obama’s state of the union address

February 9, 2010

this appeared in the new indian express on jan 29th at http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/print.aspx?artid=MokmhqVUKlM=

under the headline “one can only hope obama 2.0 will be better”

Under pressure, Obama changes course

Rajeev Srinivasan

It is telling when Apple CEO Steve Jobs upstages the US President. That’s exactly what happened on January 27th, when the announcement of Apple’s new  iPad got more attention than Barack Obama’s state-of-the-union address, which is a combination of self-report card and road-map for the future. Ironically, Obama talked mostly about jobs (the other kind), as unemployment persists.

Overhanging Obama’s speech was the electoral shock from Massachusetts: the late Edward Kennedy’s US Senate seat was captured by a center-right Republican. That too, in solidly Democratic Massachusetts, where left-liberal icon Kennedy had held the seat for 46 years.

Suddenly, Obama’s domestic agenda, and its kingpin, health care, are in trouble.

It is hard to believe, after the euphoria of 2008, that Obama’s place in history may well depend on a single vote in the US Senate. But it does: the 60-40 super-majority that allowed Obama to bulldoze legislation through is gone, and he needs detente with the opposition Republicans.

That in itself is a failure: Obama had promised change and a bipartisan consensus, and his party still dominates both houses of parliament; yet, he was unable to push Obamacare through, and is backpedaling furiously. The speech was mostly about the economy, banks, and jobs. “Jobs must be our No. 1 focus”, quoth he. Foreign policy – with two ongoing wars and a rampaging China – was  ignored.

A Pew Research Center poll dated January 25th on the public’s priorities suggested that the economy, jobs and terrorism are top of mind; healthcare coming much lower. It appears that Obama erred in focusing too much on the worthy, but apparently not seen as urgent, matter of health insurance. Similarly, energy security and global warming have taken a back seat in people’s minds, which are occupied by economic fear. Not surprisingly, the poll accurately foreshadowed the tone of the state-of-the-union address.

To be fair, Obama has not done all that badly, but expectations were so inflated that there was bound to be a let-down, especially among those afflicted by a “Messiah Syndrome”. His all-important approval ratings fell below 50% in January, according to Gallup, a rapid decline in public support.

Obama did inherit large problems: two wars, and the global financial meltdown. It is true that another Great Depression was fended off (although the credit should go to the Federal Reserve), there has been movement towards containing health-care costs, and Iraq (but not Afghanistan) seems to be stabilizing. Obama has presented a kinder, gentler America, whose brand equity has improved.

Obama’s deliberate, Olympian style suggests – perhaps unfairly — paralysis by analysis. The dithering over Afghan policy for eight months, and the plan to “surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell”, have hurt India’s interests. An Obama, desperate to pull out of Afghanistan, is leaning on India to cave in on Kashmir, in order to appease Pakistan.

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

Internationalism is good in theory, but not at the expense of domestic agendas. Obama may have overdone the reaching-out bit. He spent more time abroad than any other US president. Unfortunately, Obama chose to alienate America’s friends and appease its foes. India was shown that it did not matter, but Obama was the picture of charm with China, militant West Asians, and Iran: predictably, he got little in return. He reached out to the Islamic faith in his Cairo and Ankara speeches, but this was construed as weakness, and Al Qaeda/Taliban are rampant. The Chinese disdain him: they humiliated him in Copenhagen.

Second, Obama seems to believe his own propaganda. Remember the Nobel peace prize, which, surely, Obama knows he doesn’t deserve, at least not yet? For him to accept it anyway came across as grasping and vain.

Obama also seems to have some trouble switching from campaigning – where he can make promises – to governing – where he has to deliver. Some of his actions seem predicated on PR: the time-table for the pullout of troops from Afghanistan is meant to give him a boost in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Finally, Obama is not reining in his more rabid supporters. Some of them believe that there was a permanent shift to the left in 2008. No; especially as a result of tough economic times, there has been a shift to the right.

If Obama is able to curb his vanity, his internationalism, and the more extreme of his supporters, and, the economy improves he may well rebound. As of now, he has been forced to reboot. We can only hope Obama 2.0 will fare better.

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.

800 words, 28th January 2010

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