Steve Chapman
Barack Obama came into office aspiring to bridge the chasm between liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states, and behold, the gulf is gone. People in each camp heartily agree that as a president, he's a disappointment and a flop. Both sides even compare him to Jimmy Carter.

Karl Rove, who was George W. Bush's political adviser, sorrowfully concludes that Obama is "weak, dazed and over his head." A New York Times editorial, appalled at the debt ceiling agreement, derides him for "a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists."

Newsweek's Michael Tomasky says his failures prove him ignorant of history and incapable of change. One-third of Democrats want Hillary Clinton or someone else to challenge him in next year's primaries.

You might forget that Republicans used to accuse Obama of a grand, power-mad plot to remake America, or that Democrats once praised his generous spirit and calm appeals to civility. Those who have always detested Obama now find new grounds to detest him, while many who once found his approach refreshing now see it as naive.

But the reason Obama appears to be mired in a 1970s-style malaise is not that he is so similar to Carter in personality or ideology. It's that the nation is awash in terrible economic news, much as it was during Carter's day. No president looks good in the wan light of a sick economy.

The feeble growth provides ammunition to conservatives, who blame it on his extravagant spending and class-warfare rhetoric. It confirms the suspicions of liberals, who lament his miserly stimulus and cowardly indulgence of Wall Street. It suggests a lack of competence that dooms him to failure.

But by any objective standard, Obama has plenty of achievements. He approved a daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He's on his way to ending the Iraq war. He brought about a health insurance overhaul aimed at fulfilling the Democratic dream of universal coverage.

He saved General Motors and Chrysler and the jobs they provide. He scrapped the military's policy against gays. He put new regulations on financial institutions and the credit card industry.

He signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. He launched a major initiative to promote innovation in schools, winning praise even from conservatives. He stopped the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

Love it or hate it, this is not the record of a dithering dunce or a confused wimp. It's all in keeping with the vision Obama offered during the 2008 campaign. It's all historically significant. None of it was preordained.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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