Yes, He Can

Though many on both the left and right may be disappointed by Obama's first year in office, one cannot ignore the significant progress he has made in the domestic arena.

There is nothing surprising in the fact that many see U.S. President Barack Obama's first year in office as a disappointment ("It's not us, it's him," Aluf Benn, January 10). The euphoria upon his election made it almost inevitable that whatever he did as president would fail to fulfill those messianic expectations.

In some respects, his rhetorical skills - which played a decisive role during the election campaign - are now working against him. The gap that exists between his eloquent speeches and the cruel reality in which he is functioning is so huge, it gives off the impression that he cannot implement what he promises; it also makes his words seem to lack any genuine content.

But the real question is not whether Obama's performance record during his first year in office is as impressive as his polished rhetoric. Clearly, it is easier to deliver a good speech than lead a world power in severe crisis, or solve the globe's nuclear and climate problems. What we should be asking is whether he is successfully navigating the minefield he inherited upon taking office and whether we are seeing potential solutions to some of the basic problems on his agenda. At the moment, this is the relevant measure of Barack Obama's achievements as he concludes one year in the White House.

The most important issue in terms of his domestic policy was and remains health care reform. In this arena, he is on the threshold of one of the greatest achievements by any American president in recent decades. The health care system in the United States is both a moral and economic scandal, which does grave harm to millions of citizens and threatens to bankrupt the federal government. Without some kind of drastic change, within a decade America will find itself in a situation in which one-fifth of every average citizen's income - or $27,000 from an average family's annual income - will be devoted to paying for health insurance. This poses a real threat not only to Americans' economic strength as individuals, but also the entire society.

Of course, the legislation taking shape in Congress is far from perfect and many Democrats feel an opportunity for more extensive and far-reaching reform has been missed. However, considering the makeup of Congress, the most recent law put forth is the maximum the administration could have achieved. Even with all its imperfections, this is a law that will bring about a revolution in the way medical care is provided in America, while also paving the way for further reforms in the future.

If this legislation does get final approval in the coming weeks, Obama will go down as having achieved a solution to one of his country's most fundamental problems. He will succeed where other Democratic presidents have failed for 60 years now.

In addition to health care reform, Obama's handling of the economic crisis has also begun to bear fruit with the stabilization of the U.S. economy and the appearance of new signs of growth. Here, too, the road is still long and the situation far from good. Nevertheless, the gigantic White House stimulus package has created about two million jobs and prevented the American economy from falling into an even deeper abyss. The president can also take pride in the progress made toward legislation to reduce gas emissions into the atmosphere - another important element of his domestic policy.

The greatest domestic disappointment, however, was in the area of bank regulation. Despite the lifeboat the administration threw the banks, and despite public demand to increase supervision and cut the partying on Wall Street, Obama did not seize the moment. He did not initiate a significant change in the workings of the financial sector - the people of which brought the United States and the entire world to the brink of disaster.

It has been depressing to see how big banking in America has managed to continue to do whatever it likes, despite its bitter failures and despite the presidents' stern declarations. The bonus season on Wall Street is now starting, and should be interesting.

If domestically Obama is by and large on the way to great achievements, in the international arena the situation is far more complex. There is no doubt that in his first year in office the president did not succeed in moderating the threats from North Korea and Iran, nor in renewing the Israelis' and the Palestinians' faith in the peace process. The sword of Al-Qaida terror, as was made clear by the attempted terrorist attack on a U.S. airliner Christmas Day, still lies on America's neck.

But here is perhaps the place to stop and ask whether it's realistic to continue to expect the president of the United States to solve all the world's problems. The America of 2010, both as the result of George W. Bush's destructive presidency and because of long-term global processes, is a weakened country. It is no longer the omnipotent world power it was 50 or even 20 years ago.

Obama is now trying, above all, to repair the damage caused by his predecessor - who embroiled the United States in two failing and costly wars, without fully understanding why and without having a clue as to how to manage them. Nothing the current U.S. president does will change the fact that the war in Iraq was a catastrophic mistake, nor will it be possible to extract a real victory in Afghanistan.

Other problems Obama is facing do not have easy solutions either. He is no different from previous presidents who didn't manage to stop the North Korean arms race; Iran, meanwhile, poses an extraordinarily complex challenge to the entire world. The Israelis and Palestinians will need to decide that they want to help themselves before a U.S. president will be able to put his seal on the Middle East conflict.

The moment has come to understand that, in the international arena, the president of the United States is dealing with an especially difficult confluence of circumstances - and which will continue to restrict his ability to maneuver in the foreseeable future. No empire lasts forever and the United States is already in the process of waning. It will continue to be the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth for many years to come, but the world of the 21st century is not a world in which an American president can impose his will on every resister of peace and every country not acting as he sees fit.

During the past year, Barack Obama did not succeed in fulfilling the fantasies woven around him because these fantasies never had any basis. At the end of the day, even a president whose election amounted to an extraordinary historical event is still another politician who must act within the circumstances handed him.

Undoubtedly it is easier to find reasons to be disappointed by Obama's first year in office, but it is also impossible to ignore the dramatic progress he has made in a number of important areas and his sincere attempt to set the United States on a new path.

It is worth reminding those displeased with Obama, from both the right and left, that no significant process can ripen in a single year and that the president continues to face tremendous obstacles - both in the domestic arena and abroad. Will he succeed in overcoming them? Even if the answer to this question is yes, he will need more than 12 months.

The writer teaches American history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.