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01 March 2024

Defiant Obama defends first White House year

Barack Obama mounted an impassioned defence of his crisis-haunted first year as president on Sunday, but admitted to facing personal doubts over the "painfully slow" pace of the change he has promised.

But the US leader pleaded with Americans not to lose faith in his ambitious drive for reform, in a rare point-by-point rebuttal of criticisms that he has fallen short of expectations and that his leadership is too cool and detached.

Obama said that after his inauguration on January 20, 2009, some observers had proclaimed a new era of bipartisan politics and racial harmony -- but those lofty hopes had dissolved in Washington's political tumult.

"As we meet here today, one year later, we know the promise of that moment has not yet been fully fulfilled," he said, in a speech in a historic Baptist church in Washington DC.

But on the eve of a US holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr, Obama used the methodical change wrought by the civil rights icon as a metaphor for his presidency, as his approval ratings dwindle in a crucial political year.

Obama flashed with impatience as he rebuked critics who say his top priority health care reform drive is a pale imitation of the meaningful change he promised, arguing he was in a daily battle for step-by-step progress.

"Sometimes, I get a little frustrated when folks just don't want to see that even if we don't get everything, we're getting something," he said.

During a brutal first year in the White House, Obama has rarely recreated the passion of his euphoric 2008 campaign,  but emerged as an calm, disciplined and sometimes reserved figure dealing with America's severe problems.

But on Sunday, he turned up the rhetorical heat, in apparent answer to critics who say he has lost his connection with average voters, and reprising his year in what was effectively an update of his inaugural address.

"You know, folks ask me sometimes why I look so calm," Obama told worshippers.

"I have a confession to make. There are times when I'm not so calm ... there are times when progress seems too slow. There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting.

"There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught," he added.

"Change is so painfully slow in coming. And I have to confront my own doubts," Obama said.

Obama has seen the stratospheric approval ratings of a year ago decline to the perilous sub-50 percent range and is getting low marks in polls on his economic management with unemployment at 10 percent.

Supporters argue Obama inherited a terrible economic and political legacy from his predecessor George W. Bush. But Republicans brand him a "job killing president" who made a bad situation worse.

The president urged worshippers, and Americans across the country to share the faith that he said was the foundation of his inner calm, at a time when many experts believe Obama's prospects will only recover when the economy does.

"Together, we shall overcome the challenges of the new age. Together, we shall seize the promise of this moment. Together, we shall make a way through the winter. And we're going to welcome the spring."

Later, the president swapped lofty rhetoric for the bare-knuckle barbs of campaigning, as he stumped for Democrat Martha Coakley, who is stunningly at risk of losing the Senate seat once held by Democratic lion Edward Kennedy.

Obama knows his political project could be badly damaged by a Coakley loss.

Victory for Republican Scott Brown would rob Democrats of the their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, which is needed to overcome the opposition party's obstruction tactics and pass a health care and other reforms.

Obama admitted America faced "tough times" and acknowledged that "people are frustrated and they're angry and they have every right to be."

But he attacked those -- including Brown -- who he said are "eager to exploit that pain and anger."

"There are always folks who think that the best way to solve these problems are to demonize others and unfortunately we are seeing some of that politics in Massachusetts today."

Obama's flying visit to Boston was designed to drum up turnout for Coakley, who polls show just behind or deadlocked with Brown, among the Democratic voters who gave the president a landslide in the state in 2008.



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