Obama still standing after tough year

President Barack Obama’s hopes of sparking rapid political transformation in 2009 fell short, yet his bruised administration still dreams of forging historic change in the year to come.

After 11 months in power, Obama is greyer, drained by Washington’s acrimony and no longer an untested source of hope for millions, but a commander-in-chief who agonised over, then escalated the Afghan war.

Once soaring approval ratings are now less than 50% in some polls—dangerous territory for any president. Obama endured a chastening learning curve abroad, and saw an ambitious domestic agenda slow in Congress.

But if lawmakers soon pass health reforms offering near universal coverage, Obama could yet claim the most significant debut year of any recent president.

Democratic presidents since the 1930s have failed on healthcare and even a watered-down Bill would rank as the most sweeping liberal social reform since the 1960s.

A freshly minted Nobel Peace Prize also sits on Obama’s shelf. Many believe he did not deserve it, but the accolade symbolises his rebranding of the US image abroad.

If Obama’s year is judged by massive and unrealistic expectations that greeted his election, it can only be termed a failure.

But viewing 2009 in the context of recent US politics, and the bleak inheritance bequeathed by George Bush, offers Obama more credit.

On the downside, health reform is mired in Congress, Obama will not meet his one-year deadline to close Guantánamo Bay and he has struggled to work through the legal thicket left by Bush-era anti-terror policies.

Unemployment is crippling at 10%, the budget deficit is over a trillion dollars and fears persist of a “double dip” recession and jobless recovery.

Hopes Congress could pass a cap-and-trade Bill before the Copenhagen climate summit have foundered.

The idea that Obama alone could cleanse Washington’s partisan swamp always seemed fanciful—and so it has proven.

Abroad, Obama’s attempt to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now looks clumsy, and the Middle East peace process is again stalled.

Obama’s critics complain he has made global “apology tours”.
Iran, meanwhile, appears to have spurned his engagement push and a nuclear showdown deepens.

One criticism beginning to stick is that Obama refuses to take a stand on key issues.

On Afghanistan for instance, he decided to throw 30 000 more troops into the fight, but said they must start coming home in 2011.

On healthcare and the $787-billion stimulus, Obama let Congress draft the details. The result: bloated Bills that satisfy neither supporters on the left or enemies on the right.

Incremental political achievements
Practising politics as the art of the possible may, however, may be a smart strategy to push change through a slim political window.

Obama faced what might be a toughest year for a president in 70 years, a traumatised economy on the cusp of depression and worsening war in Afghanistan.

But the second Great Depression never happened and Obama claims credit for returning growth and the rate of jobs lost has slowed to a crawl.

He also pocketed incremental political achievements.

Obama extended healthcare for children, outlawed pay discrimination by gender, lifted the ban on government funding for stem cell research, and transformed US reluctance to tackle global warming.

A massive reform of financial regulations is slowly moving in Congress.

Abroad, he sought dialogue, reset relations with Russia, embarked on the tortuous progress of engaging China and got more Nato troops for Afghanistan.

A big foreign policy victory may be overdue though.

Looming at the end of 2010 are congressional elections, which usually wound a first-term president, and could especially hurt ruling Democrats.

Obama clearly needs to seize control of the debate on jobs and the deficit before Republicans, branding him an old-style big government liberal, can exploit the economy themselves.

After a brutal year, Obama’s presidency may be entering a more realistic phase, as the White House can no longer simply rely on the president’s personal magnetism and charisma to carry the day.

The theme of biography as diplomacy, of using Obama’s popularity overseas and exotic life story—in Asia crystallised into the idea of America’s first Pacific President—has also reached its limits.

The stripped-down realism of Obama’s Nobel address on Thursday defending war, and a stark West Point speech on Afghanistan, seemed to augur a new tone.—AFP

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