Accomplishments, setbacks and stalemates: Obama’s first year in review
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The swearing-in of Barack Obama as the 44th US president last January led to widespread expectations of a marked shift in US policy. On the anniversary of his inauguration, we take a look at 10 things for which Obama’s first year will be remembered.
The Guantanamo announcement and an ensuing dilemma
Two days after taking office, President Obama ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba within a year. The decision delighted the left and earned praise from human rights activists and countries who had long criticised the prison’s notorious interrogation methods as an example of US moral hypocrisy. But while Obama has succeeded in releasing or transferring 44 of the 242 prisoners he inherited, Congress has resisted White House attempts to move suspects to US soil, while convincing other countries to take in prisoners has proven challenging. In November, Obama admitted that he would miss his self-imposed deadline, and the attempted attack on a US-bound plane on Christmas Day resulted in Obama’s decision to halt the transfer of prisoners to Yemen.
A sweeping stimulus package
The 787-billion-dollar stimulus package signed into law by Obama on Feb. 17 - the most sweeping US recovery programme in over 60 years - was considered an early triumph for a president who had vowed a bold response to the economic crisis. The package, which combined spending programmes and tax relief to boost an economy struck low by the previous year’s credit crisis, was criticised by Republicans who warned of climbing debt, and by some Democrats who insisted the programmes in the bill did not go far enough. But by November, there was growing agreement among many economic analysts that the plan had indeed saved jobs and pulled the American economy back from the brink of disaster, marking what Obama, when signing the bill into law, called “the beginning of the end”.
Speaking to the Muslim world in Cairo
On June 4, Obama delivered a closely watched address in which he urged “a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world.” Aiming to improve America’s damaged image in Muslim countries after an unpopular Bush administration, Obama encouraged US citizens and the Islamic world to abandon their negative stereotypes of one another. But his most eagerly awaited remarks concerned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Obama reaffirmed the “unbreakable” alliance between the US and Israel, but called for Jerusalem to stop building new settlements and earned applause when he said "America will not turn its back on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own". The speech was widely praised for its candid tone and evenhanded approach, though some Muslim leaders around the world expressed scepticism about Obama’s ability to back up words with action. The White House has yet to succeed in securing a promise of a settlement freeze from Israel.
‘Gatesgate’: The race question returns
Obama’s remark at a press conference that police had “acted stupidly” in arresting African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates in his home in the Boston area, followed by his comments about the history of racial profiling in America, brought the issue of skin colour into the spotlight -- and made for an awkward moment from the ostensibly “post-racial” president. Right-leaning bloggers slammed Obama for insulting law enforcers and playing the “race card”, while left-wing commentators worried that Obama had clumsily waded into a debate that would distract him from his domestic priority of healthcare reform. Several days later, Obama hosted a “beer summit” in the White House garden, meeting with Gates, the officer who had arrested Gates and Vice President Joe Biden, displaying an ability to turn a hot-button controversy into a “teachable moment”.
Making history on the Supreme Court
Obama made history by nominating federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor - the daughter of Puerto Rican parents raised in Bronx housing projects - to the Supreme Court, making her the first Hispanic judge and the third woman to serve on the 220-year-old court. Despite controversy surrounding past comments by Sotomayor that a “wise Latina” woman might make a better legal decision than a white man, she was confirmed by the Senate in August, replacing Justice David H. Souter, who retired. Obama’s selection of Sotomayor did more than add diversity to America’s highest federal court; it also nudged the court to the left after eight years of rightward pushing by former President George W. Bush.
A contested prize
Nothing encapsulated the tug-of-war between the excitement generated by Obama’s leadership and a growing impatience to see him make concrete changes on the world stage more than the surprise choice of the US president as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October. The committee cited the US president’s ''extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples,'' but critics at home and abroad said the award was premature and even inappropriate given America’s entanglement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When accepting the award in Oslo in December, Obama acknowledged that paradox, and more specifically his decision to send additional US troops to Afghanistan: “There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” he said, adding that, compared to previous winners, his accomplishments were “slight.”
The Afghanistan decision
After months of closed-door meetings with a divided foreign policy team (Vice President Biden was against a surge, Secretaries of State and Defence Clinton and Gates were in favour), Obama announced in December that 30,000 additional US troops would deploy to Afghanistan in 2010. In a TV address delivered from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama presented his new strategy, calling for an accelerated time frame "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan", but warning that the US would start withdrawing troops by 2011. European NATO allies expressed approval of Obama’s timeline, but reacted coolly to the administration’s calls for additional troops. At home, in a rare cross-partisan configuration, Republicans spoke out in support of Obama’s plan, while many Democrats and anti-war activists voiced disappointment.
Deal-making in Copenhagen
After days of stalemate between the 192 nations gathered in Copenhagen to seek an accord on fighting global warming, Obama helped push talks toward a deal that put both wealthy and developing nations on the road to cutting emissions. The non-binding agreement - which stipulates that countries commit to greenhouse gas reductions that would be open to international review - fell vastly short of hopes and was criticised by environmental activists around the world. Some, citing Obama’s political constraints at home (namely a Congress resistant to passing climate change legislation), credited the US president for hammering out a deal with leaders of China, Brazil, South Africa, and India. Others considered Obama part of a collective failure to produce a meaningful pact.
A hard-fought healthcare overhaul on the brink
Generations of American presidents have tried to give the US healthcare system a sweeping makeover, but Obama, who made the issue his domestic priority, is on the verge of checking the reform off his to-do list. After several months of often vitriolic public debate, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of reform that would extend coverage to millions of currently uninsured Americans. Top congressional Democrats are now working to combine the measures and to send a final law to Obama for signature. But the reform now hangs precariously in the balance: the election to fill the seat of late Democratic Senator and healthcare champion Edward Kennedy ended in Republican victory, losing Democrats the supermajority they needed to override Republican opposition in a final healthcare vote – leaving Obama just shy of a historic legislative accomplishment.
An untimely national security crisis
A foiled Christmas Day attack by a Nigerian man on a US-bound passenger plane put more than a dent in Obama’s Hawaiian vacation; it put him, and his national security operation, in the direct line of fire. With a branch of al Qaeda in Yemen claiming responsibility for the plot, many wondered how US intelligence could have missed the “red flags”. Republicans slammed Obama for waiting three days before addressing the American public and lashed out at Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for her statement that “the system worked”. In a televised appearance, Obama took responsibility, saying “our intelligence community failed to connect those dots”, but also sought to put to rest fears that he was not up to the task of handling the terrorist threat. “We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable,” he affirmed.
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