Analysis: Obama's buck-stopping goes only so far
Over and over, Obama keeps reminding Americans of the mess he inherited and all he's doing to fix it. A sharper, give-me-some-credit tone has emerged in his language as he bemoans people's fleeting memory about what life was like way back in 2008, particularly on the economy.
"Yes we can"?
Try "Yes I have."
While candid about what he called his team's "screw-up" in the botched Christmas airliner attack, Obama has made a point of underlining all the good he believes his government has done, too.
"Our progress has been unmistakable," Obama said as the new year began. "We've disrupted terrorist financing, cutting off recruiting chains, inflicted major losses on al-Qaida's leadership, thwarted plots here in the United States and saved countless American lives."
Yet every time Obama tries to offer a dose of perspective like that, he faces the reality that people live in the moment.
On terrorism, Americans are less concerned about quiet successes than troubling failures, especially one that evoked harrowing memories of Sept. 11, 2001.
On the economy, people prefer good news now, not updates on how things are gradually getting less bad.
The way Obama sees it, the problems he took on — recession, war, health care, a warming planet — were always too huge and complicated to fix that fast.
So he emphasizes progress by taking people back to where he began.
Which means taking them back to Bush.
"I don't need to remind any of you about the situation we found ourselves in at the beginning of this year," Obama told people at a Home Depot stop last month. And then he reminded them anyway, detailing a nation in financial freefall when he took office.
The economy now is both groaning and growing.
Gloomy employers just slashed another 85,000 jobs in December, but Obama rarely misses a chance, as he did again Friday, to remind people that, hey, remember the job erosion at the start of the year? About 700,000 a month.
That is true, but it doesn't matter much to the man or woman who is out of work, a point Obama concedes.
He's not just trying to give people context. He's trying to shore up his standing and his party's, hoping voters will let it all sink in during this big congressional election year.
An overwhelming majority of people say 2009 was a bad year for the country, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll. As Democrats head toward midterm elections trying to hang onto control of the House and Senate, half of Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Obama needs to show that he gets results. And so he describes a year of overlooked achievement since his predecessor left town, addressing a range of problems: hate crimes, tobacco advertisements toward children, pay disparities for women, abuses by credit card companies and many more.
In other words, change from Bush.
Except for when Obama sounds just like Bush with tough words for the enemy.
"We are destroying training camps, disrupting communications and dismantling air defenses," Bush said of the mission in Afghanistan in November 2001.
Said Obama this week of terrorists seeking to kill Americans: "We are determined not only to thwart those plans but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all."
When Obama got heat for his government's decision to try the Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian court, he defended it by saying the justice system has handled other recent terror suspects just fine. He spoke of examples during Bush's administration. "We've done this before," he said.
Even when Obama achieves what he wants, the public doesn't always seem to share the feeling of success.
He may be close to signing what could be the one of the biggest domestic laws in decades, an overhaul of health coverage in America. The House and Senate have passed separate versions and are trying to give Obama a bill to sign within weeks. But the nasty, noisy partisan fights have left many people soured and confused.
"I suspect he's just trying as best he can to give people a sense that what they've been experiencing, seeing and reading is not an accurate portrayal of what's actually gotten done," said Norman Ornstein, a politics scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Obama has openly wondered how some of his work is forgotten so fast.
"I think we have been successful in averting disaster," Obama said on Dec. 16 about righting the economy. "You know, you don't get a lot of credit for that, because nobody knows how bad it could have been."
On this front, Obama often chides the media for what he sees as accentuating the negative and minimizing progress. As on Dec. 4 when Obama mocked the press for saying he had pivoted back from health care to jobs. He insisted that every day is about jobs. "Folks' attention spans are short," he said.
Not everyone's. Nearly 15.3 million people are unemployed, an increase of 3.9 million during 2009, and a lot of Americans seem aware that that problem is far from over.
A Gallup Poll near the end of the year found 25 percent of people — just one in four — feeling satisfied with how things were going in the United States.
"The president himself, not surprisingly, may feel quite satisfied with accomplishments in his first year," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "But we don't see signs that the American public is positive."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ben Feller covers the White House for The Associated Press.