At the end of Obama’s first year in the White House, it looks like the 44th president will turn out to be like the 39th, another meddlesome intellectual on domestic policy and a wimp on national security doomed to a single term. If his foreign policy were a law firm in a Dickens novel, it would have a name like Bumble, Stumble and Skid.
There are dismaying reminders of Carter’s irresolute idealism in Obama’s unrequited apology to the Muslim world; his slow-mo response to the Nigerian Undie Bomber; and in the muddle over where the accused terrorists in Guantanamo Bay should finally be tried, the perpetrator of 9/11 being given the benefit of a jury trial in New York (to the city’s fury), while the lesser villains were subjected to a military tribunal. Say nothing of the eviction of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office – Obama’s age and his background have translated into a rather chilly, distant view of the Europeans.
Two centrist non-partisan commentators have made the comparison with Jimmy Carter specific. Foreign Policy magazine juxtaposes Obama and Carter on its cover, joined by an “equals” sign, and the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb, who was a senior official in the Carter administration, says Obama reminds him of Carter in putting “far too much store on being the smartest guy in the room and not enough on experience“.
There is force in the criticism. Obama enjoys working with the clever advisers he calls his “propeller heads”. There is hardly any senior person in the administration who has had to manage a business or meet a payroll, a deficiency that may yet be fatal to the hopes of a recovery. His Secretary of State, Hillary, has been vindicated in her campaign charge that Obama’s willingness to meet any adversary, any time anywhere, was naive.
In his first year, Obama has swallowed humiliation after humiliation from Iran, as Carter did from the ayatollahs all through his ignominious final year. The Iranian leaders have behaved like playground bullies, kicking the pacific Obama in the teeth with as much insulting vigor as they did the demon Bush. The response of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini to the proffered handshake was: “The Great Satan now has a black face.” Even last summer, when millions took to the streets across Iran to protest against the crooked election, and got killed and jailed for their pains, Obama stayed aloof on the grounds that to intervene would be meddling with Iran’s elected government (Hello?). Now the deadline he set for a nuclear agreement is upon us – Obama likes setting deadlines – and his tougher recent language will somehow have to be married with muscle. This means dragging Russia and China along for sanctions. Will Obama’s gestures to the Russians, abandoning the missile shield they hated, make the truculent and prickly Putin more co-operative against a common threat? Americans fear that, once again, when Obama summons spirits from the vast deep, no one will answer.
The most galling thing for Obama is that his campaign vision of a less polarized America has turned out to be a daydream. The fervor of the movement that elected the first black president has abated. In time for this first anniversary, CBS News has presented him with the American equivalent of a Bronx cheer (a raspberry to you). Their poll, conducted last week, has Obama at a new low, approved by only 46 per cent, the first time his rating has slipped below 50 per cent, five points lower than Bill Clinton, whose first year was so wobbly, and way below Kennedy’s 79 per cent (which began with his disastrous Bay of Pigs intervention and Khrushchev’s perception of him at Vienna as a weakling).
The troublesome feature of the poll, as a harbinger of the crucial mid-term elections in November, is that Obama’s rating has fallen sharply among the growing number of independent voters, down to 42 per cent. On present trends the Democrats will suffer defeats, and the loss of a single seat in the Senate would rob Obama of his party’s ability to override a Republican filibuster.
“They used to tell me I was building a dream” is the opening line of the song Yip Harburg wrote in 1932 for Rudy Vallee, meeting a request by President Herbert Hoover to write a melody that would make people forget the Depression. “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” is the lament for the Obama presidency.