Image: Barack Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Neither President Obama's compelling personal story nor his early decisions said much about who he really was.
updated 1/27/2010 10:55:24 AM ET 2010-01-27T15:55:24

One year and one week ago, Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol to give his inaugural address. His challenge then was to re-inspire Americans’ confidence in themselves. Tonight, inside that building, his challenge is to re-inspire their confidence in him.

A year into his presidency, we are less sure than ever who he really is — what he believes, what’s in his heart and gut — and whether he has what it takes to be president.

The reason has less to do with his famously cool persona — though that is part of it — than with the decisions he made after those early efforts to help stave off a global economic catastrophe.

Early in his presidency, and even before he was even sworn in, Obama made some fundamental — and almost certainly correct — calls.

Facing global meltdown, he accepted the Bush administration’s basic strategy, which was to throw as much money and credit as possible at the crisis. In his inauguration speech, he offered his own victory as a plausible reason for faith in national progress. And, finally, his administration administered “stress tests” to major banks, which helped restore confidence in the system. A run had been a real possibility.

So his biography and bank-crisis choices did, in fact, instill a sense of confidence that in turn produced the high point of his popularity. But neither his personal story nor his early decisions said much about who he really was.

'A hologram of hope'
Riding a tide of celebrity, generation change and voter dismay about Iraq and the crumbling economy, Obama always was more of a hologram of hope than a detailed agenda. And in the days since those early — and mostly unavoidable — decisions, his missteps and missed signals have led to one of the sharpest first-year poll drops in presidential history.

Many of the same voters who proudly cast ballots for the cool-headed and inspiring candidate from Illinois are now those casting doubt on what, precisely, he stands for.

Is he for the Little Guy or the Big Boys? Is he for individual initiative of the marketplace, or the redistributive power of government? Is he alive to the realities of street corner and strip mall America, or is he too much the theorizing, Ivy-credentialed son of globe-trotting academics?

Does he have good political sense, or was he just lucky?

Obama remains personally popular; it's his policies and tactical calls that are making people doubt him as president.

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In his inaugural speech, Obama sounded like he understood that Americans tend not to trust Big Government any more than they admire Big Business. But he hasn’t acted that way. He piled on program after program in ways that scared away the moderate voters who elected him.

He ran as an agent of profound, fundamental change in the way Washington worked, but got lost in a thicket of health care deals and pork-barrel spending in his stimulus package.

He spent all of his domestic political capital on health care — and turned its fate over to a Congress — making a double mistake that called into question his reputation as a guy with shrewd political sense and good timing.

And now, he is calling for a three-year semi-freeze on federal spending, a gimmicky notion he had rightly ridiculed during the campaign. It's a move that makes him look desperate, and it has further offended his core supporters on the political left, who were mad at him for a host of other reasons.

The volumes of analysis written about the president are rife with the cliché that the guy’s career is made up of career-making or career-saving speeches. He had better hope that the one he gives tonight follows in that tradition.

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Video: All presidents make mistakes

  1. Closed captioning of: All presidents make mistakes

    >> david gregory, thank you very much. robert gibbs is the white house press secretary. mr. gibbs, good morning to you.

    >> good morning, meredith. how are you?

    >> i'm great, thank you. you know, the president has his work cut out for him tonight. according to our poll, 58% of those asked feel the country is on the wrong track. that's a big number. what do they need to hear tonight that would convince them otherwise?

    >> well, look, i think the president will discuss what many americans are feeling, that the past year was one of the most challenging in our nation's history, but he'll outline a plan to get our economy -- to continue to get our economy back on track to make us safer and more secure, to make college more affordable, to cut spending here in washington and outline what he believes it will be a hopeful decade for this country.

    >> let's talk about tone for a minute. will he strike a note of contrition for the mistakes that he's made over the past year, because every president makes mistakes?

    >> every president makes mistakes, including barack obama . he's not been shy about admitting that. we've made mistakes here. i think what you'll hear the president, though, focus most on tonight are plans to cut taxes for small businesses that hire workers, how do we get credit flowing again from community banks to many small businesses , eliminating capital gains for investment in those small businesses . as i said, changing the way washington works, cutting spending here in this town to get us back on a path towards fiscal responsibility . all of those things the president will outline here tonight.

    >> speaking about cutting the deficit here, the spending, he will announce this three-year budget freeze. already some critics are saying it's just a drop in the bucket. others are wondering how cutting social spending will create jobs, which is number one in most people's minds. so, what's his answer to that?

    >> well, understand this, meredith -- from 1995 to 2006, this portion of our budget grew by 90%. so, for critics out there that don't think this is something that we need to address -- we're never going to close our budget deficit if we don't take every step, not just one or two steps, but every step that we need to control spending. the president believes we have to put ourselves back on a path towards fiscal responsibility , and freezing nonsecurity spending in this budget is one of those paths. it's not everything that we have to do to close our budget deficit , but it's certainly one of those steps.

    >> but it is, again, it's only one-eighth of the budget . i think that's why critics are focusing on that.

    >> well, again, understanding this, meredith -- in 1995 -- between 1995 and 2006, this part of the budget doubled. so, if it's one-eighth of the budget now, it was one-sixteenth then. if we can't address this with the one part of the budget , how will you do that for the other seven-eighths? we'll cut programs that duplicate what other programs do in this government. it's exactly what families are doing around the kitchen table all over this country. they can't afford everything. they know what they have to spend money on, which in our case is security and investing in things like education, but they know that they can't afford everything. they've got to tighten their belt and they're going to start with some of those decisions just as the president is doing.

    >> very quickly, last year the president made a big push for health care reform , a health care reform bill. now the senate majority leader, harry reid , is suddenly saying there's no rush. does the president agree with that, or again tonight will he push for that reform?

    >> we'll discuss health care reform tonight, meredith, because even as millions of americans are working harder for less pay, one of the reasons they're taking home less money is their skyrocketing health care costs. we were close to having reform a few weeks ago. we're still just that close, and the president will discuss why we can't walk away from making sure that the struggling the high cost of health care doesn't choke off an economic recovery.

    >> does he still feel there's a rush?

    >> we still have an urgent problem in this country, because as the president speaks tonight, more people will lose their insurance, more people will be discriminated against by an insurance company , and more people will see their health care costs go up if we don't do anything.

    >> all right. white house press secretaryrobert gibbs, i'm sure we'll be talking to you in the days ahead. thank you so much.


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