Barack Obama’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year got off to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start.
There he was, on New Year’s Day, on vacation with his family in Hawaii, stuck on a secure phone with counterterrorism officials, trying to figure out what screw-ups had allowed a would-be terrorist to board a Christmas Day flight with explosives in his underwear.
Things only got worse for Obama when he returned to Washington in between a pair of epic winter storms.
From the start, 2010 delivered a string of setbacks that built up to an electoral shellacking come November, to use the president’s own word.
No matter that the recession was officially over. That sweeping health care changes at last had been enacted. That combat operations in Iraq ended. That General Motors was making money and hiring again. That banks paid back most of the billions they’d borrowed from the government. And that Obama worked out a December tax cut deal with Republicans and scored a surprising victory in persuading Congress to end the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces.
“This is what change looks like,” Obama said proudly, after the health care law passed.
But. The economic recovery was too slow. The oil gushed for too long. The health care law was too complicated. The unemployment rate too high. The political discourse too raw. The tea party too loud.
Americans were in a foul mood, and Democrats got the blame.
Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating in Associated Press-GfK poll: 56 percent. Congressional approval: 42 percent.
The Jan. 19 election to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Obama’s ally and friend, Ted Kennedy, delivered a jarring result. Republican Scott Brown’s victory, in liberal Massachusetts no less, deprived Democrats of their 60th vote in the Senate, the number needed to overcome GOP delaying tactics on legislation.
The consequences rippled through everything, recasting the already bruising health care debate, dimming hopes for climate change legislation and exposing animosity from voters over joblessness, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and the toxic ways of Washington.
Obama recognized what was obvious, yet remarkable for a man who just one year earlier had embodied the restless mood of voters who swept him into office. He was losing touch.
“Do they really get us and what we’re going through?” Obama wondered aloud.
He meant that extraordinary circumstances had forced themselves on the presidency and the country. “I hated it, you hated it,” he said of the bank bailouts, for example. “It was about as popular as a root canal.”
His State of the Union speech was in part a soliloquy about the expectations he’d raised. “I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went,” he said. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change. Or, at least, that I can deliver it.”
Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent.
Bipartisanship came briefly into fashion, as lip service. Early in the month, Obama invited Republican leaders to the White House for the first time in two months, even as the capital was all but shut down by snow and ice. The meeting simply made clear Washington was polarized to the point of paralysis – in government as well as on the streets.
“Bipartisan cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship,” Obama sniped.
House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor told Obama in a letter: “‘Bipartisanship’ is not writing proposals of your own behind closed doors, then unveiling them and demanding Republican support.”
Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating: 53 percent. Congressional approval: 22 percent.
It was a month of passion and poison, a cry of “baby killer” from the House floor, roiling tea party protests, ugly shouts at lawmakers and sometimes by them. In the fierce maneuvering for a health care law, Democrats rained favors in back rooms to placate deep-pocketed special interests and wavering lawmakers. Spring arrived like streaks of mud on the carpet.
It was a mess.
And it placed Obama squarely in the history books as the president who achieved what Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton could not – a path to nearly universal health care. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, despised insurance company practices would be forbidden and Americans would finally get the help they need to afford health insurance as well as an IRS-enforced mandate to obtain it.
“We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things,” Obama declared after the crucial House vote late the night of March 21.
Boehner steamed from the House floor in the final throes of debate. “Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without back-room deals?” Boehner demanded. “Hell, no you can’t!”
Obama summoned exhausted aides to the Truman Balcony in the midnight hour for champagne.
“Fired up! Ready to go!” Democrats exulted at the signing two days later. Vice President Joe Biden remarked to the president, a little too close to the microphone, “This is a big f—— deal.”
Obama took his victory on the road. In Iowa he dared Republicans to try to repeal the law. You could say he taunted them.
“Go for it,” he said. “Be my guest.”
“If they want to have that fight, we can have it. Because I don’t believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat.”
Unemployment rate: 9.9 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28 percent.
At first, it was just another tragic accident. On April 20, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 crewmen and injuring 17 as the massive structure sank into the Gulf of Mexico.
Four days later, oil was found leaking nearly a mile below the surface.
Another circumstance had forced itself upon the presidency and the nation.
Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28 percent.
The oil slick was massive and growing. Americans were becoming conversant with terms like blowout preventer, static kill and top kill. A live video feed from the ocean floor constantly reminded Americans that the government and the industry could not staunch a disaster unfolding before everyone’s eyes.
“This man is working hard,” Michelle Obama told a meeting of Democratic women early in the month.
“Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” Malia Obama asked her father late in the month.
In Utah, the tea party movement unseated Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at a state convention, signaling to both parties that a new political force was in play. The conservative grass-roots activists scored a succession of upsets in Republican primaries from Alaska to Florida. But could those people win widely in a general election? That was the burning question for the fall.
GM, rescued by government, reported its first quarterly profit since 2007.
Overseas, just before Memorial Day weekend at home, a roadside bomb pushed the U.S. military death toll to 1,000 in Afghanistan, the war that Obama decided to fight with escalating force while withdrawing combat boots from Iraq.
Unemployment rate: 9.5 percent. Presidential approval rating: 50 percent. Congressional approval: 24 percent.
Where’s the outrage? If coolness in a crisis is a virtue in the Oval Office, people also want to see leaders channel their anger and frustration.
Obama absorbed that lesson as the oil still gushed. He told Americans his talks with Gulf fishermen and oil and environmental experts were “so I know whose ass to kick.”
An Associated Press-GfK poll during the crisis found that Americans had become just as dissatisfied with Obama’s work on the Gulf oil spill as they had been with President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.
“He’s certainly moved from seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if you will,” Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar, told AP. “He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles – things that are out there and that are intractable.”
In an extraordinary loose-lips episode, Obama’s Afghanistan war commander and his aides unloaded on senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone magazine profile. Obama swiftly fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and summoned his Central Command leader, Gen. David Petraeus, to step back from that plum post and run the war effort. The episode revealed continuing frustration over what some front-line officers see as micromanaging by Washington.
Unemployment rate: 9.5 percent.
The administration called it “Recovery Summer” but people didn’t seem to be buying it.
Yes, economic growth was coming back from the year before. But the $814 billion stimulus package was supposed to wrestle down unemployment, and that was still perilously close to 10 percent. Democrats who had gone to the wall for the health care overhaul were hearing voters tell them to fix the economy.
The vastly complicated health law may be as far-reaching as Social Security in the 1930s or Medicare in the 1960s. But it is different. Most people aren’t suddenly getting a check from the government in the mail. The promised gains unfold in many stages spread out over years.
Joblessness is now.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 24 percent.
Vacations are rarely just vacations for a president and his family. This year was no exception.
Michelle Obama’s five-day trip to the south of Spain with daughter Sasha touched off a mini-firestorm stoked by questions about the wisdom of such a glamorous trip and over-the-top speculation about who was footing the bill. Suddenly the popular first lady was being labeled a “material girl” sponging off taxpayers.
Later in the month, the oil spill finally choked off in advance of the final kill of the well, the Obamas symbolically vacationed in the Gulf to show the world that beaches were safe, clean and open for business again. Playing in the Florida Panhandle, the president and Sasha swam out of public view in Saint Andrew Bay off of Alligator Point, technically not the Gulf.
August produced “a good day” for Obama, the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and a milestone in Iraq as the last combat troops came out, leaving 50,000 to try to help Iraqi forces maintain security. “It’s time to turn the page,” he said.
GM, recipient of a nearly $50 billion bailout, reported another quarterly profit, $1.3 billion, and began the process of shedding government ownership. The automaker stayed profitable in the fall and raised $13 billion for taxpayers in its initial stock sale to the public. Like Chrysler, also out of bankruptcy protection, GM has been hiring thousands more workers.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 26 percent.
Restive voters were not waiting for November to have their say. Republican nomination races gave them their bullhorn and they were using it with dramatic effect.
In one of the year’s biggest upsets, Joe Miller, backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, defeated GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, adding her to a column of incumbents pushed aside. Murkowski conceded a week after the Aug. 24 primary as the ballot count went against her. She later set about a long-shot campaign to win as a write-in candidate in November.
Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 23 percent.
Obama campaigned largely in urban areas in liberal states, his unpopularity such that many Democrats wanted to keep their distance from him in the home stretch. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to fight for the cause in places where the president could not.
If Democrats used the health care law in their campaigns, it was to dissociate themselves from it. Some labored equally hard not to be tied to Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker demonized by Democrats’ foes.
“Republicans are on offense and Democrats are running for cover,” Boehner said. Democrats used every opportunity to remind voters of the bitter fruits of Republican governance. “They’re offering more of the past,” Biden said, “but on steroids.”
Democrats had little doubt they were in for a drubbing Nov. 2.
Unemployment rate: 9.8 percent. Presidential approval rating: 47 percent. Congressional approval: 26 percent.
Obama was reflective the day after. He was not looking for asses to kick. Republicans won the House from the Democrats, shaved the Democratic majority in the Senate, picked up governorships and surged in state legislatures.
“You know,” Obama said, “this is something that I think every president needs to go through.”
“Now,” he went on, “I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.”
Said Pelosi: “Nine-and-a-half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event.”
The tea party demonstrated both its potency and its limits. Republican House candidates backed by the activists are coming to Washington by the dozens. Yet some Republicans are quietly convinced they would have won the Senate, too, if not for a collection of flawed candidates chosen with tea party support.
Tea party favorites won Senate seats in Florida, Kentucky and Utah, but lost in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado. In Alaska, Murkowski’s improbable write-in campaign succeeded.
Obama blew off some steam at a pickup basketball game, coming away with a gashed lower lip needing 12 stitches.
The year drew to a close with the government in a defensive crouch against the drip-drip-drip of WikiLeaks disclosures. The first hundreds to be released, in a cache of more than 250,000 State Department cables coming out, proved a huge embarrassment for Washington in its dealings with other nations, and followed the leak of nearly half a million documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But Obama moved aggressively to achieve an arms control treaty with Russia in the waning days of the lame-duck session, an effort bound to strengthen U.S. credibility abroad if it succeeds this week.
A burst of bipartisanship came back, this time with teeth. Democratic leaders found enough Republican support to repeal the military gay ban. After 17 years, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule on the sexual orientation of troops is giving way to one that says it doesn’t matter.
Although Obama has probably called the Republicans’ bluff on their vow to repeal “Obamacare” – they won’t have the votes – he has to deal with them on a broad front now. He compromised on tax cuts in the lame-duck session, agreeing to extend lower rates for the rich as well as the middle class before their expiration at year’s end. The agreement, now law, is expected to add $900 billion to the deficit.
Has harmony come to the capital? Hardly. Obama likened the Republicans to hostage-takers.
But it’s a new world now. He dealt.