Obama, Moses and exaggerated expectations
-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-
President Barack Obama is close to the half-way mark of his presidential mandate, a good time for a brief look at health care, unemployment, war, the level of the oceans, the health of the planet, and America’s image. They all featured in a 2008 Obama speech whose rhetoric soared to stratospheric heights.
“If…we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I’m absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last best hope on earth.”
The date was June 3, 2008. Obama had just won the Democratic Party’s nomination as presidential candidate. He was also winning the adulation of the majority of the American people, who shrugged off mockery from curmudgeonly Republicans who pointed out that the last historical figure to affect ocean levels was Moses and he had divine help when he parted the Red Sea.
Obama took to the campaign trail again this month to help Democratic candidates for the mid-term elections on November 2 and he would need divine intervention to prevent his party from losing control of the House and possibly the Senate.
The vote is in part a referendum on his first two years in office and the adoration has faded, not least because it would have been difficult for anyone to actually meet the high expectations he raised in dramatic speeches.
There is a certain symmetry between next month’s mid-terms and those four years ago, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress (and consolidated it in 2008). The result stemmed from dissatisfaction with the economy, with the Republican Party and with President George W. Bush. Now there is dissatisfaction with the economy (much more troubled than in 2006) with Democrats, and with Obama.
And how does today’s reality match the exuberant pre-election promise of 2008? Better care for the sick, provided by the controversial health care reform bill Obama signed into law in March, is on the way but will not kick in fully until 2014. Good jobs for the jobless? The unemployment rate is stuck at around 10 percent. Slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet? The prospects for ambitious climate change legislation are bleak.
Ending a war? The number of American troops in Iraq has been cut from a peak of 176,000 to 50,000, whose role is to assist Iraq’s armed forces. As American forces pulled out of Iraq, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan swelled to around 100,000. They are to begin withdrawing next summer but the U.S. military presence won’t end.
Securing the nation? Time will tell whether America is more attack-proof now than it was when Obama took over. Finally, restoring America’s image. This is the one lofty promise that comes closest to reality. As global brand manager-in-chief, Obama can claim credit for having softened the image of the Ugly American in large parts of the world. This is no mean feat – being disliked makes diplomacy more difficult and is bad for business.
There are no polls on how many people around the world see the United States as “the last best hope on earth” but there are extensive surveys on the popularity, or lack of it, of America, Americans, and their president. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, which has monitored such sentiments since 2001, shows that the number of countries where a majority of citizens hold favourable views of the U.S. almost doubled from 2008, the last year of George W. Bush, to 2009, Obama’s first.
Foreign policy is the most important factor in shaping foreign opinions but a president has considerable power to affect perceptions. Or to disappoint by failing to match soaring words with actual deeds. For example, the new chapter in relations between the United States and the Muslim world Obama promised in a much-lauded speech from Cairo in the summer of 2009 turned out not all that different from the old chapter.
As a consequence, the Pew survey noted, Muslims grew disillusioned about Obama and confidence in him fell sharply, from 41 percent to 31 percent in Egypt, for example, and from 33 percent to 23 percent in Turkey. In Pakistan, the most anti-American country monitored in the survey, it dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent. That’s just one point higher than it was under George W. Bush in his last year.
In a series of campaign appearances on behalf of Democrats in danger of losing their seats in next week’s elections, Obama appealed for patience to achieve the changes he promised in lofty speeches. “In a big, messy democracy” like that of the United States, “everything takes time.”
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)