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Obama’s choices during first year in office resonate in San Diego

It’s been exactly one year since President Barack Obama accepted the challenge of leading the most powerful country in the world.

It’s clear his presence on the nation’s center stage has shaped the dynamics of various issues plaguing the U.S., and the world. And even though he’s thousands of miles away from San Diego - each task he takes on affects local residents.

With health care reform stealing the attention of most Americans, the impact Obama has made on four key issues locally have yet to be completely clear: immigration, education, economics and the War on Terror. Though Obama’s course of action may change with Scott Brown as the new Massachusetts senator, voters still expect the President to follow through with his campaign promises.

Immigration and border security

Though immigration reform is a priority of both major political parties, the topic has yet to take the spotlight because of the health care debate. But being that San Diego aligns directly with the Mexico border, any changes made immediately shape those in the region.

John Skrentny, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, noted that if there’s one thing that has happened with immigration reform, it may be a lack of momentum.

“I would say that the Obama administration has lost a lot of its momentum while trying to repair the economy and get through with the agenda on health care,” Skrentny said. “The progress Obama has made on immigration will be harder to follow through because of the lost momentum.”

With numerous lawmakers attempting to bring forth the issue of immigration reform inside Congress, Skrentny said many Republicans actually support Obama’s plan. Obama’s former presidential foe Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is one.

San Diegans have seen the lack of change up close. Skrentny explained that the President has actually followed President George W. Bush’s route on border security, meaning San Ysidro’s Port of Entry has not been altered in the past year. But there’s a reason Obama has mirrored the man he intensely criticized in the past.

“One thing Obama has done, pretty much, is continue some of Bush’s enforcement policies,” Skrentny said. “He’s been trying to push this enforcement agenda because he believes it will be easier to get a pathway for citizenship for the 10 million undocumented (immigrants).”

Jobs and the economy

San Diego County’s economy is unique compared to most other American counties. For one, our county is in budget-cut-stricken California, and secondly, it’s the county closest to the border. Local labor and business leaders give President Obama a mixed grade on how he’s done so far.

Lorena Gonzalez, CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said simply the idea of Obama as President changed the attitude of workers in the region.

“Most middle class workers and the unionized workforce have a positive attitude toward the President,” Gonzalez said. “There’s also recognition that a lot more needs to be done and to put pressure on the administration so that the middle class can have careers and not just jobs.”

But Obama realizes that the problem existed then and still exists, which is the first step, said Gonzalez.

“I think first and foremost, he came in by recognizing there was a problem after eight years of denial,” she said. “He said he would create job and get us out of the recession and has been very successful in creating a lot of training opportunities. It will take time to undo what was stressed upon us in the last eight years.”

Despite the positive reaction toward Obama and the number of training opportunities noted by Gonzalez, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Ruben Barrales said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a letdown for the county.

“The stimulus package was a disappointment in that it did not create a large number of private sector jobs as promised,” he said. “Also, the focus on raising taxes for expanded domestic programs has not helped businesses create jobs. Uncertainty in the economy, especially for small businesses, has put a damper on potential job growth.”

Barrales said though, in the remaining three years, there’s hope that “we will see more moderation in fiscal and economic policy” and Obama may “focus on private sector job growth and reduction of the federal deficit” more.

Education system

The San Diego region also stands apart because of the state cuts made to public education. In the coming year alone, the San Diego Unified School District may see a budget deficit of up to $99 million.

But thanks to federal economic stimulus funds, the district was able to offset some of that pain, said board of education member Richard Barrera, who complimented Obama for it.

“He’s done some very positive things, primarily in his stimulus package.The president gave our school district close to $100 million over the course of two years to offset some of the cuts from the state,” Barrera said. “This allows us to keep class sizes low and continue to have strong arts programs and accommodate students in high-poverty schools.

He added, “I don’t know how we would have gotten through this school year without the support of the federal government.”

Despite Obama’s efforts though, Barrera noted one negative possibility being presented by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He said Duncan’s proposal to increase accountability on teachers by student test scores is just “more of the same from the Bush administration.”

“The overemphasis of standardized test scores as for judging whether a teacher is really educating her kids - assumes that the teacher is not doing her job,” he said. “I would expect the President to go about education the way he talked about it in his campaign and allow for ideas from the bottom-up, not top-bottom.”

Although Barrera is disappointed in the Administration’s approach to teacher accountability, fellow board member John de Beck praised the President for his style.

“He has confronted teachers unions with performance issues and pushed teacher accountability without real definitions of performance,” de Beck said.

However, the longtime board member said he would expect Obama to “soften” his position on accountability when re-election comes around again.

War and military

The decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December came with many questions about President Obama’s stance on the War on Terror and the impact on a military town like San Diego.

But San Diego State University political science professor Dipak Gupta said different factors come into play when looking at the President’s approach to the war.

First, Gupta said, like with other issues, Obama changed the image the world had of the U.S.

“To my mind, he has changed the tone overall and I think he taken the exact steps that required to fight terrorism,” Gupta said. “You have to fight on two fronts. One is on the ideas front, the other you have to fight on the field. What we did before under President Bush, we were very quick in starting wars on the fields but when it came to ideas, we were not very good.”

Obama, on the other hand, extended his hand out to the Muslim word at the start of his term, said Gupta, which eventually “increased in the perception of positive views of the U.S.”

Secondly, when it comes to sending additional troops to Afghanistan, Gupta said it was an approach that couldn’t be neglected.

“He couldn’t ignore the realities of war and Afghanistan,” he said. “He correctly pointed the real War on Terror and that it should have been fought there and pursued the militants across the Pakistani border. Again, this was ignored by the other President.”

In the remainder of his term, Gupta said he believes Obama will continue to carry out the war in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and help those “understand that we are not ready to pick up and leave like we did so many times before.”

Key to the U.S. success in the war will be if President Obama follows through on offering economic assistance to the civilians in the Middle East, which will allow for more support of American troops and less support of the militant troops, Gupta noted.

Although Obama may be scoring points in the Middle East for some, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned the President’s strategy.

In a statement released Dec. 3 after the President’s announcement of sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Issa said he didn’t fulfill the need for the military commanders.

“President Obama unveiled a strategy this evening that gives our commanders on the ground only some of the troops and resources they have indicated are needed to complete the mission in Afghanistan,” he said in the statement. ”The President simply cannot be an effective Commander-in-Chief while simultaneously altering the requests of military leaders to appease his political base and faulting the previous Administration for every important decision he has to make.”

Locally however, the impact of the war and the shipment of additional troops is clear. Being home to thousands of military families, Gupta said when a war begins or endures, each San Diegan feels it.

“It has affected us quite a bit in terms of the number of lives lost, the military families have paid dearly and the cost increases quite a bit locally, meaning the psychological and physical damage,” Gupta said. “San Diego has seen a considerable loss.”

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network. Follow her on Twitter or add her on Facebook.