This time last year, Barack Obama was celebrating his first year as President of the United States of America, still hoping to enter history more as a miracle worker than a run-of-the-mill politician. He was going to “make oceans recede” as part of his plan to “save the planet” while reforming the capitalist system “from top to bottom.” In his spare time, he hoped to create a European-style welfare state in America without forgetting to “give the Palestinians a state of their own.”
His opponents, meanwhile, were sounding alarm bells about Obama turning the United States into the Communist society that Lenin had dreamt of almost 100 years ago.
Earlier this month, however, as we visited the United States, we found a dramatically different picture.
Within just a few days of talking to people, it became clear that Obama had already become yet another of those presidents who are squeezed into irrelevance by the rough and tumble of the American political system.
Here was Obama himself appearing on television, a subdued figure with an almost hunched back, demanding that the coming Republican majority in the US Congress take him into account. “They would have to reckon with me,” the once self-styled hero of the “Yes-We-Can” opera said without hoping to convince anyone.
His former friends on the caviar-and-champagne section of the American Left were careful to distance themselves from him while his opponents, even among those who have spent much of the past two years demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate, now behave as if he has already become a shadow receding into a footnote in history.
Few of those we talked to believed that Obama would achieve the lofty goals he set himself or, as the case may be, the threats that he posed to the “American Way of Life.” In domestic politics, Obama appeared to be limping through the wreckage of a battleground shouting a modern version of the ignominious “My kingdom for a horse” plea.
Once regarded as a dynamic new leader whose relative youth could energise the country, Obama is now accused of being lazy and out of focus. Even his supposed oratorical talents are now questioned. A new industry has emerged around stories relating Obama’s embarrassment as a speaker when faced with a breakdown in his teleprompter.
In foreign policy, Obama’s promise of creating a Palestinian state ‘within a year’, and embracing a de-fanged Mahmoud Ahamdinejad in the Rose Garden of the White House, provoked no more than smirks.
On global issues, his talk of multilateralism is often seen as a means of avoiding difficult decisions.
In a number of public meetings that we addressed, almost no one asked about the one issue around which Obama had woven his presidential campaign in 2008: Iraq.
In fact, poll after poll shows that less than one per cent of US voters now regard either Iraq or Afghanistan as an “important issue.”
Since nothing has changed in the fundamentals of US policy towards either Iraq or Afghanistan, would it be cynical to suggest that the so-called “war issue” had been drummed up to sell the Americans a bill of goods in the shape of Obama?
Having said all that, it is too early to know whether or not we should already write Obama’s political obituary.
Next Tuesday’s mid-term elections are likely to attract a record number of voters across the United States, many of them motivated more by local concerns that Obama’s record so far. Moreover, even if the Republicans manage to win control of both the House and the Senate, they would become the governing party and thus likely to be on the defensive in the next presidential election in 2012.
An “irrelevant” Obama may well end up winning a second presidential term, as did an “irrelevant” Bill Clinton in 1996, by blaming his failures on the majority party.
All political careers end in failure and there is no reason to believe that Obama’s should be an exception.
Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of next week’s mid-term elections, two things are certain.
The first is that even if the Democrats lose control of the Congress, it would be wrong to dismiss the rest of Obama’s presidency as nothing but an embarrassment.
A US president will always have enough power and authority to initiate policy or, at least, to impact the political debate.
Even the hapless Jimmy Carter, possibly one of the least impressive of US presidents, managed to do pull off the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in the lame-duck phase of his administration. And it was in the final phases of his presidency that Ronald Reagan succeeded in giving the Soviet Union one final push over the precipice.
The second thing that is certain is that the United States could never be dismissed as an irrelevance on account of its president’s shortcomings at any given time. None of the crucial issues of international life could be tackled without the active participation, not to say the leadership, of the United Sates. This truism was underlined earlier this month when France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to create a troika for world leadership by inviting his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to a special summit. Held in Normandy’s gambling heart at Deauville, Sarkozy’s gamble did not work out. The only thing the three could agree upon was to wait until after the American mid-term election.
Even more questionable is Ahmadinejad’s claim that the very fact that an inexperienced outsider like Obama could become president indicates “the beginning of the end” for the United States. Tehran’s “end of America” discourse is designed to persuade some people in the Middle East to accept Khomeinist hegemony to fill the gap supposedly left by the United States.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon the message from Tehran, often backed with plastic bags filled with crisp cash, is that protection by the mullahs is replacing pax-America.
However, there could be no peace in the Middle East and certainly no settlement in Afghanistan and Iraq without the United States. The same is true of the broader war on global terrorism, the current economic crisis, and the need to accommodate the ambitions of the new rising powers of Asia and Latin America. Ever since it took shape in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, the international system has always needed a leading power around which nations with different resources and ambitions could work together and tackle problems that concerns them all. In other words, as far as the international system is concerned, the United States, whether one likes it or not, remains a necessity.