WASHINGTON — At 8:35 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2009, Barack Obama walked into the Oval Office for the first time as president, the hopes of the nation on his shoulders. He spent 10 minutes alone, soaking in the moment, then set about trying to deliver on the bold promises he had laid out in his inaugural address a day earlier.
In a cruel fluke of the calendar, at precisely the one-year mark in his presidency, Obama awoke Wednesday to headlines shouting about the Republican takeover of a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, an election that represented far more than a shift of a legislator from one side of the aisle to the other.
Gone was the Democrats’ filibuster-resistant 60-seat majority in the Senate, and with it a clear pathway to Obama’s prized health care overhaul.
Gone, too, was the sense of heady optimism that infused the country 12 months earlier to the day.
The yes-we-can candidate had summoned the nation to join him in “remaking America” and confidently proclaimed: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them.”
One year later, the ground has shifted beneath Obama himself.
“Everybody is behind him.”
The snapshots of Inauguration Day 2009 began well before dawn, when energized Americans streamed from jammed subway stations and made their way by foot toward a Capitol bathed in lights. Undaunted by the cold, they were determined to be part of the historic collage.
“Everybody is behind him,” said Mikki Hill, 26, who had come from Winston-Salem, N.C., and dared to speak for all the world. “Everybody’s come from as far as the Earth is wide.”
The economy was seizing, joblessness was creeping up, more troops were headed for Afghanistan.
And yet, for all the perils of the day, it was a moment of possibilities.
“Change has come to America,” the White House Web site trumpeted within minutes of Obama’s swearing-in.
And people believed it.
By a 3-to-1 margin, Americans that day said they felt more optimistic about the future of the country, a poll found.
“Tonight we celebrate,” Obama said as he and the new first lady whirled through 10 inaugural balls. “Tomorrow, the work begins.”
“It’s never easy, and we’re feeling that right now.”
There would be no victory lap for Obama on Jan. 20, 2010.
Instead, Republicans spent the day savoring the broader implications of the election in Massachusetts.
House Republican leader John Boehner saw it as a powerful manifestation of a political rebellion that’s been brewing all year, a backlash against big government, reckless spending and not enough focus on getting Americans back to work.
“Anger is now pointed at us because we’re in charge,” Robert Gibbs, the president’s spokesman, allowed. “And rightly so.”
Obama himself owned up to a failure to communicate.
Hopping from crisis to crisis, he told ABC, “we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.”
Michelle Obama tried to lighten the tone of the day with a surprise visit to people taking the White House tour.
When one tourist congratulated her on reaching the one-year mark, the first lady gamely responded, “One down.”
But a few days earlier, she had spoken to the broader challenge of holding onto hope when so much remains to be done.
Thinking back to her husband’s campaign, the first lady said everyone remembers what he said about hope.
“But we forget about all the other stuff he said after that, that it’s going to be hard and it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s never easy, and we’re feeling that right now.”
“Do they really get us?”
Obama took office with a sky-high 74 percent approval rating and two-thirds of Americans expecting him to be an above-average, maybe even outstanding, president.
His approval rating’s down to 56 percent now, and only about four in 10 people see him as an above-average chief executive.
Other numbers help to explain the slide: Joblessness reached 10 percent from 7.7 percent over the past year; foreclosure notices rose to 350,000 last month from 275,000 a year ago; more than 300 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan in that time.
Much has gone right, though: The Dow Jones industrials average, below 8,000 when Obama took office, dipped to 6,500 last spring but now is back above 10,000. Troop levels in Iraq are down to 111,000 from nearly 140,000 a year ago. With the economy back on firmer footing, banks and automakers have repaid $165 billion of the money the government spent to bail them out.
But Obama, the candidate who was so captivating to Americans a year ago, said people are feeling a “remoteness and detachment” with the technocrats in Washington.
“Do they really get us and what we’re going through?” he wondered aloud Wednesday, then framed a more hopeful outlook for Year Two:
“I think that I can do a better job of that — and partly because I do believe that we’re in a stronger position now than we were in a year ago.”