Washington At 8:35 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2009, Barack Obama walked into the Oval Office for the first time as president, the hopes of the nation on his shoulders. He spent 10 minutes alone, soaking in the moment, then set about trying to deliver on the bold promises he had laid out in his inaugural address a day earlier.
At precisely the one-year mark in his presidency, Obama awoke Wednesday to headlines shouting about the Republican takeover of a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, an election that represented far more than a shift of a legislator from one side of the aisle to the other.
Gone was the Democrats’ filibuster-resistant 60-seat majority in the Senate, and with it a clear pathway to Obama’s prized health care overhaul.
Gone, too, was the sense of heady optimism that infused the country 12 months earlier to the day.
The yes-we-can candidate had summoned the nation to join him in “remaking America” and confidently proclaimed: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them.”
One year later, the ground has shifted beneath Obama.
‘Everybody is behind him’
The snapshots of Inauguration Day 2009 began well before dawn, when energized Americans streamed from jammed subway stations and made their way by foot toward a Capitol bathed in lights. Undaunted by the cold, they were determined to be part of the historic collage.
“Everybody is behind him,” said Mikki Hill, 26, who had come from Winston-Salem, N.C., and dared to speak for all the world. “Everybody’s come from as far as the Earth is wide.”
The economy was seizing, joblessness was creeping up, more troops were headed for Afghanistan.
And yet, for all the perils of the day, it was a moment of possibilities.
“Change has come to America,” the White House Web site trumpeted within minutes of Obama’s swearing-in.
And people believed it.
By a 3-to-1 margin, Americans that day said they felt more optimistic about the future of the country, a poll found.
‘It’s never easy’
There would be no victory lap for Obama on Jan. 20, 2010.
Instead, Republicans spent the day savoring the broader implications of the election in Massachusetts.
House Republican leader John Boehner saw it as a powerful manifestation of a political rebellion that’s been brewing all year, a backlash against big government, reckless spending and not enough focus on getting Americans back to work.
“Anger is now pointed at us because we’re in charge,” Robert Gibbs, the president’s spokesman, allowed. “And rightly so.”
Obama himself owned up to a failure to communicate.
Hopping from crisis to crisis, he told ABC, “we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.”
Thinking back to her husband’s campaign, first lady Michelle Obama said everyone remembers what he said about hope.
“But we forget about all the other stuff he said after that, that it’s going to be hard and it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s never easy, and we’re feeling that right now.”
‘Do they really get us?’
Obama took office with a sky-high 74 percent approval rating and two-thirds of Americans expecting him to be an above-average, maybe even outstanding, president.
His approval rating’s down to 56 percent now, and only about four in 10 people see him as an above-average chief executive.
But Obama, the candidate who was so captivating to Americans a year ago, said people are feeling a “remoteness and detachment” with the technocrats in Washington.
“Do they really get us and what we’re going through?” he wondered aloud Wednesday, then framed a more hopeful outlook for Year Two:
“I think that I can do a better job of that — and partly because I do believe that we’re in a stronger position now than we were in a year ago.”