obama agonistes: the wins and losses of year 1

February 8, 2010

a version of this appeared in DNA at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_one-year-on-obama-magic-is-receding_1338909 on jan 25th

Obama Agonistes: totting up the wins and losses of year one

Rajeev Srinivasan considers what Obama has wrought

The irony was breathtaking: exactly a year to the day after US President Barack Obama’s triumphant, all-conquering inaugural in January 2009, the hotly-contested race for the late Edward Kennedy’s US Senate seat in Massachusetts went to the Republicans in a stunning upset. All at once, Obama’s domestic agenda seems in jeopardy, because its crown jewel, comprehensive health care, may well suffer an ignominious defeat.

As the poet Asan said, “sri bhu-vil asthira, a-samshayam” (glory is ephemeral on earth, surely). It is hard to believe, after the euphoria of 2008 when the Democratic Party swept into office in a landslide, that Obama’s place in history may well be dependent on a single vote in the US Senate. But it is: the 60-40 filibuster-proof majority is gone, and Obamacare may not survive in anything close to its current, left-leaning form, with government being insurer of last resort.

It is not the case that Obama has done all that badly, but the expectations about him were so inflated that there was bound to be a let-down and a backlash, especially among the ideologically extreme of his supporters who were caught in a “Messiah Syndrome” (alas, so familiar to those in India with its modern penchant for hero-worship). They expected Obama to deliver the humanly impossible.

Therefore, even if Obama were Superman, there would have been a sense of disappointment. On the other hand, his predecessor George W. Bush was so despised by large sections of the populace that one would have thought Obama would look good in comparison whatever he did, or didn’t. Apparently there are limits to that particular carte blanche: Americans are in no mood to forgive.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal (“The Message of Massachusetts”, January 19th) says, “An anxious country was looking for leadership amid a recession, and Democrats had huge majorities… Twelve months later, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has fallen further and faster than any recent President’s, Congress is despised, the public mood has shifted sharply to the right on the role of government…” The ratings fell below 50% in January, according to Gallup.

In all fairness to Obama, there were also the gigantic problems he inherited: two wars, and the global financial meltdown. And it is true that under him, the Great Depression was fended off (although the credit – and the blame for earlier hamhandedness – should really go to the Federal Reserve), there has been positive movement towards containing rampant health-care costs, and the war in Iraq (though not the one in Afghanistan) seems to be stabilizing as well.

It is also true that Obama has presented a kindler, gentler America to the rest of the world, especially Europe, which resented the cowboy tactics of George W. Bush. There is an undercurrent of goodwill for him, although it is not entirely clear how much of this is from the novelty factor (he’s black!) and a sort of reverse racism based on self-flagellating guilt (as exhibited by Australians over the black cricketer Andrew Symmonds). In any case, the perception of America, and its brand image,have probably improved, in Europe and parts of Asia.

On the other hand, the American public – used to instant gratification – expected Obama to wave a magic wand and make their problems go away. That has not happened, as unemployment remains stubbornly high, and people have been forced to tighten their belts. Obama’s deliberate, Olympian style suggests – perhaps unfairly — paralysis by analysis (comparing this to India it was that cerebral practitioner of what seemed masterly inactivity, PV Narasimha Rao, who took the decisive and radical steps in 1991 to rejuvenate the economy).

It appears that Obama has allowed his agenda to be hijacked by several factors: an exaggerated internationalism, a certain hubris bordering on megalomania, a permanent campaign mode, and an unwillingness to rein in the ideologues in his own party.

Internationalism is good in theory, and so is attempting to build coalitions, but not at the expense of domestic agendas. This was the bitter lesson India learned from the experiences of the very internationalist Jawaharlal Nehru. Obama, appears to want to be president of the world. In fact, he may well be more popular in Europe than in America, given his plunging approval ratings at home.

While internationalism plays well to the liberal classes, it appears that Obama may have overdone the reaching-out bit. The Economist reports (”Around the world in 42 days”, January 19th) that “[Obama] has spent much more time overseas than his predecessors. Mr. Obama has been abroad twice as long as George Bush Jr. managed in his first 12 months as president”. He spent 42 days abroad and visited 22 countries, a far cry from Ronald Reagan (9, 2), George Bush Sr. (31, 15), John Kennedy (12, 6), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (0, 0).

Unfortunately, Obama also seemed to concentrate on alienating America’s friends and appeasing its foes (a familiar trap, as the NDA government demonstrated in India). Obama spent much effort in going more than half-way with China, militant West Asians, and Iran. But he got little in return for his pains. He reached out to those of the Islamic faith in his Cairo and Ankara speeches, but they seemed to view that as an admission of weakness, and Al Qaeda/Taliban have redoubled their efforts to hurt American interests.

In particular, his internationalism and kow-towing have caused the Chinese to disdain him and believe their own rhetoric about the G2: they embarrassed him at Copenhagen, treating him like a minor feudatory at some Chinese imperial court. It is ironic that China has been the beneficiary of excessive coddling by both Nehru and Obama, when a little more iron in the velvet glove would have been just the ticket.

Unfortunately, Obama seems to have let his courtiers’ accolades go to his head. He acts as though he believes that just on his say-so, the lamb will lie down with the lion, or something like that. The worst example of this was the acceptance of the Nobel peace prize, which, surely, Obama knows in his heart of hearts that he doesn’t deserve, at least not yet? For him to accept anyway came across as grasping and vain – and surely, the message is that flattery will work with him.

Obama also seems to have some trouble making the switch from campaigning – where he can promise all sorts of goodies – to governing – where has to deliver. Some of his actions seem predicated on how they will play to the crowd: for instance, his time-table for the pullout of troops in Afghanistan appears to be intended to give him maximum positive coverage in the 2010 mid-term elections, and thereafter in his expected 2012 re-election campaign.

Finally, Obama has not been willing or able to rein in his more rabid supporters. Some of them bought the snake-oil that there had been a permanent shift to the left in 2008. Not so; especially as a result of tough economic times, there has been a shift to the right, and Republicans are feeling their oats. Now that they have Ted Kennedy’s seat, they are taking aim at other leftists: for instance, Barbara Boxer in California, up for re-election in 2010, is facing a strong challenge from Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

If Obama is able to curb his vanity, his internationalism, and the more extreme of his supporters, and, big if – the economy does improve in the next few months – he may well rebound. As of now, Americans are hurting: they do not see in their wallets the value of the huge bailouts of banks and car companies, and they are getting increasingly worried about terrorism coming back to their homeland.

Overall, Obama’s first year in office rates only a B for effort, and a C- for results.

Comments welcome at https://rajeev2007.wordpress.com

1300 words, 21st Jan 2010


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