Obama One Year Later -- Small 'Change'

One year after Barack Obama won the presidency his campaign pledge of “Change You Can Believe In� has gone from an inspirational pledge to a laugh line for critics.

From "Saturday Night Live" to Congressional Republicans the question hanging in the air is: “What has the new president achieved to satisfy his defining promise to bring change to America?�

Two smartass answers jump to mind. And there is more truth to them than the nation, Democrats, Republicans and independents, might want to admit.

First, he is still not President George W. Bush. Obama’s biggest achievement after one year remains that he pushed Bush and the Republicans out of the White House. And for a lot of voters that is all it takes to get their continued support.

The 2008 election will be defined in history as a major anti-Bush vote, a repudiation of unpopular wars and a bad economy. In November of last year President Bush had the lowest approval rating -- 22 percent -- of any president since 1938, when the Gallup polling organization began measuring public approval of the nation’s leader. Incredibly, Vice President Dick Cheney’s approval numbers reached even lower at 13 percent. It is no wonder that Republican nominee John McCain rarely mentioned the Republicans in the White House during his campaign against Obama.

Just last week Republicans in Washington could only shake their heads at news that Obama has spent more time golfing that President Bush, done about six times more political fundraisers in his first year, spent only four hours in New Orleans on his only trip there in his first year in office -- after criticizing Bush for lack of attention after Hurricane Katrina-- and yet seems immune to the negative public perception that made Bush such a political liability.

President Obama and his aides still find the Bush administration a convenient foil when facing political trouble.

The president’s signature fail-safe political move in speeches about the economy is to simply point back to the Bush administration and explains he didn’t understand the extent of the economic problems they left behind.

Without President Bush to blame there is no way voters would not be holding President Obama to blame for not keeping to pledge to hold unemployment under 8 percent.

A year ago, when voters were specifically asked about the economy by Gallup, more than 60 percent said the economy had to be his top priority. Now, with the economy beginning to grow again that intense, singular concern from the electorate is down to 40 percent, according to Gallup. That is very good news for President Obama if it gives him more time for the economy to pick up before voters stop looking back at President Bush and start to blame him for the nation’s financial woes.

And even with the declining interest in the economy, the economy is still the number one issue for voters there is no way for President Obama to hold his current 50 percent approval rating in a recent Gallup daily tracking poll without the strong memory of President Bush and dark economic news of the fall of 2008.

A CBS News/New York Times poll gave the president a similar 56 percent approval rating at the start of October. That is down from April when the new president had a 68 percent approval number. In that critical six month period the poll found the biggest slippage in support for the president among independent voters, 13 percentage points, but more than half of Independents, 52 percent, still approve of Obama.

Among Republicans the drop in support is nearly as large at 11 percent but the GOP support for Obama started at a lower level and is now at only 20 percent. His support among fellow Democrats remains stratospheric at 87 percent, down only 4 percent. The large divide between Republicans and Democrats is a reflection of the biggest single area of disappointment with Obama among voters. In November of last year 54 percent of voters said they expected the new president to heal the partisan divide in the nation and now only 28 percent see him as capable of that feat.

The Obama White House also points in the rear view mirror to justify the president’s on-going struggle to decide whether to send added troops to Afghanistan. The lack of public support for the war in Afghanistan is directly tied to the last 8 years of U.S. involvement there under President Bush with no clear change for the better.

My second smartass answer to what the president has achieved in his first year in office is that he remains the nation’s first black president. He is still the fresh face of the rising mix of blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and young idealists that is creating a massive makeover for the national identity. Those voters as a power base constitute a huge shift from the mostly white, older voters who make up the heart of a shrinking Republican party.

Obama’s on going contribution to the shifting look of American politics is also why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

To quote from the Nobel committee’s award citation, Obama is to honored for his extraordinary “efforts� at building cooperation among people. -- No achievement is cited only “efforts.�

In his first year, a laundry list of Obama’s success at change might include expanding children’s health care, a pledge to stop the use of torture on detainees, passage of a stimulus package and budget and an equal pay law. -- He is still at work at health care reform and is way behind on climate change and immigration legislation.

But as his first year comes to a close the biggest claim President Obama has to actual transformative achievement that fulfills his pledge for “change� is that for most voters he remains NOT George W. Bush.

Juan Williams is NPR Senior Correspondent and a Fox News contributor.