Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/10/2009 (2848 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Saturday Night Live, a comedy show, reckons his two big accomplishments are "jack" and "squat." "Yes he can" proclaims the cover of Newsweek, "(but he sure hasn't yet)".
Obama, for his part, is beginning to sound exasperated. "I never thought any of this was going to be easy," he told a crowd in New Orleans this month. "Change is hard," he said, "and big change is harder." The crowd was friendly enough, but smaller than the crowds he used to attract during the campaign, and less starry-eyed. One young mother said she didn't buy "all the hype of hope and change." Generally speaking, she reckoned the president was "on the right path." But she thought his bailouts of banks and over-leveraged homeowners were "a slap in the face for those of us who are fiscally responsible."
One reason why so many of Obama's fans are disappointed is that he promised the impossible and -- such is the power of his oratory -- got people to believe him. Time and again during the campaign, many voters were convinced that he would deliver all the goodies on his wish list without raising taxes on any but the rich. Obama did little to dispel the idea that he could work miracles.
In his inauguration speech, he declared: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Yet roughly once a week since that day, he has ordered the assassination of suspected terrorists. These assassinations, carried out with Hellfire missiles fired from hovering drones, are often messy. According to the New America Foundation, a think tank, it took 15 attempts to kill Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader in Pakistan who was finally blown to pieces in August. Hundreds of people, some of them children, have died in these drone attacks. Obama would presumably include "not killing children" among his ideals. Sometimes, however, he sets aside this ideal in the interests of safety.
That may or may not be the right thing to do. But it is absurd to pretend that there is no trade-off "between our safety and our ideals." Were that so, Obama would already have closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay; yet nearly all the prisoners he inherited are still there. Meanwhile, he says he will continue "rendering" freshly captured terror suspects to third countries. And soldiers from the United States are still being discharged for being openly gay. Is this "change we can believe in" or merely George W. Bush with panache?
At home, far from ushering in a new era of chummy bipartisanship, he seldom opens his mouth without bashing his opponents or his predecessor. "I don't mind cleaning up the mess that some other folks made," he told a group of wealthy Democratic donors. "But while I'm there mopping the floor I don't want someone saying: `You're not mopping fast enough or you're not holding the mop the right way."' His handling of the media is aggressive, too. A recent attempt to exclude Fox News, a conservative network, from a pooled interview with the White House pay czar was so crude that even liberal networks objected.
Measured against the expectations of those who bought pictures of him riding a unicorn, Obama's presidency has been a failure. Measured by a more reasonable yardstick, however, it has seen solid successes. For a start, the financial system appears to have stabilized. Continuing where Bush left off, Obama intervened to prop up ailing banks and insurers, thereby probably averting catastrophe. The bailout may cost him votes, but it was necessary. And though the economy is still in a terrible state, it could now be through the worst.
His big domestic reforms are taking time, but this is hardly surprising. He wants to reshape the one-sixth of the economy that is health care. This would affect almost everyone who expects to die someday. The details must be agreed on by a super-majority of senators, all of them opinionated and some of them nervous about re-election. Small wonder the deal has not yet been sealed. Cap-and-trade will be next, but since this would reallocate trillions of dollars and affect everyone who uses energy, it could prove even more contentious. Immigration reform, meanwhile, seems to be receding into the future.
Obama's election has dramatically improved the United States' image abroad. That surely counts for something, even if it has yet to pay tangible dividends. He has unnerved the U.S.' trading partners by caving in to congressional pressure for protectionism, but he has not sparked a full-blown trade war. He is pulling out of Iraq gradually and sensibly. His preference for talking to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea has so far yielded no substantial benefits, but diplomacy is seldom swift. His strategy for Afghanistan is up in the air. His indecision alarms hawks, but others contrast his cool deliberation favorably with his predecessor's impetuousness.
The best test of Obama's presidency is not whether he changes things quickly but whether he changes them for the better. Perhaps, as the economy starts to recover, he will lay down a path toward fixing the budget. Perhaps his health reforms will curb costs. Perhaps he can reach a deal with Iran, and set up a cap-and-trade system. It is still too early to know any of this: but in the next few months, the U.S. and the world will start to see whether he can or he can't.