Will Obama’s Year-end Challenges Define His Presidency?

To carry momentum into the new year, he'll need a strong finish to 2009

Derek T. Dingle

Derek T. Dingle

Derek T. Dingle

As we enter the final quarter of a historic but tumultuous year, I can’t think of a better time to review the complexities and challenges of the Obama Presidency. I know it seems like every week, one pundit or another reviews the 100-day mark of one of the administration’s initiatives or the president’s popularity rating. But there is much agreement among most analysts, regardless of the political persuasion, that the recent confluence of events will prove to be telling.

His inauguration nine months ago ushered in a spirit of enthusiastic promise yet restless anticipation. His brand of executive leadership, marked by cool-headed pragmatism, focused engagement and continuous communication, has given comfort to many quarters of American society. Depending on your financial standing, personal situation or political allegiance, however, his transformation of government into an activist tool has been met with a wide range of responses—wholehearted praise, cautious optimism, head-scratching pessimism and vitriolic rage.

As we look at the myriad of issues confronting President Obama—a number of which need to be fully addressed before year’s end—it’s important to assess what the administration has accomplished. The facts barely match the latest Saturday Night Live skit that Obama has nada to show for his efforts. He led his economic team to develop a series of policies that snatched America, as Secretary Timothy Geithner asserted, from “the edge of the abyss.” There’s no argument that the popping of the housing and debt asset bubbles last year had nearly led to the implosion of the global financial system and came close to plunging the world into Depression 2.0. In fact, David Axelrod, the president’s senior advisor, told veteran broadcast anchor Charlie Gibson at The Atlantic Monthly‘s First Draft of History Conference I attended last week that “we didn’t know how bad things truly were” until the very first presidential economic briefing.

The Administration’s use of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, stabilized many of the nation’s “too-big-to-fail” banks as well as steered GM and Chrysler clear from joining a heap of wrecked leviathans—a massive business failure that would have taken millions of jobs, auto dealers and suppliers with it. The $787 billion American Reinvestment Recovery and Reinvestment Act served as a lifeline to large numbers of the unemployed in danger of losing benefits as well as created a number of jobs and opportunities through weatherization projects, public school renovations and other such programs. Over the past few months, Obama has signed legislation, among others, that seeks to enforce equal pay among workers and reauthorize children’s health insurance. Moreover, he has elevated America’s stature within the world community.

There have been issues that the President continues to grapple with though. His administration has yet to find the right military solution in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Despite across-the-aisle overtures, he has not been able to change Washington and turn it into a civil, bi-partisan forum where policy is placed above politics. Even though administration officials will seek to further its ecological agenda at the Copenhagen Energy Summit this December, Energy Czar Carolyn Browner concedes that passage of a comprehensive climate change bill is unlikely this year.

So in the months ahead, he must confront a number of major challenges that many have opined as “the defining moments” of his presidency.  Whether the next few months will fully characterize his first term is still anyone’s guess but supporters and critics alike correctly note their enormity and scope. Here’s what he faces:

The Economy. With Friday’s unemployment figures, the President admitted that economic recovery will come in “fits and starts.” The jobless rate has jumped to 9.8%—15.4% for African Americans—with 15.1 million people looking for work. In fact, Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, at the First Draft of History Conference maintained that “we’re looking at a period of several months before we start seeing employment creation.”

Among the most challenged segments of the economy is small business. I asked Obama’s economic guru why financial institutions continue to be skittish in providing companies with much-needed financing when guarantees for the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) loans had been increased to 90%. His response: “It will continue to take time for banks to become confident about lending to any of their customers.” As for America’s Recovery Capital program, he maintains that only time will determine its impact on giving small businesses an extra cushion.

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