Where’s The Change?

At the end of President Obama’s first year, our reaction when we hear that his approval rating has fallen to 53 percent should be a good, apathetic “so what?” It’s in the same neighborhood as approval ratings that Presidents Clinton and Nixon received at the end of year one, and it’s much higher than conservative champion Ronald Reagan’s ratings were. Heck, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush dipped way below the 50 percent line during their political careers. So why is Obama’s fairly standard approval rating unusually unsettling to us?

It’s because for the first time in quite some time, Americans don’t feel that we have elected a standard president. Whether Democrat or  Republican, you’ve got to admit that Obama’s 2008 campaign electrified the nation. The liberals stood wide-eyed at someone who had finally come along to turn their social agenda into real policy. The conservatives fought in horror against a senator endorsed by the Communist Party USA, but in the end, they couldn’t defeat the will of a nation that seemed hell-bent on sampling the change that he promised. When all was said and done, we had elected the charismatic senator from Illinois and it certainly felt as though everything was going to change. It felt as though we had just ushered in a new era in American politics.

But the unfortunate (or perhaps, some would argue, fortunate) reality is that now, one year later, it feels a bit like the campaign was just a strange dream. The electricity that seemed to course through the political process has dissipated. The 53 percent mark shows that the entire country, from the fervent Obamaniacs to the diehard conservatives like me who secretly dared to hope that Barack might just be the man for the job, is now underwhelmed. We didn’t elect the Messiah; the fair-haired boy that the Left promised would swoop in and fix everything. After one year, it looks like we just elected a president.

Let’s start with a biggie: the War in Iraq. President Obama’s campaign was based largely on ending this war, an issue that has been on the liberal agenda for years. Democratic heads (and I’m sure a few Republican ones, as well) spun with glorious visions of the troops returning home and all the bloodshed ending. Obama did fairly well, announcing the withdrawal all but 50,000 of our servicemen by August 2010. Fine, perfectly reasonable. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until his sophomore year to judge him on that one. Not even Reagan fixed everything in 12 months. But, he also ordered 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

On a very superficial level, it’s starting to look like Mr. O is sort of a liar. Obama defenders will likely point to advice from the UN and military strategists that more force is needed in Afghanistan so a troop surge logically makes sense for maximum efficiency. But this sounds a lot like the insider sources that alleged Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2002. So far, Obama isn’t exactly breaking the mold that Bush created. Where’s the change?

How about that economy? His famed trillion-dollar stimulus package is likely the most ambitious economic project in the last few decades, and it has only just begun. As of last August, only 20 percent of the money had actually been spent. Is it anywhere near the time to start calling it a success or a failure? No way. But has there been any noticeable change in the economy that we can directly attribute to the package? No way. Economists will (correctly) argue that the economy isn’t some bicycle that can turn on a dime; it’s a massive semi-truck that needs to prepare for each acceleration and deceleration months, if not years, ahead of time. The current state of the economy can still be linked pretty directly to policies from the Bush Administration, but how long are we going to let Obama coast on that one? The bottom line is that we elected him because we expected magical solutions and he just isn’t delivering them in the economic sector.

How about Guantanamo Bay? People have protested for years that the detention center is illegal and immoral, and Obama made closing the facility a large plank in his platform. Once elected, he decreed that it would be closed by January 2010. As you may notice, it is now January 2010 and Guantanamo remains open. For all intents and purposes, nothing about Guantanamo Bay has changed. Obama promised to close the detention center and he has not done it.

We should not be shocked to find out Obama is doing a mediocre job as president. Sure, steps have been taken to end the Iraq War and turn the economy around, but at the end of his freshman year there has really been no concretely positive change that the average American could attribute to him. I would go so far as to claim that if one knew nothing about American politics and was only monitoring policy, there would be no way to tell when Bush exited and Obama entered.

Look around, America, because January 2010 looks extraordinarily like January 2008. That 53 percent approval rating shouldn’t shock or discourage us. It should remind us not to automatically assume that our current president is a major improvement over previous ones. It should also show us that change is harder in practice than it is in theory.

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.