O MacGuffin: A man who has made the mistake of believing his own publicity

quarta-feira, novembro 04, 2009

A man who has made the mistake of believing his own publicity

Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph 04/11/2009

It's Barack Obama's first anniversary - but there's precious little to celebrate

A year ago, almost to the minute, I was here in New York, watching television reports of the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States of America. I recall the sight of a lachrymose woman from the Midwest, standing outside her run-down house as the sun rose, giving thanks for her deliverance: not from George W Bush, but from the threat of foreclosure. I have no idea whether this poor woman kept the roof over her head; all I know is, if she did, it would have been no thanks to Mr Obama.

On the anniversary of his election, he is busy with unpleasant confrontations with reality. As my colleague Toby Harnden reported so graphically last week, the honeymoon is over. Never in American politics has someone come to power on such a bubble of expectation; never, inevitably, has the pricking of that bubble caused such shock. America may just have come out of recession, but things remain bad. Ten per cent of the workforce is unemployed: here in New York, perhaps the most dynamic and prosperous city on the planet, the figure is even higher.

The rhetoric that bore Mr Obama to office proved equal to electoral success, but not to economic management. Moreover, Mr Obama's most coveted legislative aim, the creation of a sort of national health service, remains elusive. The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper here of serious money, has just savaged the Bill as perhaps the worst inflicted on the American people since the era of Roosevelt. Its projected cost – $1.055 trillion over 10 years – is regarded as madness when America has a level of debt so astronomical that it (just) exceeds, per capita, that of Britain; and few outside a hard core of Obama devotees see it delivering what is needed, where it is needed.

Internationally, the lustre has worn off, too. Mr Obama might have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but the less said about that the better. The award was apparently decided in February, days after he entered the Oval Office. He gave up his missile defence system in eastern Europe: we all imagined the Russians would give something in return, but we are still waiting. More recently, he went to Copenhagen to try to secure the 2016 Olympics for Chicago, and failed. While this did little more than provide amusement to many, it damaged him in America, and outraged his true believers: perhaps the emperor had a small wardrobe after all.
Now he is immersed in a deliberative exercise about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. As is the lot of politicians, he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. What the dilemma illustrates is that governing is not so easy as it might once have seemed; that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so there is little point trying; and that the expertise of the Obama campaign in managing image is useless when managing a country. Tony Blair, had they asked, could have told him that.

For all the difficulties of America's imperial burden, it is the domestic, and particularly the economic, front that Mr Obama and his colleagues are finding hardest to defend. America rejoiced when unemployment dropped in July, but the dawn was false. In the next two months it rose again by nearly 700,000. The projected cumulative deficit for the next 10 years is now $9 trillion, having just been revised upwards by $2 trillion. Perhaps it is because these sums are incomprehensible that Americans are no longer shocked by them: but someone will have to pay. There is no sign of the budget going into the black in any of the next 10 years: the projection for 2019 is still that it will be 4 per cent of gross domestic product (it is between 11 and 12 per cent now). The health care plans, were they to be enacted, would make this dire situation even worse. They can be funded only by higher taxes, which is no doubt fair if everyone wants such a system, but far from everyone does. And, as I have written in relation to our benighted economy, the growth that might ease the problem will only be depressed by higher taxes. The stimulus package of $787 billion has paid few dividends ("He didn't even read the Bill, he just signed it," a Republican told me): as at home, serious cuts in spending are not on the agenda. The dollar remains a reserve currency, but has been heading south. For all the supposed brilliance of Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers, Mr Obama's chief economic adviser, they are still looking for the paddle.

Mr Obama seems also to have made another bad mistake. Apparently shocked by the virulence of Fox News Channel's attacks on him, he has declared war on the network. We can imagine what would happen if a British head of government were to try to take on an arm of the media, and it has happened here. Many voters feel the President has diminished himself by admitting to being so bothered by Fox, which for its part has turned up the abuse.

So too has Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio presenter, whom Mr Obama and his friends have made the mistake of branding the leader of the Republican Party. That was meant to be an insult to the Republicans: it has transmuted
into a further proof of the administration's weakness, and has elevated Mr Limbaugh to an even higher position of influence. The President appears thin-skinned, immature and inexperienced. Mr Limbaugh now taunts him outrageously to see what reaction he can provoke, such as by saying last weekend (on Fox, of course) that the President's attendance at the repatriation of dead American servicemen was a "photo opportunity" contrived because his popularity was slumping. The gloves are not just off; the knuckledusters are on.

To use another old cliché, Mr Obama looks like a man who has made the mistake of believing his own publicity. His adherents in the media are now so defensive that they have started complaining about the rules – implying that the exercise of free speech by the likes of Mr Limbaugh verges on the traitorous, and is preventing the President from doing his job properly. Any excuse, we must suppose, will do.

For his part, Mr Obama is engaging in acts of deference to the Democratic majority in Congress – as a Chicago machine politician probably has to, for genetic reasons – that are exceeded only by his acts of deference to the unions, who have never had it so good, and who were the reason for his absurd decision to put tariffs on tyres imported from China.

By the time you read this you will know whether the Democrats have lost a series of key elections held yesterday, including the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. If they do, it will reinforce the point that Mr Obama won last November because he was not the heir of George Bush, and for no other reason. The President starts to risk comparisons not just with Jimmy Carter, but with Lyndon Johnson, felled by a combination of a foreign war and welfare reform, and even, with his list of enemies, Richard Nixon. The problem may be one of immaturity and inexperience. If so, he had better learn fast. For, at this rate, next year's congressional elections start to look more than challenging for him.

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