Saturday, April 9, 2011


Barack Obama and the United States are both doing a little better than Americans seem to believe
It takes an effort these days to recall the thrill that surged through the
world when Barack Obama was elected America’s president. It was not
only that he was the first black person to assume the globe’s greatest
office. He seemed to be preternaturally thoughtful, dignified and decent; a
man who could heal America’s wounds at home and restore its reputation
abroad. Though too many were swept away in a collective longing to see
hope triumph over experience, none of it seemed wholly unreasonable at
the time. Yes, many thought, he can.
Two years later, the magnitude of the let-down is palpable everywhere;
and at home the president is caught in a vice. To many on the left, he is a
cowardly compromiser, whose half-baked plans to get America back to
work have done little to help those who voted for him, and whose healthcare
and financial reforms were gutted at the behest of special interests.
To many on the right, he seems a doctrinaire spendthrift who has
squandered trillions of dollars on wasteful bureaucracy, mortgaging the
future while failing to grapple with the present. To centrists who backed
him, including this newspaper, he has been a disappointment, his skills as
a president falling far short of his genius as a campaigner.
Awaiting a thumping
Consider the main reason why Americans are angry: the economy. The
slow pace of job re-creation is primarily the result of consumers and
companies trying to rebuild their finances. Balance-sheet recessions
always take time to recover from. Mr Obama is guilty of promising that the
pain would be over sooner than was ever likely. But he did not cause the
bust, and he deserves more credit than he is getting for steering America
clear of a much worse fate, especially considering the constraints of a
political system designed to make big changes difficult. He was right to go
for a big, bold and immediate stimulus plan. He has been right to resist,
with minor exceptions, calls for a wave of protectionism. He is guilty of
having no credible medium-term plan to reduce the deficit. But then nor
do the Republicans; and it was they, after all, who oversaw the tax cuts,
the entry into two wars and the financial collapse that are the source of
most of America’s gigantic deficit.
In other policy areas, too, Mr Obama has got some big things right. He
was correct to try to deal with a dreadful system that leaves tens of
millions of Americans without access to health cover, though he should
probably have postponed doing so until the economy had recovered. In
foreign policy, he has made generally sensible decisions about Iraq and
Afghanistan. Many of the people he has retained or put in place have done
well, including his ex-rival, Hillary Clinton.
So what went wrong? The answer is a series of smaller things—rhetoric,
details, execution, even an aloof vagueness—that have cumulatively
undermined his presidency. He has made enemies of the businessmen who
are needed to drive forward America’s recovery, haranguing them as fat
cats and speculators. He has even, as we report here, forfeited the
goodwill of America’s most dynamic and entrepreneurial asset. Silicon
Valley, which once saw Mr Obama as a promising start-up, now sees him
as a bad investment.
His decision to leave details to others has also cost him dearly. By
choosing to subcontract the stimulus, health reform and finance reform to
the Democratic leadership, he ended up with shoddy bills that Republicans
could safely vote against and that many Democrats are now anxious to
distance themselves from. A more accomplished president would have
controlled that process better, and found ways to make the Republicans
offers that they could not refuse. Mr Obama’s macroeconomic soundness
has been undermined by the Democrats’ tendency to meddle with
microeconomics, leading to a health bill that imposes onerous
requirements on business and a stimulus bill larded with pro-union
America is now an uncharacteristically uncertain place. Abroad it seems
unsure of who its friends and enemies are. At home there are too many
imponderables: over how the health bill will play out in practice; over what
might happen to energy prices if carbon-pricing is resurrected via
executive action; most of all, over what Mr Obama can do about those
yawning deficits. People do not like uncertainty; so if Americans are angry,
it is hardly surprising.
Cheer up
Mr Obama seems curiously unable to perceive, let alone respond to, the
grievances of middle America, and has a dangerous habit of dismissing
tea-partiers and others who disagree with him as deluded, evil or just
bitter. The silver tongue that charmed America during the campaign has
been replaced by a tin ear. Some blame this on an emotional detachment
his difficult upbringing forced on him, others on the fact that he has lived
all his life among tribal Democrats. Whatever the reason, he does not
seem to feel America’s pain, and looks unable either to capitalise on his
administration’s achievements or to project an optimistic vision for the
Which ought not to be so hard. Despite its problems, America has far more
going for it than its current mood suggests. It is still the most innovative
economy on earth, the place where the world’s greatest universities meet
the world’s deepest pockets. Its demography is favourable, with a high
birth rate and limitless space into which to expand. It has a flexible and
hard-working labour force. Its ultra-low bond yields are a sign that the
world’s investors still think it a good long-term bet. The most enterprising
individuals on earth still clamour to come to America. And it still has a
talented president who can surely do better than he has thus far.

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