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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war