A year ago today, Barack Obama's inauguration as president generated sky-high expectations and a renewed faith in the ability of Washington to meet the nation's challenges. That public optimism evaporated as the recession deepened, unemployment rose and partisan divisions persisted. Yet Obama's declining poll numbers amid the economic worries do not reflect his significant accomplishments.
The nation is on the brink of health care reform that, despite its warts, would rival Social Security and Medicare in its positive impact. The economic stimulus plan, while not magically ending the recession, has staved off disaster. A more collaborative approach to international relations, while yet to produce dramatic breakthroughs, has restored some of America's standing in the world.
In the early going, the Obama administration has proven to be thoughtful and competent. It was a strength, not a weakness, that the president spent weeks reviewing Afghanistan policy before committing another 30,000 troops. It was refreshing to hear Obama take full responsibility for the missed clues regarding the Northwest Airlines bomb scare on Christmas Day, review the lapses and order adjustments. And the response to the Haiti earthquake has been strong and swift.
There are areas where the administration has fallen well short of the great expectations of a year ago. The cap-and-trade climate bill that passed the House may be dead in the Senate. The president has slowed his efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, continued to hold some detainees without charges and utterly failed to bridge the partisan divide in Congress. And his insistence on comprehensive health care reform may cost him so much political capital that there won't be the will in a jittery Congress to do much else in an election year.
Obama has made significant progress on addressing a half-dozen issues we recommended a year ago as priorities for Florida's future. Some $250 million in federal money has been allocated for Everglades restoration, and federal officials are beginning work on three important portions of the project. Restrictions have been lifted on money Cuban families can send their relatives and on visits they can make to the island. National energy policy has shifted away from expanding offshore drilling and toward expanding renewable sources of energy — though drilling advocates never give up.
Three other important Florida issues remain stalled. Obama has yet to define a clear mission for the space program, which is critical to Cape Canaveral and the surrounding area. Congressional efforts to create a national catastrophe fund that would ease Florida's property insurance crisis, which Obama supported during his campaign, have gone nowhere. And the president has not pushed to allow states to force companies outside their borders to collect the sales tax on Internet sales. That could generate $30 billion nationwide for state and local governments, and Obama should embrace the issue to help Florida and other states cope with the recession.
The road ahead does not get easier. Two wars, the continuing threat of terrorism at home, rising unemployment and a soaring federal deficit would challenge any president. Against that foreboding backdrop, Obama has an opportunity in next week's State of the Union address to refocus on the economy. From health care to energy to education, he has started steering the nation toward a more progressive long-term future. But it's hard for Americans to appreciate that progress when they are worried about more immediate concerns: holding on to their businesses, their jobs and their homes.