Patient, calm with 'character hiding in plain sight'
ANALYSING OBAMA:It was always going to be tough for Obama to meet expectations – the question now is how he can achieve greatness
AT THE end of his first year in office, President Barack Obama gave himself “a solid B-plus” for his performance so far.
“I think we have inherited the biggest set of challenges of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Obama explained.
“We stabilised the economy . . . We are on our way out of Iraq. I think we’ve got the best possible plan for Afghanistan. We have reset our image around the world.”
All true, though as bad memories of George W Bush’s administration recede, the comparative lustre of the Obama presidency also fades.
With all he had accomplished, Oprah Winfrey asked the president, why only a B-plus?
“B-plus because of the things that are undone . . . If I get healthcare passed, we tip into A-minus.”
The healthcare Bill which Obama signed into law on March 23rd, 2010, remains his greatest domestic achievement; as vice-president Joe Biden called it, “a big f**king deal”.
A plan to provide medical insurance for the vast majority of Americans had eluded every president since Truman. It was the only event which the Obama presidency celebrated with unbridled joy.
Thanks to Obama, children can no longer be rejected by insurance companies for pre-existing conditions, and can stay on their parents’ healthcare policies well into their 20s. Insurance companies must pay for preventive care such as pap smears and mammograms. In 2014, when most of the Bill takes effect, 32 million people whose only recourse was the hospital emergency room will be able to buy medical insurance on subsidised exchanges.
The Republicans’ crusade against what they call “Obamacare” continues to be a major issue. But unless a Republican wins the 2012 presidential election, or the Supreme Court strikes down the Bill, healthcare reform is here to stay. That alone would ensure Obama a place in history. Other victories include the righting of the injustice to gays represented by the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”, and the appointment of Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
At the beginning of May, Obama scored his biggest foreign victory, when navy seals, acting under his orders, raided the compound of Osama bin Laden, killing the al-Qaeda leader and four other people.
The president later said he was only 55 per cent certain that bin Laden inhabited the three-storey villa. There was a risk of killing “some prince from Dubai”. It was, said the president’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, Obama’s “gutsiest decision”.
Prominent Europeans, including former president Mary Robinson and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, faulted Obama, a former civil rights lawyer, for abandoning the tradition of the Nuremberg trials, Israel’s capture and prosecution of Adolf Eichmann and Slobodan Milosevic’s imprisonment in the Hague. But the US was impervious to such criticism. Killing bin Laden was self-defence, not assassination, said Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.
Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, says the president’s most distinctive characteristic “is the way he approaches problems with a very long view”. He cites the slow maturation of the mission to kill bin Laden as one example, the 2009 Recovery Act, the Tarp (bank bailout) and the bailout of US automobile manufacturers as others. The domestic economic measures were all unpopular at the time, but turned out positively.
“Instead of viewing these decisions in terms of short-term pros and cons, he evaluated them based on what he hoped to achieve over the long term, and he was proven right,” says Carney.
For Bill Daley, Obama’s chief of staff, the president’s greatest strength has been “his steadiness through the most difficult economic crisis in 70 plus years, and his confidence in the American dream”.
Steadiness, confidence, the long term. Calm pragmatism and patience, not the impassioned idealism that many expected. Re-reading The Audacity of Hope, the political treatise Obama wrote as a senator, one is surprised that we are surprised. On every issue, Obama is drawn inexorably to the middle ground, to compromise; a trait his adversaries exploit as a weakness, and which frustrates supporters who want him to “fight like a man”.
“His character is hiding in plain sight,” says David Remnick, author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama and the editor of the New Yorker.
“That’s precisely who he is: diffident, intelligent, warm, a little hard to reach, someone who takes in as much as he gives out.”
When the Republican governor of Wisconsin went to war with labour unions in February, left-wing Democrats reproached Obama for staying out of the fight; he had promised during the campaign that he would be out there marching with them.
“There was an illusion created by the campaign that Obama was an electrifying political performer every day of the week,” says Remnick.
“He expertly exploited the excitement of excitement, because he could echo the cadences of a leader of a popular movement like Martin Luther King jnr, because he is the first African-American president . . . In fact, he has always been a rather cautious, deliberative political animal.”
Most analysts give Obama credit for staving off a second great depression with the $787 billion stimulus package. The US has settled into a slow recovery, but, as usual, he is attacked from both sides. Left-wing economists, particularly Nobel prizewinner Paul Krugman, reproach him for not enacting a bigger stimulus. The right blames him for deepening the deficit.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that he was “angry about policies that consistently favour the wealthy and powerful over average Americans”. Yet he was forced to continue Bush-era tax cuts for the rich. Under his administration, Wall Street is more profitable and pays bigger bonuses than ever.
Although Obama obtains his lowest marks for the economy
(57 per cent disapproved in a Politico-George Washington University Battleground poll published on May 16th), 48 per cent of Americans think he’s better able to handle it than the Republicans, compared to 42 per cent who think Republicans are more competent on the economy.
Obama was severely criticised for his response to the April 20th, 2010, BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He eventually forced BP to establish a $20 billion compensation fund, but on April 14th this year, the president didn’t even mention the environmental disaster in a speech announcing plans to step up drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.
On a host of issues, from the environment to civil liberties in the “war on terror” and the economy, Obama has shifted rightward. The move is dictated by the Republicans’ seizure of the House of Representatives and the need to win back the independent voters who deserted him last November. But the biggest constraints on Obama are imposed by the system itself, hamstrung by the polarisation he so despises. Partisan politics and checks and balances have made it impossible for him to achieve, for example, legislation on climate change or immigration in his first term.
In foreign policy, bin Laden’s death may make the US safer. It may make it easier for Obama to extract the US from Afghanistan, but it deepened the crisis in relations with Pakistan. Congress is now questioning US aid to Pakistan, and Pakistani soldiers exchanged fire with Nato helicopters on May 17th.
Obama was accused of reacting too slowly to the “Arab spring”. In a speech last Thursday, he offered moral support for Arab leaders who carry out political reform and respect human rights, and economic aid for nations making the transition to democracy, none of which helps the Bahrainis, Syrians and Yemenis who are being mowed down in the streets by dictators.
In the same speech, Obama tacitly admitted his greatest foreign policy failure, as a peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Expectations have gone unmet,” he said, using the word “stalemate”. Instead of welcoming a new Palestinian state to the UN general assembly, as Obama promised last year, the US has sided with Israel in its attempt to prevent a resolution recognising such a state.
The Arabs and Muslims who listened in rapture to Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 have all but given up on him. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Republicans attacked Obama for advocating the 1967 borders which were already part of the Clinton peace plan, and which are the only legal borders under international law.
This week’s trip to Europe is meant to change the perception that Obama’s interests lie elsewhere.
“Europe, lovely place; European Union, lovely idea but wish it would do more on defence; euro, well, good luck with that,” was the way the New York Times Magazine summed up the president’s attitude towards Europe earlier this year.
It was always going to be hard for Obama to live up to the high expectations created by his campaign and reinforced by the Nobel peace prize. Glamour, youth and martyrdom cloaked John F Kennedy in greatness in his first term. But most presidents really show their mettle in their second term.
What would it take for Barack Obama to achieve greatness?
“If he brings to a conclusion the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, if the economy rights itself, if more and more disadvantaged people are brought up from where they are, he’ll have done a helluva job,” says his biographer, David Remnick.