Barrack Obama is becoming expert at managing disappointment. Whether it is health care (still not finished), climate change and energy (not yet started and already back-tracking from Copenhagen), Guantanamo (closure delayed), the war on terror (half-hearted) or homeland security (not very secure), the man who declared just a year ago ‘yes we can’ is now saying ‘maybe’ more often. Even the relief efforts in Haiti are faltering.
He is also loosing traction. Two Senators have announced their retirement, weakening the position Obama has in the Senate. More are expected to follow. It is widely thought that the democrats will not do well in the mid-term elections in November and most blame Obama for the difficulties the party faces in these election. Even Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat in Massachusetts looks vulnerable.
So what went wrong?
First, the expectations of Obama – the first black President, incredibly articulate (especially after the sometimes-incoherent George W Bush) – were so high that it was impossible for him to fulfill them. Oprah, on the day after his election, indicated that she thought the world was now changed. The Nobel Committee, in a moment of theatre, awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize before he had time to settle into the Oval Office. The “yes we can” victory speech appeared to promise more than any President could ever deliver. Obama set himself up for a fall.
Second, Obama underestimated the challenges of the job. When he arrived at the Oval Office, the economy was in shambles, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in some confusion, momentum on climate change was stalling and the republicans had established a reign of non bipartisan politics – across the aisle agreements, while nice in theory, rarely happened in practice. He underestimated the extent of raw “politics” associated with every move he would make.
Third, he has shown a lack of real leadership. Though on television almost every day, the real work of laying out a policy platform and then working the phones and contacts to ensure allegiance and alliances has not happened. On health, he outlined a broad framework and let the House and Senate go at it. On climate change, the same thing. The result is that Nancy Pelosi was allowed to run the House, and she became a lightning rod for dissident democrats and reluctant republicans.
Finally, Obama has overplayed his popularity to the point where many Americans are now simply fed up of seeing him. Whether its on Leno, Letterman, CNN or some other show, he is a very visible President. Each time he appears, he loses support – “Oh not Obama again!”. His popularity ratings are the lowest in modern times for any President at the end of their first year. One headline in the Huffington Post suggest that Charles Manson, the satanic mass murderer, has a better chance of winning the next Presidential race.
When Oprah interviewed him and asked him to give himself a year end-grade, Obama gave himself a B+ (A- if health care passed). He was alone in this assessment. The best grade awarded by others is a C+. Most think he has failed his first year – especially those ten million now unemployed.
Obama could well be a one term President if, and it is a very big “if”, the Republicans can find a reasonable candidate to run against him. The prospects of this happening are slim. No one is emerging at this time who can provide a reasoned, compassionate and effective opposition. Obama may win a second term by default – the fault being with the republicans. If they are foolish enough to consider Sarah Palin, they may just hand Obama his second term.
To redeem himself, Obama needs to spend less time on media releases and TV appearances and more time on substantive work on policy. He needs to forge alliances across the aisles for key decisions that need to be made on the economy, the future of energy and the cuts to spending needed to pay down the deficit – the largest in American history. He needs to change his key advisors, especially his economic team, and create bipartisan momentum for economic change and development. Finally, he needs to find ways of focusing the democratic effort on lowering the rhetoric and increasing the work-rate, especially in the Senate.