WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's words and goals have remained uncannily the same, from the bone-chilling steps of Illinois' Old State Capitol where he announced his candidacy exactly three years ago Wednesday to the snow-whipped presidential mansion where he sits today.
Yet, his big calls for change are unfulfilled in almost every way.
"Washington has a long way to go. And it won't be easy," Obama said on Feb. 10, 2007, in Springfield, Ill.
No kidding. Judging by Obama's long-on-ideas, short-on-accomplishment record, he's certainly found that to be true.
Obama couldn't have foreseen back then the state of the country he'd be taking over if he won his improbable White House bid. There was no crushing recession. Wall Street was alive. American auto companies weren't failing. Unemployment hadn't reached double-digits.
But even though Obama stepped into a White House with far more on his plate than he'd expected, he didn't pare back his agenda. He chose to use the political capital he'd earned in the election to reach for as much as he could.
On that freezing February day three years ago, he mapped his agenda outside the building where Abraham Lincoln began his political career. Obama wrapped his speech in lofty language about uniting the nation. He portrayed himself as the new blood that was needed — and able — to lead a new generation to accomplish new feats.
Though he was a U.S. senator, Obama talked of being an outsider, with an outsider's disgust with Washington's ways and an outsider's fresh solutions.
"We can build a more hopeful America," he said. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
He defined that change with specifics:
- Reduce partisanship to produce a new, better-functioning political climate.
- End the war in Iraq and bring American combat troops home.
- Reshape the economy for the future with investments in education and new approaches to energy, immigration and health care.
- Achieve universal health care by the end of his first term.
- Rebuild America's image in the world, not least to bolster the fight against terrorism.
Those remain Obama's chief priorities. With health care and other big parts of his agenda at risk, his rhetoric today often sounds remarkably similar to his Springfield remarks.
In his 2007 announcement speech, he said, "What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
And listen to him Tuesday, before reporters in the White House briefing room.
"At this critical time in our country, the people who sent us here expect a seriousness of purpose that transcends petty politics," he said. "I won't hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won't hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience."
Obama himself has always been a politician who sets big goals but is willing to compromise on the details.
And yet progress is scant on all the fronts he laid out three years ago:
- Washington is just as divided now as then, if not more so. Most every piece of legislation Obama has signed has been passed by Congress largely along partisan lines, and political gamesmanship is in full swing. Obama is a polarizing figure himself; a recent Gallup Poll found a 65 percentage-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on their approval of Obama, the largest for any president in his first year in office.
- America is still at war in Iraq. U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out by this August by the latest presidential deadline — later than candidate Obama had planned.
- The economy is on the mend and Obama has made investments in education. But his efforts to curb climate change and overhaul the nation's immigration system are stalled.
- His health care overhaul is hanging by a thread after a year of work.
- The Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects — a U.S. eyesore to American allies— remains open despite a pledge to close it. And while Obama stepped up efforts to root out terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, America was nearly hit again by a terrorist on Christmas.
It's almost as if, standing in Illinois, Obama foretold the future, saying: "Too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own."
Just three years later, Obama finds himself tackling a big agenda, with little to show as he steps up his bipartisanship preaching and tries to lead a country once again decidedly angry.