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.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt