Barack Obama: reality time

A presidency born in hope of change is stuck. A year since Obama’s election, an anniversary assessment from Godfrey Hodgson.

(This article was first published on 30 October 2009)

Godfrey Hodgson
2 November 2009

"You've got just one year when they treat you right, and before they start worrying about themselves." The speaker was Lyndon B Johnson, laying out the facts of presidential life to his aide, Harry McPherson. ‘They'' were first, Congress, and second, the news media. "The third year", LBJ went on, " you lose votes . . .The fourth year's all politics. You can't put anything through when half of Congress is thinking how to beat you. So you've got one year."

On 4 November 2009, it will be just one year since Barack Obama was elected.

"We have overcome", said the happy posters in January. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, as the poet William Wordsworth wrote of his youthful enthusiasm for the French revolution. Indeed. But Wordsworth's feelings curdled into profound disillusion. 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

"The United States: democracy, with interests" (10 August 2009)

"The Kennedys, the Democrats, and Obama" (27 August 2009)

"Barack Obama's great test" (30 September 2009)

"Barack Obama's poisoned shirt" (12 October 2009)

President Obama's poll numbers are falling. They are still respectable, but his overall popularity is lower than that of his wife (by one point) and of his secretary of state and defeated rival, Hillary Clinton (by several points). Even more worrying, the popularity of several of the key measures he is trying to persuade congress to adopt is lower than his own overall popularity.

Poll numbers are not everything. There are so many of them, they change so often, and they can be interpreted in so many ways. Any wise pollster will confirm that polls tell you no more than they tell you, which is what a certain number of people said they thought when asked a specific question at a specific point in time.

There are more worrying realities for Obama to face than the polls. He came into office to face  a conjuncture of problems that would have defeated the most brilliant of presidents even with a landslide victory behind him. Obama is one of the ablest politicians to sit in the White House, certainly the ablest since LBJ, who left office in 1969, and arguably the ablest since Franklin D Roosevelt died in 1945.

His victory was no landslide. He beat the Republicans comfortably. But they were not routed, and they were certainly not disarmed. The past year has seen them bitterly resisting in Congress and their allies in the news media unmercifully shrill. When Obama was inaugurated on 20 January 2009, he articulated what many Americans felt: that it was time to put bitter partisan conflict behind them and face their difficulties together.

The four peaks

Several events since then have suggested that those hopes were vain. The near-riotous "townhall meetings" of the summer, the vicious name-calling in the blogosphere (in particular, over the president's comments about the arrest of his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr and the award of the Nobel peace prize) suggest that the national mood is not one of peace and reconciliation.  At the very least there is a vocal, furious minority that has no intention of accepting the president, and it is being skilfully exploited by his political opponents.

With more than three-quarters of his first year gone, the four problems Obama is expected to solve loom like a mountain-range, each peak steeper than the next.

First, Obama won the election only a few weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers left no doubt of the gravity of the financial crisis. His response was, first, to turn for help to people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, Obama's treasury secretary, both closely associated with the people who made the catastrophe possible by slashing the regulation of Wall Street.

He poured unprecedented sums of public money into the banks, in the hope that the supply of credit, for business and for homeowners, would be saved. Instead, with insolent assurance, Wall Street pocketed the public money and helped its collective self to much of it in salaries and bonuses. Far smaller sums were handed to Detroit and, with few exceptions, not to the other manufacturing industries that were firing workers in a desperate bid to survive.

So the US government has acquired by far the biggest deficit and by the far the biggest debt in history. The states, too, are slashing public programmes including education. Credit is still tight. Unemployment is close to 10%. Bonuses are back and the stock market is on a joyous bull-run.

But the public finances are still precarious. The dollar is falling. The economy is only painfully dragging itself out of recession. And inequality is greater than ever. Deep social bitterness has been caused by the injustice of the government's apparent decision choice to put the bankers first.

Second, if there was one domestic issue on which the great majority of Americans were agreed in 2008 it was that something must be done about healthcare. The United States was spending far more than it could afford, yet American  healthcare outcomes were mediocre. More than one-sixth of the population had no health insurance. Millions more did have insurance, but it did not cover all their needs. The system was policed by increasingly ungenerous "managed care", which steadily depressed the availability of care and raised costs (see James A Morone & Lawrence R Jacobs, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007).

Rightly, Obama as candidate made healthcare-reform his absolute domestic  priority. He did not specify precisely what he would propose. In office, he has allowed policy to be thrashed out by competing committees in Congress because he has not been specific about his own recommendations. His generous assumption that some Republicans would go along with the broad principles of reform was disproved (two women representatives from Maine excepted). The health-insurance industry deployed one of the ugliest political campaign in  memory, fanned by the expensive efforts of more than 2,000 expensive lobbyists.

The Obama administration made numerous tactical mistakes in managing its campaign on what ought to have been on balance a popular measure. More important, the president did not come out and tell the American people precisely what reform he supported, and how vital it was.

Third, after healthcare, Obama's most salient domestic issue was energy sufficiency and climate change. The United States continues to use more energy than it produces, and pollutes more than any other country. It is dependent for well over half of its energy needs on imports of oil and gas, much of them from potentially unfriendly regions such as the middle east, Russia, and Venezuela. The George W Bush administration had seemed a captive of the oil industry, and Obama had a great opportunity to  please both foreigners and a substantial "green" lobby in the United States by coming out boldly for measures to reduce America's carbon-emissions. Instead, he went for a carbon-trading option. This is liked by the oil-and-gas industry and by the ideologues of unregulated free-market capitalism. But it has little chance of ensuring that the United States achieves the comparatively modest targets it ostensibly accepts for carbon emissions.

Fourth, and most acute of all as the anniversary of President Obama's election approaches, is the disappointment of his foreign policy.

The world's back

Before and after his election, Obama thrilled millions beyond America by the promise of a new approach to the world. The surly, nationalist aggressivity of the Bush administration would be gone. In a series of speeches that were at once elegant and reassuring, he offered the hand of friendship and sought to restore the feeling that the United States would be the world's friendly leader, not a paranoid bully intent on a "global war on terror".

In Berlin, he won the affection of the Europeans. In Prague, he promised concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. In a wonderful speech in Cairo, he offered the open hand of friendship to Islam, "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

The world loved him for the the generosity and the historical wisdom of the new stance. It was no small thing, too, that he had lived as a child in the world's biggest Muslim state Indonesia, that his father came from Kenya, a former colony, and as the child of a white mother and an African father, he had grown up in multicultural Hawaii.

The world knew, too, that he had been among the first leading senators to come out against the Iraq war, and that he had promised that is first act would be to close the infamous Guantánamo prison-camp, symbol of injustice and cruelty. 

So far, it has not worked.

Both Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, president of Iran, lost no time in showing that they did not have to do what an American president wanted. Netanyahu had no intention of freezing Jewish settlements on the West Bank; Iran not only was in no hurry to stop its nuclear programme, but pushed through a rigged election and ruthlessly suppressed all domestic criticism.

The Obama administration has still not resettled the prisoners from Guantánamo. It has shown itself more concern about the morale of the CIA than about the "rendition " and torture of its victims.

Obama is keeping his promise to pull most American troops out of Iraq. But as I write he is deep in conclave with his advisers about whether or not to accede to his commander, General Stanley A McChrystal, in Afghanistan's request for another 40,000 troops. McChrystal has told him that the United States is not winning in Afghanistan, and almost half of Americans tell pollsters they think Afghanistan is like Vietnam. Yet the United States looks like losing not only Afghanistan, but its far bigger and strategically more important neighbour, Pakistan (see Ahmed Rashid, "Trotsky in Baluchistan", National Interest, November-December 2009).

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Mariano Aguirre, "Barack Obama, Iran, and the nuclear danger" (20 October 2009)

Al Reza Eshragh, "Iran and America: Obama and the ‘velvet coup'" (22 October 2009)
Kerry Brown, "Chimerica: Obama visits Beijing" (27 October 2009)

All is not lost, either to democracy, nor even to American influence. Perhaps the replay of presidential elections in Afghanistan on 7 November 2009 will be a turning-point in Afghans' trust in their country's democracy. Perhaps American drones will kill all the leadership of al-Qaida, and perhaps that will not recruit another generation of young Muslims to the cause of jihad. Perhaps the Pakistan army will in its current campaign flush the jihadis out of Waziristan. Perhaps the American money pledged to Pakistan, and Hillary Clinton's attempt to persuade her hosts in Islamabad that America is interested in a genuine partnership, will convert Pakistan to America's vision of the future. It would be surprising if even one of these things occurred (see Paul Rogers, "AfPak-Iraq: wrong war, right path", 29 October 2009).

The president is caught between opposite dangers. Does he pull back in Afghanistan, and risk leaving it to the tender mercies of the Taliban? Or does he pour in more troops until domestic opinion rebels, as it did over Vietnam? If he chooses the first option, he opens himself to the charge that yet another Democrat has lost yet another piece on the international chessboard. If the second, he risks losing control of his own party.

This is the case against Obama: that he came into office determined to end the bitter ideological divisions in America by forging a new centrist coalition, and that he has got it wrong, that the country is still as deeply divided as ever.

In a remarkably revealing comment to the veteran Washington Post political reporter, David Broder,  the president said he would rather have seventy votes in the Senate for 85% of what he wants, than win sixty votes (the minimum needed to break filibuster) for 100%. It was a clever way of expressing his centrist instinct. But it does not bear close analysis.

It is highly doubtful that he can get more than sixty votes in the Senate for anything: that's how wide the ideological divide now is, and that's also how many conservative "blue dogs" in his own party don't like one aspect or another of healthcare reform. So does he mean that he would propose any healthcare reform bill, however inadequate, if he could get seventy votes for it? What, in practice, does it mean?

A last gamble

Here is where the hard-earned opinion of Lyndon B Johnson is again relevant: that a president has to hurry, because the American political timetable is too rigid and unforgiving for patience and the waiting game.

The long game, Obama-watchers say, is the president's instinct. It is possible that he has waited so far before letting the country know clearly what he does want, on healthcare and on Afghanistan; that he has been keeping his powder dry and his reserves together. Perhaps, like the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Salamanca (1812), he will wait until he sees the enemy's line extended and throw his forces into the weakest point of a column to break the opposing army with a sudden stroke of strategic genius.

It is possible. But it is beginning to look more likely that he has already  made a strategic miscalculation than that he is about to extricate from the threatening dangers by a strategic coup. That miscalculation may prove to be that the United States is indeed too divided between left and right, or more precisely that the political system is too divided, to be healed by cautious, centrist policies such as Obama's instinct teaches him.

At home, as abroad, he faces a series of political dilemmas sharper and more dangerous than any of his recent predecessors. He is by no means without assets. He is a gifted speaker, a brilliantly talented politician, and there is a substantial element  of the electorate that shares his conviction that radical reform - on many issues beyond healthcare - is needed. People like him, more than they like this policies.

A president brings into the White House a certain stock of capital accumulated not least in the campaign. What he must do  to get and keep the political momentum he needs, is to trade with that capital. There can be no profit, in other words, without risk. It is time for Barack Obama to risk his political capital, or it will dribble away to no purpose. The first opportunity, and one where the odds are high, is in Afghanistan. But only a dramatic clatter of chips on to the table will restore the moment he needs as the end of that crucial first year in office approaches.


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