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Barack Obama makes a speech at Abington Senior High School on Friday. Credit: Alex Remnick

One year ago today, Penn students packed into Houston Hall and huddled in the cold on the National Mall to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. He was sworn in amidst an economic crisis, two wars — and incredibly high expectations.

And while students and professors alike acknowledge that Obama has not quite lived up to those expectations, they’re willing to give him more time to try.

College freshman Ryan Deitrich voted for Obama in 2008, like many other young people that were the cornerstone of Obama’s campaign. He said he felt it was “time for a change” — but added that he hasn’t really seen this change materialize since then.

“I think [Obama] is trying,” he said. “But I don’t think he’s gotten as much done as he’s wanted to.”

Still, Deitrich said he would vote for Obama again.

And Ben Moskowitz — a College sophomore who volunteered his time and money for the Obama campaign in 2008 — said his expectations have “largely been met” but he’s disappointed that healthcare reform has been a slow process.

“Still,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I believe we’ll see the bulk of Obama’s agenda enacted before the end of his first term.”

Peter Devine, president of the Penn College Republicans and a Wharton senior, said he thinks Americans “expected a lot more than what they’re getting” from Obama.

The President “ran on a platform of uniting the country … but the degree of partisanship in Washington today is greater than it was during the previous administration,” he said.

Penn Democrats President and College sophomore Emma Ellman-Golan acknowledged that her expectations, and those of the American public, were “a little bit unrealistic.”

Obama “was elected on sort of a dreamlike momentum,” she said. “Everybody thought he was going to come in and change every problem we saw in the country.”

But it’s “not often” that a new president lives up to the public’s expectations, Political Science professor John Lapinski said.

Approval ratings decline

Students’ frustrations are mirrored in the stark decline in Obama’s national approval ratings since he took office. A Gallup poll conducted last January found that a full 68 percent of Americans approved of the President, while only 21 percent disapproved. In recent weeks, Obama’s public support has dipped below 50 percent in several polls.

“The country was looking for change and looking to come out of a very dark period,” said Communication professor and Democratic pollster Peter Hart, referring to 9/11 and the war in Iraq. “I think what the President has found out, and what the American public has found out, is that there are no easy and quick victories.”

According to Political Science professor and Fox Leadership Program director John DiIulio, Obama’s trouble resulted from his own actions — but also from the problems he inherited from day one.

“In all political life and policymaking, there is the deal of the cards and the play of the hand,” DiIulio, who headed the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, wrote in an e-mail.

“President Obama was dealt some very bad cards, led by the economic and financial crisis,” he added. “But he and his advisors also have not played his hand, on health care and other issues, as well as they might have.”

Ellman-Golan agreed, attributing declining public approval, specifically on the issue of healthcare reform, to the public’s unreal expectations for the speed of passing such monumental legislation.

“The problem is that the President can’t legislate,” she said. “Constitutionally, he doesn’t have the power to do everything he wants to do.”

Despite his limitations, Lapinski said, Obama has “absolutely” made progress legislatively, including the equal pay bill passed in January and the federal stimulus bill.

Although the unemployment rate has risen and a full economic recovery has yet to come, experts say Obama’s economic policy has been effective — something for which they say he receives little credit.

“The Recovery Act and related policies were not perfect … but the worst-case possibilities were averted in no small measure by the policy actions he led,” DiIulio wrote.

Hart agreed, stressing that the biggest benefits of Obama’s economic choices largely go unnoticed.

“What people cannot fully appreciate are the accomplishments he has made on the economic front — and how much worse things would be if the right decisions had not been made,” he said.

Changing Washington’s tone

Some of Obama’s most important achievements, however, are less tangible than specific policies or actions, Hart explained.

Obama has changed the “tone and tenor of the presidency,” he said, especially in how the United States is perceived abroad. Hart cited the aid efforts for the people of Haiti as an example of the United States’ “goodness and willingness to help.”

But not everyone agrees that the President has changed Washington’s stereotypes.

Devine stressed the public’s frustration with “back-room deals” for healthcare legislation that he said a large portion of the American public “doesn’t even want.”

DiIulio, also critical of the reform efforts, said Congress will pass a “better-than-nothing bill” this year, but that it will not be nearly as extensive as Obama hoped.

Keeping the Dems in office

Despite students’ enthusiasm for Obama’s remaining years in office, DiIulio, Hart and Political Science professor Rogers Smith agreed that the Democrats will see losses at the polls in this fall’s midterm congressional elections.

The President’s party usually loses seats in the first congressional elections of his term, so a widespread Democratic victory this fall would be “very unusual,” Smith explained.

DiIulio, however, stressed that this year’s midterm losses could be greater than usual — perhaps even resulting in renewed Republican control of the House of Representatives.

If Obama responds to the midterm elections by shaking up his staff, DiIulio wrote, he will be much more able to “govern successfully for a couple years and win reelection in 2012.”

Despite the less-than-ideal predictions for the Democrats this fall, students and professors alike remain optimistic that Obama will fulfill more of their expectations in the future.

“I think he’s done a great job,” Ellman-Golan said. “I’m content to watch and wait and see what he does next.”

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