UpdateII: President Obama should also get credit for engagement with Iran and the Muslim world, something that is politically risky at home but does great good for the U.S. image in the world and steers us away from yet another ill-chosen confrontation. Also, under his administration the EPA has begun taking on climate change, a very significant development.
4/17/2009: "The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday formally declared carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, setting in motion a process that will lead to the regulation of the gases for the first time in the United States."
In summary he is doing some significant good. I'm not sure if this outweighs the bad of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And the economic situation is a whole other level of problem, something which demands much more than we usually expect from a President or from our political system. But here it is - it must be dealt with.
Update: Forgot to also give Obama credit for the stimulus which although too small, kept us from immediate bad times. Also should have mentioned that the health care bill would be a huge accomplishment in normal times, but right now it is not as significant because of the economic threat. Should have also pointed out that the bold economic and structural action required, which Obama has not taken, would not have been taken by anyone who could get elected President. Remember that FDR had 3 years of inaction and its consequences before he came into office. This greatly discredited the argument for inaction and gave a strong argument for large-scale intervention.
What a year it has been. The scary financial events of the fall of 2008 were not matched in 2009, but U.S. government spending and intervention this year seem unprecedented in modern times. Barack Obama begin his presidency with promise but after a year of what I would call Washington business-as-usual I am convinced that he will not be an agent of change. He and his administration have behaved as politicians always behave, trying to insure future power for their party and collaborating with big business in exchange for financial support. That is not to say that it doesn't matter that Obama was elected president instead of John McCain. It appears that we are going to get health care coverage for many more people thanks to the flawed health care bill now in the works. This is definitely good, although much more work is needed here to control costs. The health care bill is the only difference so far between an Obama presidency and a potential McCain presidency; the troop increase in Afghanistan seems like McCain's policy, and on most other fronts Obama has continued the policies of the second half of the George W. Bush administration, with some exceptions for things like the Bush tactics of using Justice Department appointments as a partisan instrument or actively suppressing scientific findings. John McCain would also have ended these abuses.
At the end of 2009 we remain waiting for the full effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. These have not been put on the books yet, so we may have the false sense that things are turning around. While the workout seems to proceed very slowly, it must happen eventually. I think we will start to see some of it this year. There is no way you can lose a trillion dollars of real wealth without some change in standard of living. Some people have already experienced this change, but we are ultimately headed for a national leveling.
The saving grace about having Barack Obama as President is that he does seek input from a lot of people, including Paul Krugman. Krugman was quite impressed with Obama's ability to understand an analysis. If things get bad enough he may change his approach. So far he has listened to people like Larry Summers and has not understood how bad our situation really is (if he did understand he would have taken bolder action).
Unfortunately our country has forgotten the scare of 2008 and has lost the sense of desperation that helped us be willing to listen to new ideas. Instead we have polarized along out-dated lines of conflict based on economic schools of thought, of all things. This must be contrived, I think the real conflict is more of a cultural one: conservative-religious vs. non-religious (or even mainline protestant or socially liberal catholic), or intellectual elites vs. working class average Joe.
Because of this polarization and the intensity of hatred that it generates, President Obama is reviled as a would-be-communist for very moderate increases in the power of government (like the health care bill), and is given no slack for the big government intervention that was necessary and done only because of the severity of the economic calamity. Instead this is also held against him, although it is clear that he never would have done this in normal economic times.
In this climate, the bold action that is needed is politically impossible. That is, unless things get bad enough; then I think it becomes possible again - remember the fall of 2008.