By Alex Spillius
We all know that honeymoons come to an end, and even on that sparkling January day a year ago this week when Barack Obama made it official with the American people, both sides realised that such bliss could not be eternal. But neither partner in that marriage foresaw that the honeymoon would end so soon, with the bride of public opinion packing her bags in the holiday hotel in a tearful rage, leaving the groom to plead, “I never said this would be easy … come back, I can still bring change”.
Americans have fallen out of love with their charming President at a fast rate, even as his popularity has remained high abroad. As early as October, his approval ratings had tumbled from 65-70 per cent to the high 40s. Obama’s inheritance from George W Bush – some wedding present – was two wars, the worst recession for 70 years, unemployment heading for 10 per cent and a $1.2 trillion deficit. It guaranteed a first year of unprecedented challenge.
Not content with dealing with all that, Obama decided to tame the monster of health care, tackle energy reform, sign a global green treaty, embrace the Muslim world, bring peace to the Middle East, establish a universe free of nuclear weapons and talk sense to the Iranians. Americans have baulked at the mind-boggling sums involved in his domestic reform: a $787 billion stimulus bill, a $1 trillion health care bill and plans for cap and trade that will cost industry dearly.
In Congress, his fellow Democrats are fretting about losing seats in November’s midterm elections. The party has already lost the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia in the first major post-Obama votes. Even the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s seat is now a close call in tomorrow’s by-election.
The President has confessed to disappointment at breaking his vow on changing the political culture. “What I haven’t been able to do in the midst of this crisis is bring the country together in a way that we had done in the inauguration,” he admitted to People magazine. “That’s what’s been lost this year … that sense of changing how Washington works.”
Overseas, Obama may still be seen as the great anti-Bush, but at home the standard narrative is that he has taken on too much, lost the ability to inspire, can’t impose his will on Congress and been too soft abroad. That said, in many ways it has been a remarkable first year. Obama is on the verge of seeing reforms passed that will provide health insurance for every American for the first time. Plenty of presidents have talked about that since 1947; none has done it. A last-minute defeat would not be for lack of compromise on his part. If passed, it could prove political Viagra for him and his party in the next 12 months and well beyond.
He has propped up the economy, albeit with an inflated and, in places, misdirected stimulus bill. The housing market has bottomed out, and consumer confidence is returning. The possibility of a double-dip recession remains, but if most forecasters are right, unemployment should begin to fall. Belatedly, Obama and his ex-Goldman Sachs Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have acknowledged popular outrage over the bail-out by proposing a special bank tax, a start towards easing Main Street’s resentment over Wall Street’s preferential treatment.
Contrary to Obama’s big-spending image, he has cut more superfluous spending programmes in Congress than his Republican predecessor. And despite the image of stagnation – created in large part by the
10-month health care debate – Congress has passed more legislation supported by a president than any before him, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Furthermore, he has banned torture (just in case there was any confusion about America’s position on this), ordered the closure of Guantánamo and sent the 9/11 suspects for trial in the civilian courts. Federal funding has been restored to stem-cell research, women’s rights to equal pay have been improved, and new emissions standards have been set for vehicles. This is not a President who can’t get things done.
And lest we forget, by his very presence, and by his handling of race when it has reared into public debate, he has gone some way to erasing what Condoleezza Rice called America’s birth defect.
Critics have lambasted his foreign policy for appeasing terrorists, kowtowing to China and bowing to monarchs of far-off lands. With all this negotiation and reaching out, where are the results, they demand.
But who seriously expected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-il to respond to overtures when their existence depends in part on vilifying America? Changing the tone in the Middle East conflict was clumsily done but could still bring results. In his Egypt speech last June, Obama said: “I’ve come to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Those are powerful words. In time, they could come to mean something.
In Britain, there has been speculation that Obama was going to jilt the US’s greatest ally for another – the whole world. But after a rocky start with the Brits – that gift of DVDs to Gordon Brown still induce a wince – he does, at last, seem to be appreciating the value of the special relationship, thanks in chief to the British sacrifice in Helmand. Profound affinity there will never be, but practical friendship, yes.
He has made mistakes in foreign policy and there was an overconfident assumption in the White House that his golden touch in Iowa and South Carolina would work just as well in Moscow and Tel Aviv. Allowing his speech to students in China to be suppressed by the authorities should not happen to American presidents. Nor should arriving at the Copenhagen summit without a climate deal.
His decision to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan while setting a deadline for withdrawal could prove a disastrous lack of incentive for allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And his initial response to the botched Christmas Day plane bomb was strangely detached; it made him seem more interested in America’s, and his, image, than in its safety. It took a week before he summoned any visibly strong feelings about the fact that terrorists wanted to kill large numbers of his compatriots.
In the heady early days leading to his inauguration, Obama’s admirers forecast greatness. Would he be a Lincoln or a Kennedy or a Roosevelt, they pondered fondly. Such talk was still grossly premature – and remains so.
But who knows? Ronald Reagan is regarded in the US as one of the best presidents of the post-war era. He came into office in 1981 with ratings just above 60 per cent, but by 1983 they had plummeted to below 40 per cent as the economy slid into recession. Less than two years later, he trounced Walter Mondale. The President and his advisers insist they are taking the long view – at the moment, given the polls, they have no choice – and they may be justified.
Obama does have some defects to correct. He needs to stop blaming George W Bush for his problems and to find some of Bush’s fire in the belly when it counts. There were encouraging signs of the latter when he delivered a forceful reaction to the Haiti disaster. It would help if he pruned his agenda. Hours after he had spoken about how the US would assist the Haitians, he spoke at the White House Forum on Modernising Government. Preparing for such events takes time that could be spent on weightier matters.
Obama has travelled more than any other president in his first year, visiting 23 countries on 10 trips. It might disappoint his admirers abroad, but the President needs to stay at home more in the next year.
The good news for Obama, and for all of us dependent on his success, is that he has shown he can learn from his mistakes. There was a long period at the start of the marathon 2008 campaign when his performances were lacklustre and his debating skills blunt. Possessing a self-awareness rare in politics, he identified his problems and corrected them.
What he hasn’t been able to change is the habit of making cocky asides. Asked to grade his first-year performance – never a question a politician should answer – he gave himself a B+. He smugly told People that “I’m pretty good” at being president.
Obama’s first year has not been nearly as bad as the received truth in Washington would have it. Having swooned for him in the campaign, the media has overcorrected its earlier collective abandonment of balanced reporting. But if he wants to win back those Americans he has lost, President Obama needs to appreciate that, as he often said on the stump, their relationship isn’t about him, it is about them.