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.