Barack Obama's three year anniversary: a reader

It has been three years since the US President took office. Has he lived up to his promise?

I was on holiday in the US when Barack Obama was sworn in to office three years ago, and the sense of excitement was palpable. My contemporaries, people in their early twenties, told me that for the first time in their adult lives, they could feel proud of their country again. Three years on, and the tides have changed. It was perhaps inevitable that Obama would never quite live up to the hype (that pre-emptive Nobel Peace prize was tempting fate too far), but is the dream over? The right continue to demonise him as a foreigner and a socialist, while the left are frustrated at his perceived inaction and refusal to take a stand.

Over at the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland offers a thorough analysis of the charges leveled against Obama, and the defences offered by his supporters. He notes the impossibility of the situation facing Obama: "an intransigent Republican party in Congress that does not hide its desire to deny Obama anything that looks like an achievement, even if such paralysis damages the national interest." On the other hand, however, he made a tactical error by failing to tackle this challenge head on, remaining "cool, calm and hyper-rational to a fault". Ultimately, though, Freedland is optimistic, saying that "liberal disappointment with Obama is real", we should not ignore his record:

It is not a bad record and there is every chance that it will represent merely the first half of a long game. If, as looks likely, Obama is re-elected in November, the FDR precedent might be invoked once again: it was in his second term that Roosevelt notched up some of his greatest achievements. This president, too, may have learned from his mistakes and got the true measure of his enemies. After three long, hard years, there are still grounds for hope.

Time magazine has secured an interview with Obama. This Q&A with the president is prefaced by a long piece by Fareed Zakaria (not yet online) on Obama's foreign policy. In this piece, Zakaria is broadly positive: "The reality is that, despite domestic challenges and limited resources, President Obama has pursued an effective foreign policy". In the Q&A (which focuses solely on foreign policy), Obama defends his record. Asked about his admiration for George H.W. Bush, he says:

Now that I've been in office for three years, I think that I'm always cautious about comparing what we've done to what others have done, just because each period is unique. Each set of challenges is unique.

Writing in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan shares Freedland's optimism, writing that "the attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren't out of bounds. They're simply -- empirically -- wrong". Sullivan first takes on right-wring critics, crunching the numbers on unemployment to show that Obama's economic policies are far more successful than he has been given credit for, and pointing out that healthcare reform was moderate. Next he takes on the left, who "projected onto Obama absurd notions of what a president can actually do in a polarized country". While conceding that the president cannot regain the promise of 2008, Sullivan maintains that now we have gone the other way, "grotesquely" underplaying his talents:

What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don't-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes on Sullivan's piece, lamenting Obama "apologists" who downplay certain aspects of the president's record:

Like President Bush, he is breaking the law, transgressing against civil liberties, and championing a radical view of executive power -- and he is invoking the War on Terror to get away with it.

...

Obama has transgressed against what is arguably Congress' most essential check on executive power -- its status as the decider of when America goes to war -- and he has codified indefinite detention into law, something that hasn't been done since Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. But at least he doesn't torture people! How low we've set the bar.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post blog, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake note that Obama's campaign has chosen to launch ads in six swing states ahead of next week's State of the Union address, and ask whether it is too soon, given that the Republicans haven't even chosen their candidate yet. They also argue that a negative campaign would be more helpful than the positive ads currently being broadcast:

Obama has to win the economic argument among loosely affiliated and unaffiliated voters in order to win a second term. And his best path to doing that is to discredit Romney as an effective economic messenger.

Given that reality, one Democratic media consultant suggested that it could well be a waste of money for Obama to run even one positive ad.

The jury is still out, and we can expect more furious debate as the presidential race gets closer and the Republicans select a candidate. Obama clearly has some fighting to do to replay even a fraction of his electoral success in 2008.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit