Two years into Obama's presidency, many Americans might describe the state of the Union as: better, but far from great. Although the recession is officially over and the economy on the mend, jobs are not being created fast enough. Mortgage rates are low, but uncertainty still hangs over the housing market. The US military presence in Iraq is winding down, but engagement in Afghanistan has intensified.
By historical standards, Obama has had an unusually active first two years. They have included: a massive economic stimulus package, health-care reform, financial regulation, a nuclear-arms treaty with the Russians, and the beginning of the troop withdrawal from Iraq. But a number of these policies have yet to show their full effect, leaving many Americans stewing about the costs rather than feeling they've reaped real benefits. Others didn't like some of the moves to begin with, believing Obama has dangerously expanded the scope of government.
"There are two ways you evaluate a presidency," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "One, in terms of what he does. And the other, in terms of the difference it makes in people's lives. He's done a lot [legislatively]. But many people have not seen enough of a difference in their lives to give him support."
The administration argues that, although the economic recovery may seem tepid, things could have been much worse, and the president's policies helped prevent another Great Depression. But these efforts came with a hefty price tag: The federal deficit, and the national debt overall, have ballooned over the past few years.
With Republicans now controlling the US House, Obama may spend the next two years on defense as much as on offense, working to prevent some of his initiatives from being overturned. Whether voters decide to grant him another term in 2012 may turn on their view of what he's already done – and whether it has a more tangible impact.