These are the five decisions that garnered the most news and the most controversy in President Barack Obama's first year - and had the largest effect on the country. As Tuesday's stunning GOP win in Massachusetts shows, we don't yet know how each choice will end up. But we do know each is poised to define Obama's legacy:
5. The "Closing" of Gitmo - Throughout his campaign for office, Barack Obama vowed to close the American military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, arguing that it harms America's reputation and violates our fundamental principles.
Upon taking office, he almost immediately signed an order to close the prison within one calendar year. Conservatives howled in protest and accused the new president of being "soft on terror." But the order was a central part of Obama's generally successful effort to rehabilitate America's global reputation after the unpopular Bush presidency.
|US President Barack Obama|
With the deadline looming, however, the administration has conceded that, in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, ''the logistics of it have proven more complicated than we anticipated.'' The Pentagon is reportedly ready to release at least 100 of the 200 total prisoners, but it has found few countries willing to take them. And with reports now connecting former Gitmo detainees with the Christmas Day "underwear bomber" and Al Qaeda in Yemen, the challenges are greater than ever.
This decision embodied what happens when Barack Obama's high hopes meet the complicated, harsh realities of the so-called "War on Terror."
4. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor - Some presidential historians would argue that a president's most significant lasting impact is made through their appointments to the Supreme Court. The sudden and surprising retirement of Justice David Souter offered Obama his first chance to make his mark on the land's highest court.
His choice of Sonia Sotomayor was simultaneously highly controversial and not. While Hispanic groups were thrilled at the prospect of having one of their own on the Supreme Court, conservative Republicans were outraged by the Bronx native's off-the-bench expressions of cultural pride. They railed against her infamous claim that a "wise Latina" would come to better legal decisions by virtue of her experience and argued that what Obama called her admirable "empathy" was truly a liberal double-standard.
But her relatively moderate judicial record and cool demeanor during the hearings allowed her to sail through confirmation. She was confirmed by the full Senate on August 6, 2009, by a vote of 68 to 31. In his brief remarks following her confirmation, President Obama hailed the moment for "breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union."
3. Taking on health care reform - Although the outcome of the current effort to reform America's health care system is still unknown, Barack Obama has gotten closer to passing a final bill than any previous president.
President Obama's core decision in pursuing reform was to leave the drafting of the bill to leaders of Congress. Many attribute President Clinton's failure to succeed in 1993 to his administration's choice to lay out its own plan and demand that Congress pass it. The president's only specific requests were that costs be contained and that any bill provide quality, affordable health care for all Americans.
The road through Congress, though, has been bumpy. Throughout the summer and fall public battles were fought over the public option, abortion, "death panels," and total cost. With the exception of a major address in September, President Obama remained mostly behind the scenes, pushing House and Senate leaders to gather enough votes for passage. The House narrowly passed a bill on November 7, the Senate on Christmas Eve.
While the Democrats losing their 60th seat in the Senate will make it difficult, President Obama hopes to be able to sign a reconciled version of the two in the coming weeks.
2. Two surges in Afghanistan - When he moved into the White House, Barack Obama inherited something no other incoming president ever had: two major wars overseas. Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama stressed the importance of shifting the focus of America's military effort from the now-stabilizing Iraq to Afghanistan.
"If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned," he said in a speech last summer. "And yet, today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan."
So, not surprisingly, within the first month of his presidency, Obama ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to support the 38,000 already there. That proved insufficient, however, and in August General Stanley McChrystal, the newly appointed U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made a rather startling announcement: The Taliban had gained the upper hand, and the eight-year war in the region was rapidly failing. To salvage the operation, McChrystal wanted at least 40,000 additional troops.
On December 1, 2009, President Obama, after a period of prolonged deliberation that led right-wing critics like former Vice President Dick Cheney to accuse him of "dithering," ordered an additional 30,000 troops to report to the region within six months. Their mission would be to counter the expansion of the Taliban and to help train the Afghan security forces to control the country on their own. The president hopes to begin removing U.S. troops from the region by the end of 2011, but no concrete timetable beyond that has been offered.
1. The economic stimulus package - Coming into office with the economy in the throes of recession, and many believe on the verge of a much deeper crisis, President Obama's first major initiative was to pass a massive economic stimulus package in the hopes of jolting the economy back into gear. The $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included federal tax cuts, an expansion of unemployment benefits, and money for state governments and public works projects focused on health care, energy, and education.
The bill was viewed by conventional wisdom-makers like the Washington Post's Dan Balz as a "bold" beginning to the Obama presidency. The administration wasn't afraid of its price tag or the fervency of those opposed to the idea of government spending in moments of economic crisis. The president's supporters, including some conservative economists, believe the bill prevented the recession from becoming worse.
But the bill's passage did not come without a price. No Republicans in the House, and only three in the Senate voted for its passage, and the fight led to an immediate erosion of whatever goodwill existed between the opposition party and the new president. Outside of Washington, the bill polarized Americans' opinions of the new president and helped give birth to what became the Tea Party movement.
In the months since the passage of the bill, the country remains in what many define as a recession. Many argue that the president must take up a second stimulus bill in the form of a "jobs bill" to fight continuing unemployment.