This week marks the end of the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The election of Obama, whose father was Kenyan, as the first black president of the United States was expected to signify the end of eight years of swaggering recklessness from the sanctimonious administration of George W Bush. Obama, the first truly global American president, was expected to end his predecessor’s warmongering, cure his country’s ills and restore its reputation around the world.
One year on it is worth asking whether Obama has not become trapped in his own lofty rhetoric and been made hostage to a monstrosity of interest groups that he appears to feel the need to please to ensure his own political survival.
Obama’s first year in office has been hyperactive: he signed a $787-billion stimulus package, deployed 30 000 more troops to Afghanistan, began the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and steered a historic healthcare reform Bill through both houses of Congress (currently being finalised).
However, a deadline to close down the Guantanamo prison camp this month has been missed. Equally disturbing, reports continue of the “rendition” of terror suspects to third countries where they might be tortured.
Obama is talking increasingly about Washington being “at war”, having earlier vowed to avoid the Bush-era terminology of the “war on terror”. Having insisted that Israel not build any more settlements in disputed territory, Obama reversed himself in seeming recognition of the power of the Israel lobby. As the enormous pressures of office mount, this cosmopolitan president appears to be acting against his internationalist instincts and retreating behind an American political laager.
At home, as unemployment among African Americans reached 15,7% (compared with a national unemployment rate of 10%), members of the Congressional Black Caucus are becoming restless, with some accusing Obama of not focusing enough attention on addressing the problems within his own racial, ultra-loyal constituency.
Obama’s liberal and youthful voting base is uncomfortable with the troop surge in Afghanistan and what it sees as his failure to advocate gay rights forcefully. Centrist independent voters complain about a ballooning budget deficit and the president’s “socialist” welfarism.
Some of Obama’s early foreign policy actions have followed in the hawkish footsteps of his predecessor. According to The Economist, in his first year in office Obama has ordered targeted assassinations of terror suspects through an average of one drone attack a week in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of innocent women and children. Such actions have prompted some to start asking whether Obama’s foreign policy could come to represent “Bush with a smile”.
The new president also unexpectedly won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. His Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo was disappointing, revealing him as more of a pragmatic politician than an idealist prophet. He fittingly acknowledged the legacy of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King: “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.” But much of the speech explained why force had to be used to bring about peace. A celebration of peace was thus turned into a justification for war.
In the speech Obama used the concept of “just war” to explain why he could not be guided by King’s example alone, since non-violence could not have halted tyrants such as Adolf Hitler. In stark contrast to his earlier criticisms of the US’s historical imperial actions and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he glorified his country for having “helped underwrite global security — and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans”.
Wrapping himself in the American flag, Obama went on — rather inappropriately in the context of a Nobel speech — to criticise Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, while reserving his own country’s right to act unilaterally. The argument echoed Bush’s doctrine advocating the pre-emptive use of force. The speech was, unsurprisingly, well received in the US, with Obama clearly trying to avoid charges that he was pandering to an international global audience that had no hand in his election.
Obama’s approval ratings now hover around an unimpressive 50% (down from 68% a year ago), as Americans continue to worry about high unemployment, large debts, continuing fears of terror attacks and the costs of two foreign wars. Complaints continue that gluttonous bankers on Wall Street were bailed out to the detriment of honest workers on Main Street.
The sour mood in the country has sometimes turned into one of frightening intolerance. Conservative South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson stunned fellow politicians when he shouted out “You lie!” at Obama as the president addressed both houses of Congress on healthcare reform last September. Protesters at an anti-Obama rally in Washington DC in the same month carried banners bearing such offensive slogans as: “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African”, “Cap Congress and Trade Obama back to Kenya”, and — menacingly — “We came unarmed (this time)”.
As former US president Jimmy Carter observed: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.”
As he enters his second year in office, Obama is set to face difficult congressional mid-term elections in November, in which the incumbent presidential party traditionally loses seats. The Democrats’ Senate supermajority is also under real threat, which could damage Obama’s ability to effect further radical social change. It is unclear whether, by the time Obama lifts his gaze at the end of his presidency, the “great expectations” unleashed by his undoubtedly historic election will not have been dashed by the “hard times” in the US that have since confronted him.
A line in Obama’s Nobel speech may well become the epitaph of his presidency: “Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.”
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town