Obama turns 50 -- and there's not much to celebrate

The President is keeping it low-key as the focus moves to the next potential crisis: jobs.

As 50th birthdays go, President Obama's keeping it pretty quiet. There is nothing in his official diary for today to mark the milestone. There'll be a reception with senior staff this afternoon, followed by a quiet night in with family and close friends. But then it hasn't exactly been the best couple of weeks of his life.

Yesterday, the President celebrated the last hours of his forties by treating staffers to a slap-up meal to thank them for their hard work on the debt ceiling deal.

Except this was no swish DC restaurant, but the Good Stuff Eatery, where the White House team splashed out on a selection of burgers and fries: including, perhaps, the ''Prez Obama'' burger, featuring roquefort cheese and ''delicious horseradish mayo sauce''. The joint is a somewhat unlikely favourite with the First Lady, according to Obama, who admitted he didn't ''get out much''.

Last night, though, was a chance for a full-on party, a huge fundraising event in the President's hometown of Chicago, compered by his old friend and former chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel. It was a chance to kick back with supporters after days of tension and acrimony surrounding the debt ceiling deal: "It doesn't matter how tough a week I have in Washington," he told around 1700 activists, "because I know you've got me -- you've got my back."

After dinner, and another donors' event, came a glitzy concert featuring Jennifer Hudson and Herbie Hancock, tickets selling for between $50 and a more ambitious $35,800. Then, for the non Chicagoans, a chance for grassroots supporters at some 11,000 events around the country to ask direct questions via a special live streamed video link. What did Obama think of the protracted negotiations to avoid the debt default catastrophe? "Extraordinary"... although "not the kind of extraordinary the American people are looking for".

The near-miss of potential financial disaster can only have been compounded by the sheer weight of liberal disappointment with the deal: trillions of dollars in spending cuts and not a tax increase in sight.

Now the focus returns to the next potential crisis -- jobs. With unemployment still a fraction over 9 per cent, Obama is heading out on the road with a bus tour through the Midwest later this month, promoting his new plans for job creation. And as if to emphasise the ''pivot", there's a new slogan on the White House website: Putting Americans Back to Work.

The one job he really wants to hang onto, of course, is his own. And as he prepares to spend that quiet birthday night at home, he'll be working out how to make sure it's not one of the last birthdays he'll spend in the White House.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”