x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama's promise is now his burden

When the US president takes to the stage at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina to accept his party’s nomination, he does so knowing that the high, some say unreasonable, expectations surrounding his presidency have not been met.

President Barack Obama prepares to board Air Force One before his travelling to Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention.
President Barack Obama prepares to board Air Force One before his travelling to Charlotte, North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention.

WASHINGTON // It was always going to be easier to disappoint than to succeed.

Four years ago Barack Obama beguiled his nation and the world with a simple promise of "hope and change". It proved an effective campaign slogan in a country tired of war and on the brink of financial collapse.

But when the US president takes to the stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina to accept his party's nomination, Mr Obama does so knowing that the high, some say unreasonable, expectations surrounding his presidency have not been met.

Instead he is facing an unexpectedly close race to secure another four years in power. And he will need all his considerable powers of oratory as the November election nears to explain a record that is mixed at best.

He has enacted historic healthcare reform and saved the American car industry. Arguably, he rescued the US economy from a full-blown depression.

But the decision to bail out major banks saw him criticised from both the right and left, while persistently high unemployment, stubbornly slow economic growth, and a hostile Congress since the 2010 midterm elections now leave him locked in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.

Abroad the excitement surrounding a man who in Cairo in June 2009 vowed to reach out to the Muslim world and that same year won a Nobel Prize on promise alone has also gradually worn off.

The world has welcomed his multilateral approach to global events after the eight years of neoconservative unilateralism that preceded. The US-led occupation of Iraq is over, and the operation in Afghanistan is winding down.

But a dramatic expansion of assassinations by drone strike in countries the US is not at war with has seen Mr Obama's claim to a moral high ground crumble.

He has failed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, which holds those charged in the September 11 attacks more than 10 years ago, as he promised during his campaign. His inability to overcome Israeli opposition to ending illegal settlement building has undermined his credibility in the Arab and Muslim world even as critics at home accuse him of straining US relations with Israel.

At their convention last week, Republicans charged that Mr Obama had failed to show US leadership in the world and stand up aggressively enough for the interests of America and her allies. He has kowtowed to China and Russia, they said, while his handling of the Arab Spring has only empowered the Muslim Brotherhood and other antagonists in the region.

Yet with little daylight between the two candidates on most major foreign-policy issues, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said that Republican criticisms of the Obama administration's foreign policy ring hollow.

What Mr Obama's decisions in his first four years have shown, Mr Cook suggested - both to the chagrin of those in his party disappointed that he has not been more liberal, and to those on the right, who seem chiefly to criticise him for not being belligerent enough - is that foreign policy in America is usually characterised by continuity.

"There's hope and change and so on, but there is often very much more continuity in American foreign policy than campaigns would suggest," said Mr Cook.

Indeed, criticism of Mr Obama's "deeply pragmatic, deeply moderate" foreign policy to some extent showed more about the critics and the expectations Mr Obama was saddled with from the outset, said Mr Cook.

"In many ways Obama was a Rorschach test for people," he added. "You read into him what you wanted."

James Thurber, the director for the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, and the editor of a book about the first two years of the Obama presidency, Obama in Office, said the past four years neatly divide into two.

He had "phenomenal" success in his first two years, passing more legislation through the US Congress than any other president since Dwight Eisenhower. But his instinct to find common ground with political opponents dragged out the decision-making process and led to compromises on health-care reform and the stimulus package that left fewer people happy, said Mr Thurber.

Suspicious of what conservatives then successfully painted as a growing and invasive role of government, the electorate punished Mr Obama in the 2010 midterm elections, leaving a "deadlocked and dysfunctional" Congress, he said.

After that, Mr Obama "dropped off the cliff", Mr Thurber said. Mr Obama had promised to be a transformational president. But rather than change the way Washington worked, overcome bipartisanship and stem the influence of money and lobbyists, Mr Obama now faces a nation where politics is flooded with money from outside interests and more divided than ever, said Mr Thurber.

November's election will turn on the economy rather than Mr Obama's ability to inspire. And with economic indicators in key swing states tending to improving, the president may well prevail.

But it will be close, certainly closer than anyone might have expected when Mr Obama, four years ago, to immense excitement and on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, accepted his party's nomination and went on to become the US's first African-American president.

Great expectations have brought great disappointment. Mr Thurber compared it to the reaction of "jilted lovers".

"Within the framework of 'hope and change', everyone had different kinds of change they wanted. And especially with Obama. He's an example of what's good in America in terms of rising up from humble backgrounds. He's exceedingly articulate. But when they see he isn't what they thought him to be, just like jilted lovers, they get angry," he said.

 

okarmin@thenational.ae