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These days everyone in Washington has some advice for Barack Obama. Having completed one year of his presidency, and following a stunning defeat for his Democratic Party in a senate race in Massachusetts, Obama faces a challenging 2010. Polls show that Obama is personally popular but his policies get much lower marks.
The advice, of course, is contradictory. Some say that Obama misread the results of the 2008 election, mistakenly believing that Americans wanted a bigger role for government. For a correction, according to this view, he needs to move to the center and break with supporters on the left.
Others, however, argue that Obama has been weak in fighting for the ideals he outlined so eloquently in his presidential campaign and that generated such enthusiasm. They are urging him to adopt a tougher stand towards the banks and insurance and drug companies that they believe stand in the way of real reforms. They want him to move to the left.
But the problem is not ideological. While Obama deserves credit for averting a financial collapse and improving the US image in the world, he has not succeeded in changing “politics as usual” – a key campaign promise – and in creating jobs and building confidence in the US economy.
Over 60 percent believe that the US is going in the wrong direction. There is widespread frustration, even anger, in the country. That anxious mood, more than anything else, accounts for the surprise Republican win in Massachusetts.
Obama has already begun to focus more sharply on reducing the unemployment rate, which stands at 10 percent. To avoid significant losses in the Congressional elections in November, he will have to show results. That means an economy that is adding, not losing, jobs. It also means adhering to fiscal discipline. High deficits, too, are a major concern.
He will also need to pass health reform, however difficult that might be. Although his top domestic priority in 2009 has been complicated by the changed balance of power in the Senate, without this measure the perception that the US political system is broken will become even stronger and Obama will suffer politically.
To regain the initiative will require more than just sound policies, however. This year will severely test Obama’s political skills. He will have to become more forceful and build effective coalitions among Democrats and Republicans.
In 2009 he let the Congress develop legislation and only got involved later on. In 2010 he will need to take more control from the outset. And, using his proven oratorical talents, Obama will have to make a more persuasive case on behalf of his agenda and reconnect emotionally with the American people.
If Obama’s task on the domestic front is formidable, his challenge on foreign policy is hardly enviable. His decision to increase US troop presence in Afghanistan was a courageous, but risky one. There will need to be signs of progress on the ground in 2010 if Obama is to meet his promise of withdrawing troops next year.
Iran, too, will consume a lot of Obama’s attention this year. He will face a crucial decision about how to deal with a regime whose nuclear program and repression at home are increasingly worrisome.
In the Americas, the unspeakable tragedy in Haiti will require a lot of policy focus and resources. By carrying out a competent and generous approach, Obama has the chance to recover some of the goodwill that was lost in US-Latin American relations in recent months over issues like Honduras the US-Colombia cooperation pact.
In 2009 Obama set out sound goals for his Latin American policy, but he didn’t get very far in implementing them. In 2010 he will have no choice but to deal with other priorities, both on domestic and foreign policy. The question is whether at the same time he will be able to take serious steps in translating the lofty vision of equal partnership on economic, social and security issues into concrete progress.