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Happy anniversary, Mr. President

Next week marks the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s accession to the presidency.


All Americans can remain proud of electing a president whose father was a Kenyan immigrant — a feat none of our sharpest critics in the world could have accomplished. This still-startling fact speaks to the goodness of our nation.

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In reflecting on the president’s initial year, however, I keep returning to two texts. The first is Gov. Mario Cuomo’s famous distinction between the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governing.

The president himself has handled this transition well, though a few of his supporters have found it more jarring. Their expressions of disappointment reflect a failure to comprehend the implications of Cuomo’s critical distinction.

Campaigning, like poetry, is about evocative symbolism, while governing is about nitty-gritty details that can never be as rich or as resonant as the symbols that permeate campaigns. People die for symbols, but rarely for public options or excise taxes. Legislative deal-making necessarily constitutes a letdown from the heady days of battling for truth and justice.

Poetry, like campaigns, is about creating peak emotions, but peak emotions cannot be sustained indefinitely. Have you ever read a poem as long as a novel? Those peak emotions impel us to action, infuse our campaign battles with meaning and even energize us, despite too little sleep and too little healthy food. When those peak emotions fade, as they inevitably do, we naturally feel a bit let down.

Campaigns, like poetry, are about ultimate commitments, while governing is ultimately about compromise. Having spent a year in fierce combat to further those ultimate commitments, compromise cannot help but feel like betrayal. Something important about those commitments is inevitably sacrificed on the altar of accomplishment.

Anyone who expected government to look and feel like the campaign failed to heed Cuomo’s insight.

My second text comes from the semi-sacrilegious rock opera of my youth, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” in which Yvonne Elliman, playing Mary Magdalene, sings about Jesus, belting out the words, “He’s a man, he’s just a man … ”

While President Obama never displayed the messianic pretensions Republicans ascribed to him, some of the president’s fans seemed to manifest this GOP critique.

No president can magically end deep-seated partisan divisions or halt rancor that has been building over decades.

Moreover, as a mere mortal, President Obama is subject to fundamental realities that affect other officeholders. Most important among those realities is the economy, which affects every president and which has rarely been worse.

That’s why I was on the record last January predicting (accurately, or you wouldn’t be hearing about it again) that the president, who enjoyed approval ratings in the mid-60s then, would be under 50 percent by this January.

Notwithstanding the president’s own exceptional talents, and those of his team, a simple graph reveals that Obama got exactly the vote one would have expected given the state of the economy in 2008. It is hardly surprising, then, that the economy has had the predictable effect on his post-election standing.

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At the outset of a first term, still glowing from victory and embodying the hopes of the nation, a new president gets a honeymoon, a temporary exemption from the iron laws of politics. But from the moment Obama took office, his popularity persisted on borrowed time, with the atrocious economy acting as a magnet, pulling his approval rating down as the counterforce provided by the inaugural aura weakened. The impact of all the other triumphs and tribulations of the past year pale in comparison to the economy’s effect on his standing.

Barack Obama is a special and extraordinary talented president, but he is just a man — buffeted by the same political forces that have afflicted his predecessors and will bedevil his successors.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.