Politics

Obama Celebrates A Year In Office

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This week, President Barack Obama celebrates his first year in office, and it comes at a time when his job approval ratings — and his presidency — are at a crossroads. NPR political editor Ken Rudin talks Obama's first year as president.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Obama travels to Massachusetts today to bolster support for a Senate candidate in what's been a reliably Democratic state. It's a particularly important race for the president. His push for health care reform could turn on it. Mr. Obama's visit comes at a time when his job approval ratings and his presidency are at a crossroads.

Republicans and conservatives have been critical of his performance for months. But now his own party is becoming uneasy about an unending war in Afghanistan, the unfinished health care bill and an incomplete agenda after showing so much promise.

NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk about the first year of the Obama presidency. Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Are you surprised to find President Obama in this shape after a year in office?

RUDIN: Well, I would say yes only because his numbers in the beginning were so positive. Certainly in the early going, there were polls showing back in April and May, showed him with 60 percent approval, if not more. He was riding high. The Democrats were riding high. And at the same time, the Republicans were flailing. They were defined often as the party of Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. And whereas they were, like, battling each other.

Then something seemed to happen by last summer, where the Republicans seemed to get united. Their anger against the Obama policies grew and grew. We saw those outbursts at the town hall meetings during the summer, the growth and the rise of the Tea Parties. And now it seems like, if you look at the polling numbers -and I can give some polling numbers - The Washington Post has President Obama with a 53 percent approval, CBS 46 percent approval. These are not good numbers, certainly not as good as they were when he was riding so high back in the last spring.

HANSEN: So, give us some numbers, pluses and minuses. Assess his first year.

RUDIN: Well, I'm kind of like the Nobel Committee on this because not that so much has been accomplished, but there has been great, great promise. So, of course, you know, they had the stimulus package, which worked, and the bank bailouts and this rescuing of the auto companies. And those things seemed to be very good. His reaching out to foreign countries, where President Bush had not done so. And yet, but limited results. I mean, we're still waiting. We're still waiting for any kind of reciprocity from Cuba or from North Korea, from Iran. There's still problems, of course, with Russia and China, and there seems to difficulties with them.

And on the domestic front, we still don't have a health care bill. We may have it soon, but we don't have it yet. There's still no word on climate control, things like that. So, you know, there's a lot things that could happen. And I guess the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decided, you know, that might happen. But until they do, they're not seen as accomplishments. And one thing - important thing to remember - Bill Clinton elected in 1992 was thought to be dead in the water in 1994, was re-elected in '96. Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, they had this 1982 recession and yet two years later he won 49 states.

So you can make the case that it's too early to write off President Obama. But the question is whether many of these congressional Democrats will be around for the ride in 2012.

HANSEN: Explain what's going on in the Democratic Party. I mean, they're critical of the president. They complain he hasn't been aggressive in pushing the health care plan. And he's let Republicans set the agenda. And they're not happy about the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

RUDIN: Exactly. There was a growing discontent. You know, we've always talked about the united Republican Party and how the Republican Party is doing what it can to thwart the Obama initiatives. And yet, the Democrats are sitting back and watching this and they're saying: Wait a second. We should be riding high. We have a huge majority in the House. We have 60 votes in the Senate - and that's exactly why Massachusetts is so important and we could talk about that later, but we should be passing these things.

And yet many in the progressive wing of the party feel that the Obama -President Obama is too willing to compromise, too willing to give in to, like, the Joe Liebermans, the Ben Nelsons of the world, the moderate-centrist senators. While, you know, 58 senators may decide they want the public option in the health bill. But if one objects, well, that's thrown out the window.

If 58 senators say that there's too much focus on abortion, but if two senators object to that, then the president gives too much. They don't like that. They feel that they have the numbers to stand and they should be doing that. And here we have somebody who wants - who was elected in 2008 - to reverse the Bush foreign policy adventures and yet here the progressives watch President Obama's call for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. These policies are not necessarily uniformly unpopular, but they have made the left very weary and very nervous going into this year's elections.

HANSEN: And in the minute we have left, let's talk about that Senate campaign in Massachusetts in the special election. The president is going up to campaign for Democratic candidate for Senator Martha Coakley. Why has this become a race that the Democrats need to have the president involved?

RUDIN: Well, it's a - as you said earlier, this should be a slam dunk. Massachusetts, this is Ted Kennedy's seat he's had for 47 years. The Democrats have held it since 1953 when JFK had it. But one: Scott Brown, the Republican, is a good campaigner. Two: Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, is not a good candidate. And but three, more importantly: health care may be at stake, at risk, because if Scott Brown wins, he is the 41st Republican senator robbing the Democrats of 60 votes. And it could make, if not health care, the rest of the agenda very, very difficult.

HANSEN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. His Political Junkie blog can be found at NPR.org/junkie. Ken, thanks a lot.

RUDIN: Thank you, Liane.

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