He's had a lot on his plate and Barack Obama has struggled so far to stamp his mark on the presidency, writes Nicola Lamb

A year after Barack Obama's inauguration as United States President on January 20, 2009, he continues to struggle in the shadow of George W. Bush.

It's an odd, even preposterous, statement to make in some ways.

It invites the sneer: "How small could that shadow be?"

The 43rd American President is, after all, known more for what went wrong in his presidency than what went right. Or known for how he made what went wrong a lot worse.

On a personal level, Obama would appear to float above the tongue-tortured Texan. Rhetorical gusts, much less flights of fancy, were beyond Bush, whereas Obama puts the 'o's in oratory.

And yet for Obama, trudging through a landscape still strewn with Bush-era mines, it has been tough going - and not just because of the policy problems he inherited from his predecessor.

Continuity with the old administration marked the past year more than change from it.

And Obama could even learn from Bush, and Bill Clinton, in trying to stay on top of his message and programme.

He is no longer the magic dust-sprinkled election winner he was. No president is after his first year.

Candidates can criticise anything, leaders have to find answers in the mud of compromise and complexity.

People were aware of the challenges - wars, recession, bank bail-outs - he faced but Obama's charisma suggested more than the usual was possible.

After the initial euphoria of his election, the slow economic recovery, high unemployment rate and concerns about the growing debt burden have clamped hard on his approval ratings.

Domestically Obama can point to success at passing his US$787 billion rescue package and should eventually see a rise in his fortunes as businesses and workers see a boost in theirs.

His party is also shuffling towards some form of imperfect, yet historic, healthcare reform.

It won't be all that left-wing Democrats hoped for since it's unlikely to contain a state-run health option, but it's a major change and can be built on for the future.

INTERNATIONALLY, a Hubble-sized lens is needed to spot progress and distinctions from Bush.

North Korea and Myanmar may or may not be in periods of slightly improving relationships with the US that may develop into something beneficial ... but it's hard to tell.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in a dangerous stalemate.

After initially clearly stating his opposition to settlement building, Obama appears to have been decisively out-manoeuvred by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No doubt Obama has been hamstrung in part by the need for Israel's co-operation during his diplomatic wooing of Iran over its nuclear programme.

Obama has been dogged in his pursuit of nuclear arms reductions, partly to put pressure on nations wanting to join the nuclear club.

Iran's internal ruptions appear to have some time left to rumble and Obama needs to be patient to let them play out.

Iraq has essentially become someone else's problem - Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's.

But as Iraq is now also The Previous War and has slipped from the public consciousness onto the middle shelf of conflicts to be vaguely concerned about, relative stability there doesn't earn Obama much credit with his public.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen are out front and centre.

Obama has struggled to move beyond Bush's foreign policies across the spectrum.

His boldest tears of the straitjacket were to halt Bush's most eccentric signature, the missile defence system, and to at least push forward on climate change.

He has stepped up Bush's drone missile strikes in Pakistan. In Afghanistan when he was required to make decisions that took policy issues past Bush Administration-influence, he imported a Bush tactic from Iraq - the troop surge - to help bolster Washington's faded star in Kabul, Hamid Karzai.

AFTER YEARS of a security-focused presidency with its emphasis on military muscle and its loaded apocalyptic language, the "war on terror" has been the most problematic area.

Obama has tried to reduce the heat in America's relationships with Muslim countries with speeches in Cairo and Turkey; change some of the legal and security framework involved in the conflict; use more temperate words, realism and a calmer demeanour.

But initial attempts to take a business-as-usual approach with the 'Undie bomber' unravelled as the scale of the intelligence-sharing/security failure unfolded.

Obama took time to respond from surf 'n' sun-kissed Hawaii.

His Homeland Security chief assured the public all was well before conceding that, actually, no it wasn't.

In a change from the past, the suspect is being dealt with as a criminal rather than an 'enemy combatant'.

The Administration's deepening role in Yemen shows how hard it is for the US to resist playing into the militants' hands by overreacting and getting drawn into complex tribal conflicts where it can be viewed as the invading/occupying bully boy.

The US is doubling its military aid to the domestically unpopular Sanaa government.

Obama has already tried to put the brakes on by saying he has no plans to send troops to Yemen or Somalia.

Obama's instinctive liking for cautious moderation, the middle course and compromise is part of why he has mostly avoided lurches in US policy.

And that's the election candidate he was, regardless of his lofty lines. Change has mainly been a matter of words, degree, nuance, style and tone and the perception that there's a more thoughtful, pragmatic brain in the Oval Office.

These are quiet changes in approach that take time to get used to.

There have also been powerful political considerations at work. The US economy and healthcare reform have taken up alot of time and political capital.

The Democrats have also for years had to swim against Republican charges of being soft on security.

Polls before the last election showed voters generally trusted the Democrats more on domestic issues and the Republicans more on national security.

Obama simply has to be able to fight the next election with a respected record as commander in chief.

UNSURPRISINGLY, Obama is still getting to grips with the job and his difficulty in being consistently effective in his first year has been a matter of both style and substance.

Obama's charisma works in large open spaces, where he can emote intellectually from a stage, and in intimate close-up, where he can talk calmly, crack a joke and flash a smile.

It's the halfway house - press conferences, one-room speeches - where he's required to embody the presidency in a symbolic way that's the problem.

Support them or despise them, Bush and Clinton were far better at the theatrical arts of looking down the camera and articulating a common, gut emotion in a simple way.

Obama shies from such emotional short hand and it hurts him when the public - after eight years of Bush and eight years of Clinton - expects a direct, easy to digest response that taps into how they're feeling.

This sense of Obama filling the frame of the presidency but not yet confidently fleshing out its centre has been underlined by the way he has gone about the job.

Obama has walked a fine line between thoughtfulness and caution on the one hand and indecisiveness and dithering on the other. Impressions matter and can be hard to shake especially when the public is learning about a new leader who not that long ago was virtually unknown.

Obama quickly named key Cabinet appointees but then sank the Government into extensive policy reviews.

In the beginning, the election-vanquished Republicans were badly rocked. He tried to gain Republican support for policy measures and was spurned.

Perhaps he over-learnt from the failed Clinton health experience, handled by the then first lady. With both the economic and healthcare legislation, Obama instead relied strongly on Democrats in Congress to craft them.

The long processes, endless talks and orgies of compromise led to the impression of a leadership vacuum when a stronger hand from the White House could have helped shape them and public opinion. Allowing plans for a public option to fall aside in order to get a deal showed his pragmatism.

At one point, Obama completely lost control over the healthcare public debate amid marches in front of the Capitol, warnings of socialist evil and posters of the President with a Hitler moustache.

The Republicans revived themselves. They were able to bite, circle and return to feed again. The conservative Tea Party group began channelling anti-government anger.

Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year but then allowed the process to become messy and time-consuming as he worked out how to deal with the detainees.

He took three months to decide on strategy for Afghanistan. Perhaps the time devoted was necessary to consider all options amid the Afghan electoral fraud and concern over corruption.

But the end plan seems like an Obama middle way compromise between opposing views and interests: giving the military most but not all the troops wanted, heeding arguments for more training of Afghan forces and anti-corruption moves but setting a target to begin withdrawal in recognition of the unpopularity of the war and to appease those like Vice-President Joe Biden who would prefer to focus on the Pakistan-Afghan border lands to hunt for al Qaeda militants.

Realistically the best that can be hoped for Afghanistan is that the Government and security forces become stable enough to survive without Nato support.

An increased emphasis on training and a slow withdrawal could have occurred without a surge. But Obama must believe the surge provides him with more certainty of the stability to withdraw - just as he begins campaigning for a second term.

OBAMA appears to have woken to the fact that he needs to be sharper about the politics of perception.

After the slow start on the Christmas Day suspect, Obama deftly staunched the bleeding with a public dressing down of his agencies' intelligence failures.

He has been urgent on Haiti, knowing how devastating impressions of uncaring sluggishness were for Bush over Hurricane Katrina. Sending in the marines is both practical and symbolic. However, the time being taken to distribute aid and restore order is becoming problematic.

His bank tax is a populist measure that tries to tap into public anger over the bail-out.

Although the medium term looks difficult for the Democrats - trying to dodge economic-driven public anger at government as the party in power - the President is actually well placed for re-election in 2012.

He was elected in part to end partisan bickering and can point to strenuous efforts to 'reach out' to Republicans and his collaborative style of government as evidence of good faith.

Despite stubborn levels of unemployment - 10 per cent - and continuing foreclosures, the recession should ease during the year.

Once it does, the frothing on the right and disappointed howls from the left will help frame Obama where he needs to be - the broad centre - to win.

His Republican opponents will once again have to decide whether to go for a candidate from the moderate or extreme wings of the party and Obama will have the advantage of incumbency at a time of war.

He's not the first president to battle a difficult first year - so did Clinton - and others, such as Ronald Reagan, have emerged from troughs to better times.

His thoughtful, strategic approach to policy is likely to bear fruit in the longer term. It's the urgency of now that he has to watch.