By Russell Shaw
In November 2008 election, 53 percent of the Catholics who voted cast ballots for Barack Obama as president. That was almost exactly the same percentage as his support among all voters. After 100 days in office, his overall approval rating had soared to 63 percent and was 67 percent among Catholics. By last December, approval of Obama had fallen below 50 percent, while for white Catholics it was 42 percent.
Don’t leap to conclusions. These numbers won’t stand still. In the year ahead Obama’s ratings will go up and they will go down. More than that, who can say?
Yet the shift that’s already occurred in the public’s view of his performance does call attention to certain indisputable facts.
Obama came to the presidency amid widely held expectations that he would be a wonder-worker of sorts. After 12 months it’s clear that he has worked few, if any, wonders.
Instead, very much as any other president might have done, he has compiled a record of successes, failures and outcomes deferred on a host of intractable problems. Along the way, he also has offended people on the far left as well as the far right.
One surprise has been a change in perceptions of the president where matters of style are concerned.
Before reaching the White House, Obama was regarded as a man with significant gifts of eloquence. Since then, the capacity for eloquence has not deserted him, but alongside rhetorical skill something else has emerged: a tendency to be schoolmarmish and condescending in public utterances.
A surprising number of his major speeches — beginning even with the inauguration address — have taken flak for being more or less flat, pedantic and diffuse. His habit of speaking frequently and at length about himself also draws fire. The best of his talks to date, it’s generally agreed, was his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, in December.
It’s said the president himself prefers a low-key, lecture-hall style, but others, including some admirers, find the aloof manner an irritant. In an age when media and message are virtually interchangeable, a detached, passionless manner may not be to his advantage.
On matters of substance, the 12-month picture is mixed.
Obama presided over a slow recovery from an exceptionally deep recession, but the unemployment rate soared beyond administration predictions to 10 percent, and remains there. The effects of the Obama economic stimulus package are disputed. Not only has the federal budget deficit unavoidably ballooned, the national debt incurred by borrowing from the Chinese and others has skyrocketed.
In Iraq, the president moved ahead to end the large-scale U.S. military involvement, leaving the country in a state of shaky stability, with large question marks about the future. In Afghanistan, after protracted deliberation, he launched a 30,000-troop military buildup, with a year-and-a-half deadline for success that few people judge workable or likely to be honored.
On health care, with Obama operating from the wings, the Democratic-controlled Congress labored to pass a massive “reform” package that leaves millions of people uninsured while perhaps failing to cut costs. If the measure is enacted, the president is expected to hail it as a landmark of social legislation, but it may require major patching-up rather soon.
Obama’s advocacy of multilateralism and engagement on the foreign front earned him a Nobel Prize but produced few immediate results. Iran and North Korea pressed ahead with nuclear programs, Israelis and Palestinians remained at loggerheads, and, as the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day showed, the terrorist threat remained real and serious.
Other Obama priorities such as the environment, energy and immigration reform were still on hold as 2010 began.
Three episodes dominated Catholic relations with Obama in 2009: the Vatican’s “Obamania” response to the American president, which many Catholics found hard to comprehend; controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s decision to give the pro-choice president an honorary degree; and the struggle over public funding of abortion in the health care bill.
The Holy See’s highly favorable view of Obama surfaced early on in laudatory comments in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. This seemed to mirror Europeans’ approval of Obama for having a less aggressive style than George W. Bush and showing them more deference.
Vatican Obamania peaked around the time of the president’s cordial July 10 audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Since then, it appears to have declined, perhaps reflecting behind-the-scenes complaints from American churchmen who have to cope with the president’s abortion policies. L’Osservatore Romano even expressed skepticism about Obama’s Nobel Prize.
The Notre Dame flap was remarkable in at least two ways. More than 80 bishops took the initiative in publicly opposing Notre Dame’s decision to honor an outspoken supporter of legal abortion. And more than 300,000 people signed petitions of protest. The episode highlighted divisions among American Catholics antedating Obama but probably made worse by him.
On health care, the president several times during the year — at Notre Dame, for example, and in September addressing Congress — said public funding for abortion would not be extended beyond the point permitted under existing federal law. But the bill Obama may soon sign does exactly that.
It’s hardly new for a president to be casual about the truth — recall George Bush on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — but seldom in recent times has a president been quite so out-front in straying from facts.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Looking back on 2009, it’s difficult to imagine a busier year for 82-year-old Pope Benedict XVI.
The Year of St. Paul. The Year for Priests. A major social encyclical. A Holy Land pilgrimage. A first meeting with President Obama. Ten new saints. An African trip and an African synod. A controversial concession to Catholic traditionalists. An unexpected overture to disaffected Anglicans.
Those are just the highlights, of course. Over the course of the past year Pope Benedict met with more than 200 dignitaries and groups, held talks with more than 300 bishops and celebrated more than 50 major liturgies.
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