At this midpoint of his first term, it is too early to say what President Obama's legacy will be. We don't even know whether he will get a second term. But we're beginning to see more clearly the outlines of what that legacy might be: In a contentious age of left-versus-right, he's a center-left pragmatist -- and he's beginning to make it pay off.
First, a look back: What a difference two years makes. In his inaugural address, Obama said to "the cynics" who "question the scale of our ambitions" that "the ground has shifted beneath them." A year later, the ground has shifted beneath him, too.
His presidency was awash in a sea of troubles. Democrats suffered big off-year losses of a Senate seat in Massachusetts and governor seats in Virginia and New Jersey. Unemployment hit 26-year highs, two of the nation's biggest carmakers declared bankruptcy and the president's health care bill was caught up in the "old ways of doing politics" on Capitol Hill that candidate Obama had promised to change.
Obama's approval ratings fell to about 50 percent from almost 70 percent of his first weeks in office and continued south during the past year to the mid-40s.
Now things are looking up. The economy and auto industry aren't completely out of the woods, but they're looking better. The health care bill finally passed and it remains unpopular, polls show, until people hear what's in it. Once they get past the paranoid right's blah-blah about creeping socialism and hear about the legislation's individual benefits, the public tends to like what it hears.
Now Obama's polls are looking up, too. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed his job approval rating at 53 percent, his highest since July 2009. With his biggest surge occurring over the past month, Obama appears to have made the best of what he called the "shellacking" that his party's candidates took in the November midterm elections.
Judging by the gains he made among the crucial self-identified independent voters who, according to Gallup, approve of his performance by 46 percent, up from 41 percent during the lame-duck session and an all-time low of 38 percent in July, Obama's image as a pragmatist, unwed to any ideology, appears to be winning back the hearts of the middle-roader.
As for the economy, high-ranking Republicans are beginning to pay him a high compliment. They're trying to take credit for improvements in unemployment that took place before they regained control of the House.
The Department of Labor announced that unemployment fell from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent in December, and private sector job growth has been increasing since the fall. That's great news, said the new House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, a California Republican, on Fox News as he cheerfully tried to claim credit for his party: "We've gotten some positive numbers," he said. "I think it's in large part because we won our majority and we're pursuing pro-growth policies."
It is? He might have gotten away with that self-serving assessment had the job growth not occurred in the month before Republicans took control of the House.
Same with Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. The Arizona Republican recently attributed soaring corporate profits in 2010 to the passage of the tax cut compromise that Republicans worked out with Obama -- in December!
"Some of the results I suspect, are coming from the fact that we extended tax rates that the president did not want to extend, but was willing to do so at the end of the year last year," he told Al Hunt of Bloomberg News. In fact, Kyl was bragging about profits that occurred long before the lame-duck session in which his party won its cherished tax breaks for the rich.
The president might as well take whatever credit is given for the uptick, since he most certainly will be receiving blame if things get worse. So far, Obama appears to be taking good advantage of his party's election losses. Now, the pressure is on the Republicans to use their new control of the House to do more than just say "no."