So, how's that hope-y, change-y thing going for you? Annoying as it is, Sarah Palin's question is one a lot of people are asking themselves these days. I'm reminding myself that change is really difficult, and that we must never stop hoping for better.

So, how's that hope-y, change-y thing going for you?


Annoying as it is, Sarah Palin's question is one a lot of people are asking themselves these days, especially the people who brought a rare enthusiasm with them to the polls in 2008.


Our list of disappointments is long. Two years later, the prison at Guantanamo is still open, the abuses associated with it and other Bush-Cheney torture chambers still unresolved. Iraq is still a mess. The war in Afghanistan has been escalated, even as the futility of propping up a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government becomes clearer. Immigration is still a festering wound. There's been no real progress on global climate change. Gay soldiers still cannot defend their country without lying about whom they are.


And now this –– more tax breaks for millionaires, George W. Bush's answer to every domestic problem.


We hoped for change. We celebrated the dawning of a new day, where reason and compassion would rule after eight years of ugly fractiousness. But Washington is as depressing as ever.


So how's that hope-y, change-y thing working out? Not so well.


But Palin's question is a trap that was set by conservatives whose lame response to the enthusiasm that voters felt in 2008 was to mock them.


Yes, we hoped that Barack Obama would bring change to Washington. But those of us who've been around the block a few times never thought it would happen overnight. The dawn of a post-racial, post-partisan presidency under Obama was as much a media creation as John F. Kennedy's Camelot 50 years ago.


We're older now. We understand that Washington is controlled by special interests that pay top dollar to guard their privileges and by zealous partisans whose only priority is the next election. We vote for candidates who spin lofty rhetoric to packed auditoriums. But after the election is won, the president sits alone in an office facing an inbox overflowing with unforeseen emergencies, mundane management decisions and unsatisfying choices.


The best we can hope for is a leader who is faithful to his ideals and skilled in his execution, one who keeps the country headed in the right direction and pulls the electorate along with him.


From day one, Obama's inbox was a horror show: two wars, an economy on the verge of collapse and an opposition led by Rush Limbaugh, who announced during the week of Inauguration that his goal was to see Obama fail.


Obama's goals have been clear since he accepted the Democratic nomination: He wanted health care reform and better financial regulations. He wants to close Guantanamo, to end "don't ask, don't tell," to reform education, to build an alternative energy industry, to repair relations with countries around the world, to get out of Iraq and win in Afghanistan, to reverse the decline of the middle class and to improve the tone in Washington.


In his public statements, Obama has remained faithful to all those positions. But he has never promised to be anything but a pragmatist. He believes in compromise. If he can't manage a giant leap, he'll take a small step, as long as it's in the right direction. If it can't be done today, he'll try again tomorrow.


So he takes a half-loaf on health care reform, without some of the things he wanted, and tries to make it work. If Congress won't let him close Guantanamo, he'll work to empty it, prisoner by prisoner. He got the Pentagon to support the repeal of DADT, then the House. It's stuck in the Senate, but he'll surely keep trying.


The compromise on tax cuts hurts, but did he really have any choice? If I had economists I respect telling me any tax hike in January risked tipping a fragile recovery back into recession, I'd have to take them seriously. In terms of either morality or economic policy, giving tax cuts to people who don't need them is just wasteful and unfair. Denying help to the long-term unemployed and risking the livelihoods of millions through political brinksmanship is cruel and irresponsible.


Evaluating Obama's execution takes some cold-eyed calibration. With TARP and the stimulus, he steered the economy out of dire straits. He saved the auto industry. But credit is still tight, financial giants are still holding on to toxic assets and if he had forced banks to do more mortgage modifications, the housing market might be on the way to recovery.


Obama decided early on to avoid Bill Clinton's mistakes. So he didn't bring up gays in the military early in his presidency. Hillary Clinton wrote a health reform bill that landed in Congress with a thud, so Obama let Democrats in Congress take the lead on the stimulus and health care reform. In the process, Obama stocked his pantry with half-loaves. But by playing an inside game, he lost his standing as an outsider. He dropped the banner of change, which was quickly scooped up by the tea party.


Obama's biggest failure has been in communications, and his deference to Democrats in Congress contributed to it. He should never have lost control of the health reform narrative. His opponents did a better job of defining him as an extreme left-winger, which he isn't, than he did of defining them as extreme right-wingers, which they are.


So where does that leave me on Obama? Remember that every election is a choice between candidates on the ballot. I have no confidence that Hillary Clinton would have been any more ambitious or effective than Obama, and I'm even more convinced John McCain and Sarah Palin would have been a disaster.


So I'm sticking with my president, hoping that he gets better at muscling around the leaders of both parties in Congress, and remembering, as he has said often, that what matters is whether his policies succeed in improving people's lives, not whether his political gamesmanship succeeds in winning votes for Democrats.


I'm also reminding myself that change is really difficult, and that we must never stop hoping for better.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.