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Dionne: Can Obama reclaim his promise in year six?

It was a bittersweet briefing that told us exactly where the Obama administration finds itself at the dawn of its sixth year.

When a group of senior officials gathered last week to tout President Barack Obama's efforts to make college a realistic possibility for low-income students, they were genuinely enthusiastic about the agreements they had brokered with university presidents and foundations to tear down some of the barriers to poor and minority kids.

They spoke of waiving the fees that keep those with few resources from applying to multiple schools, a choice that those in upper-middle-class families exercise freely. They described steps to close the huge gaps between the well-off and the needy in test preparation and college advising. They talked about how more students could cross the threshold of opportunity if they had more information about scholarship help and received regular reminders about deadlines through cellphone messages.

All were good ideas that even devout conservatives could praise. None required action by Congress. None involved spending new public money to reduce the inequities the briefers mourned with such passion.

“In a perfect world, we'd be investing hundreds of million more,” one of the officials said. “That's not the hand we've been dealt.”

On Jan. 20, 2009, the cards Obama was holding looked very different. “On this day,” Obama declared in his inaugural address before a euphoric crowd of 1.8 million, “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Six years later, politics has strangled many of those hopes. For those who say there can be a separation between politics and policy, between aspiration and grubby reality, the results of the 2010 midterm election stand as a rebuke. Hope and change of the sort Obama had in mind suffered a hard blow when Republicans assumed control of the House of Representatives, enhanced their blocking power in the Senate and won themselves the ability to draw generally friendly legislative boundaries.

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