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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage