Obama’s “USA!” moment

The president’s poll ratings have leapt in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, but Republicans are shar

A seminal time for his presidency: a true test of his leadership. Little wonder, you might think, that Barack Obama's approval ratings have soared in the wake of the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden – from the lowest of his presidency to the highest in years. A series of polls shows that some 56 per cent of Americans now approve of his performance in his job as president, while more than two-thirds aprove his handling of the terrorism threat.

It's not surprising, when you read the accounts of Obama's coolness under pressure as he watched the live feed of that daring raid by Navy SEALs . . . when you consider that while making one of the most important decisions of his career, he managed to pull off a creditable comedy riff to a crowd of hacks at the White House correspondents' dinner . . . when you bask in the brief euphoria of what the pundits are calling the "USA! USA!" moment the country hasn't experienced for years.

It's ripped up another stereotype, too: that of Obama as hand-wringer in chief, an image of indecisiveness and weakness that has dogged him almost from the moment he took office. Suddenly his harshest critics – yes, even the likes of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and Obama's talk-show nemesis Rush Limbaugh – were lining up to offer praise. As the FT put it, "Mr Obama has a compelling new narrative."

So, it's not surprising, either, that the president tried to sieze the opportunity to build some of that political unity everyone's been paying lip-service to since, well, for ever. In his speech to the American people – which 56 million people tuned in to watch – he was pretty optimistic. As he said: "It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the challenges we still face."

Yeah, right. It lasted all of about 12 hours before the Republicans went back on the offensive, with the Democrats hard on their heels. Here's the Republican senator Jim DeMint, not long after he had offered his "heartfelt thanks" to the president for "pursuing the neccessary policies to bring about today's success", changing his tune rather radically to weigh in to the adminstration's economic record. "The command-and-control paranoia that we see in this administration is antithetical to everything that we understand about freedom in our country," the senator opined.

And Tom Pawlenty, who's off to South Carolina to debate his GOP presidential rivals on Thursday said that "the time to engage President Obama is now" – and that despite the Bin Laden killing, Obama's "national defence posture" won't be off limits.

Nor did politics on the Hill take long to get back to the usual partisan sniping, with Republicans railing against the White House about everything from petrol prices to light bulbs (yes, really). The Democrats have hardly been sitting on their hands, either – barely pausing for breath before scheduling a press conference attacking the Republican plans for Medicare.

So the glow of national pride of the past few days, that "USA!" moment that echoed around Ground Zero, could very well turn out to be just that – a moment – as the normal dynamic of the 2012 campaign takes over once again. And despite the events of this week, that dynamic is likely to be driven by one thing: the economy. Take note: Obama's ratings here are by no means as healthy as his handling of the terror threat, and are still languishing at an all-time low.

There's no doubt that the president has proved his credentials as commander-in-chief: it'll be hard to keep asking that "3am phone call" question. But by the time Americans go to the polls next November, it could well be jobs, gas prices, the debt and the deficit that decide the way they vote. Without doubt, the economy will be the GOP's biggest electoral opportunity. And, blink and you'll miss it, but Obama and his campaign team could just have their best chance yet to make sure it's no longer their biggest electoral liability.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear