Barack Obama ends his first year in office well aware that as hard as it was to win the presidency, actually doing the job is even harder. Amid the euphoria of his election last year, as Americans delighted in the fact that they had just elected their first African-American president, one comedy poster playing on America’s tragic racial histo- ry proclaimed: ”œBlack guy gets worst job in America.” Let us hope that history is kinder to Barack Obama than the sign is and the first year has been. Given all the challenges the United States faces, it will be tragic if his greatest achieve- ment remains his election and if his epitaph is that manag- ing the presidency is indeed an impossible task.
Still, do not underestimate that initial achievement of simply getting elected, which may alone be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee " which should have waited for some real achievements on the world stage " nevertheless beautifully described Obama’s greatest accomplishment so far, saying: ”œOnly very rarely has a per- son to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s atten- tion and given its people hope for a better future.” The fact that despite the stains of slavery, Jim Crow and racism, the United States sent a black man to the White House was a modern miracle. That this president was only 47 when elected and had, by his own description, a ”œfunny name” is even more amazing, especially following 9/11.
Obama’s election in November 2008 and his inaugura- tion in 2009 gave the world two magical moments. On elec- tion night, the tears streaming down black and white faces the world over said it all. Both John McCain " remember him? " and Barack Obama played their parts magnificent- ly. McCain was gracious, patriotic, generous " qualities that were frequently missing during the campaign. Obama was equally elegant and eloquent, weaving together a voyage through 20th-century American history by telling the story of one 106-year-old African-American voter, and once again immortalizing the slogan he basically coined but treated as historic: ”œYes we can.”
The inauguration was equally magical, expressed through the warm feelings that overcame the minus-8- degree weather, and immortalized through extraordinary iconography in pictures, posters postcards, and handouts that popped up all over the Washington Mall. Images juxta- posed Obama with Martin Luther King, linking the August 1963 march on Washington, which filled the Mall from the Lincoln Monument, with the January 2009 Obama inauguration, which filled the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Monument. Some artists depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton " King Tut’s father " and his chief consort, Nefertiti.
Since then, such images and slo- gans have filled our global village. I have seen home shrines to Obama in Châteauguay and have heard of elabo- rate shrines in huts in Kenya. During this dark recession year, America’s sin- gle greatest export has been the hope Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed and the discriminated against throughout the world. That all this occurred in a year of economic upheaval and after the sour, angry, divisive George W. Bush years is just short of miraculous.
Still, at the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealis- tic expectations amid such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inaugura- tion was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as it was when Babe Ruth swung a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems cannot be solved simply by sloganeering.
Obama understands that the grow- ing cult of personality surround- ing him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating, but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.
Shrewdly, pragmatically, construc- tively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slo- gan was ”œYes we can,” not ”œYes I can.” Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is commu- nity writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, ”œThe question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, say- ing, ”œFor as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American peo- ple upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, that sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democra- cy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant " frequently dis- playing a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet- proof picture window. Moreover, the surge stabilized Iraq, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soar- ing rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his coun- try; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isola- tionism is impossible for the world’s only superpower, neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed ”œthe last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: ”œAs for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
In launching his administration, Obama promised to govern as he speechifies, creating a ”œYes we can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmat- ic centre can applaud. Alas, the descent from ”œYes we can” to ”œI screwed up” was rapid " and unnerv- ing. Obama’s administration started off with a Keystone Kops cabinet farce, which included two attempts to find a commerce secretary, a treasury secre- tary who was a tax slob and a health and human services nominee and potential health czar who withdrew due to tax troubles. These stumbles would have derailed his administra- tion if the press corps had not been so dazzled by Obamania, and would have made George W. Bush a laughing stock had he made similar personnel errors.
This narrative suggests political bias, that the so-called ”œliberal media” was tough on George W. Bush, the Republican, and soft on Barack Obama, the great liberal democratic hope. But former president Bill Clinton was pummelled mercilessly when his nominees ran into nanny trouble. Careful analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign will discover a systematic pro-Obama bias. His story was fresher, more compelling and thus less scrutinized than Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s or those of the other also-rans. Some journalists now admit to liking Obama, loving the idea of Obama and frequently giving him a free pass " which continues.
There may also be a more benign explanation. The financial melt- down sobered Americans " and reporters. Barack Obama’s call for a new, more constructive pol- itics resonated. This really is not the time for the kind of partisan, ”œgotcha” bickering that has marred our politics for so long.
All this made Obama’s early fumbles so disturbing. The stakes were too high for amateur hour. Obama never explained why his personnel process has been so incompetent. But he learned. Since then, the administration has run smoothly, in the style of ”œNo-drama Obama.” The problems have stemmed from America’s vexing problems, at home and abroad.
Barack Obama never anticipated becoming a recession president, which has definitely cramped his style. He has governed further left than he cam- paigned, even though many progressives are also critical of his leadership thus far.
Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leader- ship is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran to heal his fragment- ed nation as the ”œnew Nixon.” Six years later, he resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to the stu- dent protests that triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One year into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming centre for a nation reeling from econom- ic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged congressional Democrats and party sen- sibilities rather than offering the moder- ate statesmanship America needs.
Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more suc- cessful as president than his first year suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began; and Ronald Reagan made more of a mark domestically in his first seven months than in the following seven years. During this first year, a presidential character starts forming. The first year launches many story lines that ulti- mately determine a president’s destiny.
President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist, although he shows an annoying ten- dency to slight friends and nuzzle ene- mies. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.
Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the ”œun-Bush.” From apologizing for American ”œarro- gance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, to bowing to the Saudi ruler and denouncing tor- ture, Obama has enraged conserva- tives. But he has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan, adding 30,000 troops to the 20,000 more he previously ordered in, bringing American troop strength there to nearly 100,000 and making it Obama’s war. And he gave the shoot- to-kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.
Most disturbing, however, have been his instincts on Iran and on ter- rorism. When the Green Revolution began, Barack Obama, the biggest rock star on the world political scene today, was silent. He waited far too long before expressing his approval of these Iranian-dissi- dent heroes, and even now, months later, he has not made supporting the Green Movement as much of a priori- ty as he should have. At the same time, after the Fort Hood massacre, he spoke formalisti- cally and officiously, ignoring the obvious ideological links between the perpetrator of the crime and Islamist ideology. Even after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, Obama pre- ferred to speak in legalese. In fairness, with Iran, Fort Hood and al-Qaeda’s Christmas bombing attempt, Obama eventually spoke forcefully, but his first reactions revealed a resistance to acknowledging the evil emanating from Islamist jihadist ideology.
At the same time, Obama and his team have often slighted America’s friends. Early on, the congressional lurch toward protectionism upset many Canadians, who were downright offended when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano compared the placid Canadian border to the tumul- tuous Mexican border. The British press was miffed by Obama’s cool greeting of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Israelis have been pressured far more frequently than the Palestinians.
At its best, with both friend and foe, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned ”œreset button,” without acting irre- sponsibly. Too frequently, Obama’s insistence on being the ”œun-Bush” sug- gests a sort of moral confusion. Sometimes, however, it works. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti- racism review conference in Geneva this spring exemplified his strategy at its best. In sending diplomats to pre- liminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boy- cotting it because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free- speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.
So far, there have been no major disasters on Obama’s watch " but no major successes either. North Korea and Iran continue to develop nuclear power: North Korea launched missiles on July 4 to defy Obama, while Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole an election and cracked down on democratic forces with barely a peep from the US President. Moreover, the December 31 deadline for sanctions to stop Iranian nuclear devel- opment came and went with no action. Obama has kept pressing al-Qaeda with drone attacks, the Taliban with talk of more troops, Iraqi anarchists by refusing to withdraw precipitously. But the Russians seem to think he can be pushed around. And even with Obama in office, the world is menaced by igno- ble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out on whether Obama’s politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al-Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insur- gents, Taliban fanatics, Afghan warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinean rapists and Hamas terrorists. The presidential learning curve, especially in foreign affairs, can be steep.
The presidency, despite being the world’s most scrutinized job, is also ever-changing, providing more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nikita Khrushchev bullied John Kennedy when they first met in Vienna in 1961, only to be outmanoeuvred by a more experienced JFK during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apolo- gizing for Bush’s ”œwar on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral centre, rather than dis- appointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China.
Of course, Obama’s greatest chal- lenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many smart people made such a mess, the President proba- bly is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleet- ing too. The President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse " forgetting that too much governmental interven- tion in the 1970s was equally harmful.
Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown University was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount " not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new ”œpillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including ”œnew rules for Wall Street” and new invest- ments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, ”œnew savings in our federal budget,” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.
Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big-government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves " even though conser- vatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.
Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’spositionin1984,declaringa new ”œmorning in America” that vali- dates Obamanomics as he coasts to re- election.
Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. Obama has been cursed by the depth and complexity of this financial crisis. So far, he has blamed Bush. But, as Ronald Reagan learned, presidential successes early on " and pie-in-the-sky promises about saving the economy " quickly make the incumbent responsible. In 1981, Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the great inflation, high interest rates and crushing budget deficits he inherited. After many legisla- tive successes and hope-laden speeches that culminated in August 1981, seven months into his presidency, the econo- my nosedived. When Congress returned from its summer recess, Democrats blamed their constituents’ suffering on the ”œReagan Recession.”
The $787-billion stimulus plan could end up being Obama’s alba- tross. He erred by allowing the con- gressional pork kings to dictate the legislation, burdening it with pet projects rather than smart stimuli. He further erred by forgetting his vows of bipartisanship and post-partisanship, thus failing to share responsibility with the Republicans. By veering as far left as he has domestically, by playing the hard partisan game he has, he risks following in the foot- steps of Jimmy Carter " who six months into his presidency scored about 10 percentage points higher than Obama has in public approval surveys. And Obama is now entering a particularly difficult passage in his presidency as he tries to overcome the health care reform curse that stymied Bill Clinton, another young charismatic Democrat with great potential.
Obama ended 2009 with passage of his health care Bill looking likely. The change could be as historic as Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare Bill or Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. But those two reforms enjoyed true bipartisan support. Although Democrats rejoiced when the Maine Republican senator Olympia Snowe supported the Bill, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the Bill truly biparti- san. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.
Obama ends his first year in office with the potential to be either as popular as Ronald Reagan or as ineffectual as Jimmy Carter. He has displayed a Reaganesque ability to get things done " and sell himself effec- tively " while also revealing a Carteresque tendency to lack back- bone when facing America’s enemies, America’s greatest domestic chal- lenges and an overconfident Democratic Congress. But Obama enters year two with three great assets that will help him govern " clear tal- ents in politicking; a smart, savvy, now battle-tested staff; and, most important of all, the goodwill of the American people and billions the world over, most of whom really, real- ly want this new president to succeed.