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.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.