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Obama’s first term: High hopes, missed chances and a signature

By Ewen Macaskill  /  The Guardian

US President Barack Obama recognized almost from the start of his presidency in 2009 that he would never be able to meet the high expectations raised by an election campaign in which he had electrified voters with rolling, honeyed rhetoric and a slogan based on hope.

He had begun his bid for the presidency in earnest in January 2008 in snow-covered Iowa, traditionally the first US state to vote in the nomination battles. An outsider, he hurtled along icy roads, always running late, from church to church, from community centers to school halls. He spoke to meetings of a few score and occasionally a few hundred.

By the time he reached the eve of election day in November that year, he was still running late and it was well into the night. However, the crowd waiting for him in Manassas, Virginia, in fields close to a US Civil War battlefield was more than 100,000, buoyed up by the slogan of “Hope” and chants of “Yes, we can.”

However, within a few months of taking office in January 2009, disillusionment was already setting in.

Speaking at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the social event of the year, in which the president is expected to be a standup comedian for the night, Obama joked about those high expectations.

“I strongly believe my next 100 days will be so successful I will finish them in 72 days. And on the 73rd day I will rest,” he said.

Although he tried to laugh about it, that sense of disillusionment has lingered over his presidency for the past eight years.

Covering US politics for the Guardian from January 2007 through April 2013 — from the start of Obama’s bid for the presidency through to the start of his second term — I never fully shared that sense of disappointment and was puzzled from the outset by the speed with which much of the US left began to disown him.

However, there have been many mistakes, some of them only becoming clearer in hindsight, now that US president-elect Donald Trump is about to take office on Jan. 20. If US presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton had won, Obama could have expected most of his legacy to remain intact. Instead, he faces the prospect of much of it being dismantled.

Obama cannot be directly blamed for Clinton’s poor election run last year, but the Democrats can. All the weaknesses she displayed in the epic 2007 to 2008 contest with Obama to be named the Democratic US presidential candidate were still evident in last year’s race. She showed no sign of having learned the lessons of 2008.

Within weeks of arriving in Washington in 2007, I flew to Iowa to cover a rally by Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa, where the official election campaign would commence one year later. I had been looking forward to seeing her on the campaign trail, but came away underwhelmed.

She was unable to connect with what had been at the outset a sympathetic audience, leaving them listless, with an excessively cautious speech and, in a question-and-answer session afterward, resorting to cliches and platitudes.

Within weeks of seeing Clinton in Iowa, I heard Obama speak for the first time at a Democratic conference in Washington and told Guardian editors I thought Obama would win the Democratic nomination.

One of his best speeches was in January 2008 when he spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, near where Martin Luther King Jr had preached. I almost missed it, arriving late after a long drive. Obama’s press team squeezed me into the balcony and his then-chief press officer, Robert Gibbs, who I knew only slightly at the time, handed me his BlackBerry so I could scroll through the speech and take notes. He was trusting: I could easily have scrolled through his e-mail messages and phone numbers.

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