Bumpy ride for Obama

On that warm night exactly one year ago, the crowd in Grant Park, Chicago, cheered itself hoarse as Barack Obama, the president-elect of the United States, stepped on stage and announced that “change has come to America”.

Of course, they were cheering the passing of George Bush and the historic breakthrough of the first black president of the US. But the air was also heavy with imagining: the hordes in Grant Park, like those around the world punching the sky as they watched on TV, were picturing how different things might be with Obama in charge.

Surely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would soon become memories, along with Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, which the new president had promised to close. Iran would clasp the hand Obama planned to extend, while Israelis and Palestinians would heed the president’s promise to work for Middle East peace the moment he took office.

The economy would soon be righted, the greed-merchants of Wall Street punished and tamed, and Obama would finally bring to the US what most other civilised nations take for granted: basic healthcare for all. Oh, and he would do what had to be done on climate change.

One year on, it can feel as if that was all a foolish mirage. The US is still fighting two wars; Guantanamo remains open, with no clear plan for closure given that Congress has ruled that inmates cannot be moved to the US; Iran has not yet agreed to anything; Middle East peace looks as distant as ever; the US economy is still limping, with unemployment at about 10%; healthcare has provoked a congressional battle royal; and as for serious action on climate change, don’t hold your breath.

As if to dramatise the contrast, HBO television recently premiered a glossy documentary, By the People, recounting the excitement of Obama’s 2008 odyssey. Over on the news channels, there was live coverage of the Democratic defeat in the governor’s race in Virginia, offsetting the victory Obama won there a year ago, with a similar rebuff in New Jersey.

But it would be as silly to read too much into off-year election results as it would be to think that none of the hopes of a year ago has materialised. In fact, Obama can point to a solid start.

The war in Iraq is being wound down. The economy has stabilised, thanks to a $787-billion stimulus package. It may not have been enough; it may be taking too long to work. But it has helped, saving or creating more than 640 000 jobs, according to White House figures. And, with a minimum of fuss, he has put a liberal Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court. Still, this is not quite the degree of change people had in mind a year ago. Why has the big shift not happened?

The first answer sounds like a cop-out: blame the system. We imagine the US presidency to be the most powerful office on Earth. But the reality is that, relatively speaking, the president has less direct power than a British prime minister. He has no command over Congress; he cannot whip his own party into line.

Obama may have been utterly sincere in his desire to transform US healthcare. But he was always at the mercy of a handful of senators whose votes make the difference between success and failure.

It is one of the great paradoxes of the US system. A country that acts in so many ways like a revolutionary society is constituted to thwart all but the most incremental change. As Anna Quindlen wrote in a Newsweek essay “Yes he can [but he sure hasn’t yet]”: “What our system has meant ... is that very little of the big stuff gets done. It simply can’t.” Which is why universal healthcare has appeared on the to-do list of presidents going back as far as Teddy Roosevelt.

Some fault Obama for failing to make good on his promise to heal the rift between red and blue states, to end the rancour that separates Republicans from Democrats. But here the blame surely rests on his opponents’ shoulders. He has reached out countless times—trying to woo Republicans by stuffing his stimulus package with tax cuts, for example—but they have repeatedly rebuffed him.

Obama faces an opposition that is shocking in its vitriol. Bowing down to the twin gods of Sarah Palin and the Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck, rightists have set about depicting him as a socialist, a Stalinist, a Nazi, a Muslim and a foreigner posing as a native-born US citizen. They are backed by serious corporate money, a cable TV and talk-radio fraternity unconstrained by any duty to the facts and a network of enablers in Congress. They are an implacable foe and have made Obama’s promised bipartisanship impossible.

Still, none of this should let him off the hook for his own errors. As a candidate, he let expectations rise unfeasibly high: he could only ever disappoint. More seriously, he has too often left a vacuum where his own vision should be. He left the details of healthcare up to Congress, where things became mired, forcing him to ride to the rescue. On Israel-Palestine he should never have issued a demand he wasn’t ready to enforce. By insisting Israel freeze all settlements on the West Bank, only to back down, he has lost face in a region where face counts above all.

So Obama marks the anniversary of his election contemplating things that have held him back. But despite it all, he can point to much that should hearten his supporters.

His rolling seminar on Afghanistan suggests a president who is deliberate and thoughtful—a welcome contrast to his predecessor. He can plausibly argue that the economy might come right sooner than we think. That healthcare Bill could be ready in less than a week. If Iran says yes to the current uranium enrichment deal he will secure a victory that might even justify that premature Nobel prize.

Besides, Obama is not on the same timetable as journalists. He does not need to get it right after 100 days or one year. He just needs to get it right.

And for that the deadline is not November 2009—but November 2012.—

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