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The System Let Obama Be President. But He Still May Not Be Able to Beat It
Even if he is pushing the US in the right direction, it is unlikely to be far or fast enough in a political culture resisting reform
At an election night party during the primaries last year I made a throwaway comment disparaging those who believed Barack Obama's mixed-race identity gave him a unique understanding of America's racial problems.
"It does," said one woman.
I explained that I was joking. She was not. "It really does," she continued. "He knows how black people think and he knows how white people think."
"If that's what it took then Tiger Woods [whose father is of African American, Chinese and Native American descent and mother is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent] should be president and Nelson Mandela should have stayed in the Transkei," I said.
"So why's he doing so well?" she asked. I suggested it was probably his stance on the war, the state of the economy and a desire to move on from the Clinton-Bush duopoly combined with his grassroots organising experience and use of new technology.
"There's more to it than that," she said. "It's him."
It is almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Obama. The problem isn't that people come to him with baggage. Everyone comes to everything in politics with baggage. It's that they refuse to check it in or even declare it. Any conversation about what he does rapidly morphs into one about who he is and what he might be.
In New Jersey more than a third of the conservatives literally think he might be the devil. A poll last month revealed 18% of the state's conservatives know he is the antichrist, while 17% are not sure. In Oslo, where he was last week awarded the Nobel peace prize, they think he might be Mother Teresa. A peace prize for a leader, nine months into his term, whose greatest foreign policy achievement to date is to wind down one war so he can escalate another, is bizarre to say the least.
Obama's particular biography, sudden rise and unflappable manner have certainly accentuated the contradictions between how different people understand his record. But the problem goes far wider than that. An obsession with celebrity, the cult of presidential personality and a culture of individualism (all of which long predated his election) have made understanding western politicians primarily within their political context a relative rarity.
We talk instead of "great men", who as Thomas Carlyle claimed, made history independent of the society and cultures that produced them. So tales of their moods, thought processes, psychological flaws and idiosyncratic genius become paramount. The emphasis shifts from policy to personality: their inability to trust, failure to lead or willingness to compromise become the questions of the day. The fate of the world lies not so much in their hands as in their gut and mind. Whether they take tablets or not sparks national conversation.
And so for all his individual talents, the fact that Obama is the product of a certain political moment and system, and therefore represents both its potential and its limits, is lost.
Nonetheless, the potential is not difficult to see. At home his election brought together a new coalition to transform the electoral landscape. He won the vote of 97% of black Americans, 67% of Latinos and white union members, 66% of those aged between 18 and 29 and 63% of Asian Americans. Black people voted in greater numbers by 14%, Latinos by 25% and young people aged between 18 and 29 by 25%. On his coattails came substantial Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress.
He is now turning out to be the most progressive president in 40 years. The agenda he has set out of raising taxes on the rich, reforming healthcare, withdrawing from Iraq, softening the sanctions on Cuba, and boosting the number of student grants marks a far bolder vision of what government is for than either Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did.
Internationally, he remains incredibly popular, not least for who he is not – George Bush. A poll released last week revealing which country is most admired around the world showed America leaping from seventh to first. "What's really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009," explained Simon Anholt of the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index. This is about as good a result as the left is going to get out of an American election.
But the limits are also all too apparent. Being the most progressive American president in more than a generation is not the same as being progressive. It's all relative. He has escalated the war in Afghanistan, continued rendition and maintained many of the most noxious presidential prerogatives that Bush claimed for himself.
The fact that Democrats have sufficient majorities in both houses of Congress to pass whatever they want but are struggling to pass anything that would make a decisive and conclusive break with the past suggests the problem in Washington is not "partisan politics". It's a political system and culture so crowded with corporate lobbyists, that it is apparently incapable of fulfilling the wishes of the people even when – as with a public option in healthcare – that is what they want.
The fact he is a product of that system does not mean he is not necessarily dedicated to reforming it. But we cannot measure his dedication, only his achievements. And so far those achievements have not been great.
Meanwhile, he has precious little to show for his global popularity. Nobody wants to increase troop levels in Afghanistan or take in Guantánamo Bay prisoners. By the time his climate change efforts emerge from Congress they are unlikely to impress the international community. "The problem is he's asking for roughly the same things Bush asked for and Bush didn't get them, not because he was a boorish diplomat or a cowboy," Peter Feaver, a former adviser to Bush, told the New York Times recently. "If that were the case, bringing in the sophisticated, urbane President Obama would have solved the problem. Bush didn't get them because these countries had good reasons for not giving them." That's not quite true. He is asking for less and prepared to give more. But the fact remains that he wants similar things and his concessions seem insufficient.
Put simply, he doesn't seem to have the numbers to implement change on a scale necessary to relieve the pain of people and the planet. This risks great cynicism and even the possibility of a backlash. People will say we reached out and nobody reached back; we tried to reform healthcare but nothing much changed. Predicting these disappointments, from the left, has taken no great insight. Given his own politics and the range of institutions in which he is embedded, the limits have always been clear. It is the potential for overcoming them that has been an open question.
This should neither absolve Obama of his responsibilities nor ignore his considerable abilities, but simply place meaningful criticism of him here on Earth – as opposed to in heaven or hell. The fact that he is pushing the country in the right direction does not mean he is able to push it fast or far enough.
It seems the world may need more for its future health and wellbeing than what US politics can produce right now. His best may just not be good enough.