leverage their votes, producing a far more conservative bill.

The president also had to contend with racial issues far more than I think he would have preferred — including the kinds of slogans and signs that appeared at town hall meetings about health care, Joe Wilson’s outburst, Obama’s remarks about the Cambridge police and Henry Louis Gates, or the pushback he has started to receive from members of the Congressional Black Caucus regarding economic policies that don’t sufficiently help communities of color. Recently, the comments attributed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the race issue again.

While the economy has started to turn around, it’s unclear whether there will be enough transformation to provide the Obama administration with sufficient political capital in advance of the 2010 midterm elections. Because 2010 is shaping up to be a tough year for Democrats due to the slow economic recovery, it won’t be easy to whip Democratic votes from moderate and conservative Democrats for key initiatives without major concessions, as Obama found during the health care debates.

Jane Junn, visiting professor of political science at the USC College, is an expert on political behavior, racial and ethnic politics, public opinion and polling.

What strikes me most about this past year is not so much the specific things Obama has accomplished in terms of policy initiatives. Instead, the most important thing Obama has done in his first year is to displace the image that comes into the minds of Americans when we are asked to imagine what the president of the United States looks like. That image is no longer an older white dude.

Obama is now the “default category,” having toppled a 232-year run of white male leaders. This maybe isn’t as important to native-born Americans who are in their middle years and beyond, but it is of tremendous significance to new Americans (immigrants) and young Americans. Barack Obama is the only U.S. president my daughters (aged five and seven) remember; to them, a black man is a president. I find that “totally awesome,” as they would say.

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Progress Report: Obama’s First Year

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