A Look At Obama's First Year In Office

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This week will mark one year since President Obama took office. The Obama administration says it answered tough situations with tough decisions, but some were not very popular. NPR national correspondent Mara Liasson reviews Obama's first year with Host Guy Raz.

GUY RAZ, host:

NPR's Mara Liasson has been charting the first year of the Obama presidency, and she's with me in the studio.

Hi, Mara.


RAZ: How would you sum up that year for the president?

LIASSON: Well, Barack Obama is a president who came into office facing a huge set of unprecedented problems - a collapsing financial system, the worst recession since the Great Depression, two wars. And on top of all the things he had to do, the crises and the emergencies, he also had an incredibly ambitious agenda of his own: health care, energy, financial re-regulation. And now that we're at the end of this year, he passed a lot of it.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

LIASSON: He did put a lot of points on the legislative scoreboard, but it came at a tremendous cost. He had to use a lot of political capital to do it. And I think it's also fair to say that the change he talked about, the end to petty grievances and recriminations, certainly didn't come to pass.

RAZ: And reflected in his poll numbers, whether fair or not. Originally, he was at around 70 percent approval, now down to 50 percent, just under that.

LIASSON: Yes. Obviously, he started at an unnaturally high level.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

LIASSON: But being under 50 is the danger zone for presidents as they enter the midterm elections. The presidential approval rating and the unemployment rate are probably the two most significant indicators of how a majority party will fare in the midterms.

RAZ: Now, Mara, presumably with the midterm elections looming - and historically, it's a losing race for the party in power - the Democrats have to be somewhat worried.

LIASSON: They are facing a difficult midterm election, possibly 20 to 30 seats losing in the House and anywhere from two to seven in the Senate. It is normal and historical for a majority party president to lose seats in both houses. But what the Democrats have to worry about is losing control of one or more houses of Congress.

RAZ: Mara, recently, Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan publication, did a study looking at President Obama's first year. It concluded that he was more successful in getting more legislation passed in his first year than any other president since World War II. It seems pretty significant. So why would the White House care all that much about the poll numbers at this point?

LIASSON: Because voters don't decide on who they're going to vote for based on the number of laws that a president has passed. The fact that President Obama has been successful in passing a lot of legislation and getting it through Congress certainly is a success by one historical measure. But as I said, he did it by spending a tremendous amount of political capital.

One of the things you do see in the polls - there's a new Quinnipiac poll out that shows that health care, the popularity of the president's health care proposal is at 34 percent.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

LIASSON: In other words, maybe it's the sausage-making and what the public has seen Congress do to get this bill passed that has really turned them off.

I think over time, the White House would argue, these pieces of legislation will be popular over time. Right now, they're not.

RAZ: So they're taking a long view.

LIASSON: They have to.

RAZ: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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