Election Loss Tarnishes Obama's First Year

One year ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated the 44th president of the United States. It was a time of great promise, and his approval ratings reflected the hope the American people placed in him. One year later, a lot has changed — including Massachusetts, which just voted a Republican into the Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was one year ago today that Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States. It was a time of great promise and his approval ratings reflected the hope the American people had placed in him. A year later, much has changed.

Yesterday, the Democrats and President Obama suffered a stunning loss in Massachusetts and the end of his 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: It wasn't even close. In the very blue state of Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown comfortably beat Martha Coakley to capture the once-safe Democratic Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. Now the White House has to digest what the results mean for the president's agenda. Neil Newhouse is Brown's pollster.

Mr. NEIL NEWHOUSE (Pollster): This is an absolutely devastating blow to the president, and it's in Massachusetts of all states. This is going to shake Washington and shake the Obama administration. What is really interesting is even among the voters we polled in this race, a majority of them approve of the job that Obama's doing. You know, what the message these voters are sending is that Washington is not listening to us.

LIASSON: According to Gallup, Mr. Obama now has the second-lowest national approval rating of any modern president at this point. He's at 50 percent approval. Reagan was slightly lower, at 49. The White House attributes this drop to the huge plate of problems he inherited. Dan Pfeiffer is the White House communications director.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Communications Director): This president came into office at a time of tremendous economic crisis, with two wars, with a series of unprecedented challenges. We've had to make very tough decisions, and they were not politically popular, but they were necessary. These are tough times. I mean, people are going to be discontented, and they should. And the president understands that.

LIASSON: But the president hasn't been able to convince Americans that he does, and as Neil Newhouse points out, his political capital has diminished to the point where he wasn't able to lend a hand to an embattled Democrat even in Massachusetts.

Mr. NEWHOUSE: In our polling in Massachusetts - we polled through the time that Obama actually came up to campaign for Martha Coakley - he didn't change any votes. He had no positive impact either in New Jersey or Virginia, in the gubernatorial races, or in this U.S. Senate election. I mean, people like him but he doesn't have the pull he had before.

LIASSON: Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out today, which also found President Obama to be personally popular, but, Hart says, the voters haven't seen the change he promised them.

Mr. PETER HART (Democratic Pollster): They still see the financial institutions getting special bonuses. They still look at persistent high unemployment and a concern about what's around the corner. So the reflection is starting to be much more about this president than the situation he inherited.

LIASSON: The immediate question facing the president is what to do about health care. The Democrats seem convinced that they need to push ahead despite voter disapproval because failing to pass their number one priority would be political suicide. But with Republicans in lockstep opposition and without a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, the Democrats' options to get health care through Congress quickly are limited and political unpalatable.

Beyond health care, the president always planned to pivot this year to a relentless focus on the economy, and that hasn't changed, says White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Whether there are 59 seats in the Senate or 60, we still have to work hard to get our economy back on track. We still have to work hard to make the promise of affordable, accessible health care for millions of Americans a reality. I don't believe that there's an entirely new agenda based on the result in Massachusetts.

LIASSON: But former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston says successful presidents from Kennedy to Reagan to Clinton know how to acknowledge and learn from their setbacks.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Clinton White House Aide): It's time for the administration to pause, reflect, recalibrate, and if the message is steady as she goes, I think they'll pay an even bigger price than they will anyway.

LIASSON: Galston says the president has a short-term political judgment to make about the health care bill, but he has a much broader question to answer about his agenda for 2010 and beyond.

Mr. GALSTON: The American people, I believe, have sent a very clear signal that they want their government to be focused on the things that they think are most important, and those things are clearly jobs and economic growth, full-stop. And that means not climate change, it means not immigration reform, it means that the agenda for 2010 and beyond, until this economy recovers enough so that people can begin to think about other things, should be economic, period.

LIASSON: One week from today, when President Obama delivers his State of the Union address, voters will find out how he is planning to respond to the message from Massachusetts.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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