Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Obama’s First Year and Buyer’s Remorse | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Remember the designer accessory you bought with so much passion? And, what about the gadget that set you dreaming about boundless possibilities? Well, if you do remember such things you would also recall the sense of regret that set in soon after you acquired the coveted objects.

In marketing parlance, that sense of regret is known as “buyer’s remorse”, the feeling that what we have acquired with enthusiasm is not so hot after all.

In a recent tour of the United States to promote my new book, I gained the impression that this was the feeling of a growing number of Americans with regard to their new president. Even some of those who, only a year ago, would have lynched me with their regards in retaliation for an unkind remark about “Obama, the Saviour” are now either not quite so sure or outright hostile. In Florida, I found myself in a role unimaginable a few months ago as someone who at least tries to understand, though not to justify, why President Barack Obama cannot do everything he had promised to do.

“No use defending him,” a repentant Obamaist lashed back when I told him that the now not so new president could not force Israel and the Palestinians to create two states before he leaves office. “If he can’t do it, where is the difference that he promised?” the disgruntled Obamaist snapped back.-

There is ample anecdotal evidence that America’s honeymoon with Obama has been the shortest in recent US presidential history.

In a haircut salon, all the talk is about the president’s alleged failure to develop a credible health-care plan.

In the bookshop, the complaint is about Obama’s alleged weakness in curbing the appetite of Wall Street “fat cats”, who seem to be back with their old tricks.

A chance acquaintance on a jetliner is angry with Obama because the president has not yet closed the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

And journalist friends are aghast at Obama’s decision to have Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the self-confessed Al Qaeda terror mastermind and four of his most obnoxious associates, treated as ordinary criminals and put on trial in an ordinary civil court in New York, a state which has abolished the death penalty.

A series of opinion polls confirm the anecdotal evidence about buyer’s remorse as applied to Obama.

He now suffers from the lowest job approval rating of any US president at this period in his term. If the current trends continue, by next January when he marks the end of his first year in the White House, Obama could become the most unpopular president in US history.

Buyer’s remorse with regard to Obama is interesting for a number of reasons.

To start with, it is not related to what he has really done but to what people expected of him and he failed to do.

In fact, a checklist could quickly establish that, compared to most of his recent predecessors, Obama has done very little. In most cases, he has continued the policies of the previous administration. In some areas of policy, the US is on autopilot.

A lawyer by training and lacking executive experience, Obama has turned out to be cautious to the point of inaction. Anxious to find the ever elusive ideal solution to all problems, and trying not to ruffle any feathers, Obama has appeared confused and indecisive.

On many issue he has tried to postpone decision-making by appointing special envoys and/or forming special commissions. The tactic resembles that of a driver who, not knowing where exactly he is heading, prefers to park the car and study the GPS, in the hope that in the end, he would not be required to go anywhere.

Obama’s critics accuse him of intellectual laziness while his supporters complain that he is too much of a triangulator, a Clintonian term that means trying to please both the bride and the mother-in-law.

As you might know, I have never been an Obama enthusiast. However, I think it unfair to blame him for the current mood of buyer’s remorse. Part of the blame must be assigned to the buyers themselves for their failure to examine the goods offered and, in some cases, reaching for the shelf blindfolded.

Then there is the fact that many people picked Obama because they wanted to feel good about themselves and the US in general. They wished to prove that they were not racist and that the US had moved beyond racial prejudices. Outside the US, many people warmed up to Obama simply because he was not George W Bush.

The problem, however, is that neither those who voted for him in the US nor those who admired him on other shores, have been prepared to lift a finger on the few occasions that he has tried to do anything. The Europeans love Obama well enough to honour him with the Nobel Peace Prize only11 days after he had entered the White House. But they are not prepared to give him the slightest concession on such issues as reforming the global financial system, re-launching the Doha round on trade liberalisation, and, in a smaller register, accepting his hometown of Chicago as the host of the 2014 Olympics.. Over 200,000 Germans gathered to adulate Obama when he visited Berlin before he had been elected. And, yet, like other Europeans, over 80 per cent of Germans are opposed to admitting a single Guantanamo Bay prisoner in order to help Obama.

The Russians praise Obama for having abandoned the anti-missile shield project in Poland and the Czech Republic but refuse to lift a finger to help advance his foreign policy objectives.

The Chinese unroll the red carpet for him but, when it comes to readjusting the value of the Yuan, forget that romanticism was ever invented.

The mullahs of Tehran grudgingly admit that Obama is no Bush and feel reassured about the olive branch he is waving. But when it comes to practical diplomacy, they are less flexible than ever.

The same is true of Israel and its Arab adversaries. My guess is that Israel will just try to sit Obama out, hoping he would be a one-term president. Most Arab powers, and the two wings of the Palestinian opinion, are equally ambivalent about Obama. Both listen to his polished speeches, delivered faultlessly thanks to teleprompters. But there is no evidence that either takes the new US president seriously.

Those familiar with American politics would know that one function of a US president is that of a punching bag. He is there to take the blame for the failures of society and the inability of the institutions, designed to seek an elusive consensus, to deliver the policies needed at any given time. Cynics might suggest that a US president is made only to be un-made. The only difference is in the pace at which a president is made and un-made. Obama was made in record time. He also risks being unmade in record time.