“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” You have to hand it to Joe Biden; the vice-president produced one of the White House’s best soundbites about Barack Obama’s first term as he kicked off the reelection campaign early this year. But that succinct tribute, and the longer tallies of achievements that followed, have failed to check the rising chorus of attacks from the president’s one-time supporters. Many who voted Democrat in 2008 now accuse their former hero of diffidence and lack of vision. Their wavering support—or even outright opposition—is Obama’s greatest threat in November.
It’s been a long four years, since those crying, cheering, disbelieving crowds greeted Obama as the first black president of the United States. America, like many other “rich” nations, has struggled to shake off recession and hold its place in the world. Those who never liked Obama now hate him, invoking all kinds of episodes from the first term to call him a communist, while the claim that he is not actually an American citizen, once comic for its stubbornness in denying documentary evidence, now seems the settled view of a significant number of Republican voters.
What is new is the venom towards Obama, or at least, a kind of aggressive dismay, voiced in publications whose editorials were rapturous at his election. David Brooks in the New York Times accused him of being merely reactive, and of failing to say what he would do with a second term. “The magic is gone,” pronounced Ross Douthat in the same pages, accusing the president of addressing the Democrat convention with “a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate.” The Washington Post rated Bill Clinton’s convention performance more highly.
They have a point—certainly about the convention. Obama, on the stage, looked like an academic, not a leader: suit too capacious for his narrow body, gesturing with fingers and thumb pinched together like someone deconstructing a thesis, not exhorting a nation to summon yet more effort to overcome a shared ordeal. He has the intensity and the voice for big speeches, but not the words (and his speechwriting team has hardly helped him override his native caution). Bill Clinton easily outclassed Obama; big-shouldered, expansive, talking of hope, the former president reminded everyone of the best of the 1990s (while his silver hair, heart surgery and enduring marriage seem to have caused them all to forget Monica Lewinsky). Hillary upstaged the president, too—from 7,000 miles away in China, bringing an assertive statesmanship to her speeches as secretary of state that has often eluded Obama.
But Obama’s achievements on the economy, security and healthcare are still great enough to make the criticism look like carping. He has driven these policies through a Congress that is consumed by inter-party warfare, reflecting the deep split in the country between Republican red and Democrat blue. The question of whether America has become ungovernable—whether its political system can actually deliver an answer to its debt and other threats to its prosperity and sense of unity—is taking on real force.
So if people say they’re now disappointed, it’s fair to ask—what did they expect? Obama has taken to protesting that he was “never going to be the perfect president,” an embarrassingly plaintive lament, but a fair one.
Obama’s best days were the first ones—even before the inauguration in January 2009. Shortly after his election, he called the emergency meetings that laid the ground for his greatest achievements: pushing the Bush administration to double the bank bailout to $700bn, and injecting $787bn into the economy. Those go a long way to explain why the US is faring better now than even the strongest parts of Europe.
His healthcare reforms were the target of political warfare that went all the way to the Supreme Court. But his achievement was to break a second taboo: that any president who pursued healthcare reform would be mortally wounded. Analysts are still arguing over whether his legislation raised costs or cut them but it did remove America’s great disgrace: that the world’s richest country left 32m of its people without proper access to medical care.
Obama has, too, got US troops out of Iraq, a bitterly unpopular war. In directing the assassination of bin Laden he has paved the way for an exit from Afghanistan (Britain’s, too). He did, indeed, kill bin Laden and other terrorists with drone flights and military incursions into Pakistan, shooting holes in his claim to be a champion of international justice (nor has he closed the Guantánamo prison, one of his most forthright pledges on taking office). But on Iran, he seems properly reluctant to mount airstrikes on its disputed nuclear programme, acknowledging the turmoil that would follow—a clear difference from Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Agreed, he has plenty of “flaws,” as the ponderous language of Washington analysis puts it. The best charge against him is that he has nothing to say on the deficit, the issue that dominates all others. It’s Medicare, the healthcare scheme for the elderly, that is the most damaging to the US’s future finances, even more than pensions. Here, Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has a clear answer, but his prescription of cuts is so politically toxic that it rattles even Republican strategists. Obama’s best retort is that his healthcare reforms have laid the ground for further ones.
His foreign policy has been undeniably fitful. He followed his famous Cairo speech which set out to mend relations with the Arab world—an ambitious and important aim—with a pledge to be tough on Israel over illegal building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which he could not uphold. The Arab Spring then produced confusion in Washington, the administration confronted with the old contradiction that America’s main allies in the region are the least democratic. Europe’s turmoil yielded an exasperated yelp from his team to those governments of “sort it out fast”—but only belatedly an acknowledgement of the cash—and US role in negotiations—it would take to do this.
But on China, he has restrained Congress from a trade war. Hillary Clinton has also helped him there with her tough judiciousness (as she has done in the Arab world).
Yes, the gibes at his personal style strike home. As one longtime senior Democratic adviser says, Obama is not good at walking up to a senator or member of the House and putting his arm around their shoulder “but he’s going to have to do more of what is hard for him” if elected again. The accusation that he is a conciliator, seeking the compromise between conflicting positions rather than fluently arguing for his own, rings true. But the charge that he is vacuous in supporting unity for its own sake is too harsh. In a divided country, that language is indispensable.
And he faces tougher obstacles than did George W Bush or Bill Clinton. Most of his achievements came in the first two years, when he secured the economic stimulus, health insurance, and reform of Wall Street. Since the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, the new Congress has passed less legislation than any since 1947.
Of course, there is the old argument that the famous checks and balances on power set out by the Constitution are designed to produce an outcome that, to European eyes, can be mistaken for gridlock. But it’s new that the red and blue camps are almost equally strong, and that the rift is so bitter, with many members of the House of Representatives apparently uninterested in compromise. In his first two years, Obama tried to work with Republican leaders; he has largely given up, and now passes what he can by executive order.
Above all, it’s wrong to make light of his achievement in breaking the racial barrier. Until it happened, it seemed impossible. In the days after the 2008 election, Lynette Clemetson, managing editor of The Root, a black-focused website, said she couldn’t see a picture of Michelle Obama and her daughters without thinking: “Those three black women will be living in the White House and they won’t be cooking there, and they won’t be cleaning there. They will be living there.”
So, sure, concede Obama his embarrassingly plaintive request and acknowledge that he is not perfect. But he is still the most thoughtful, disciplined, committed president that America has produced for years. For a country whose rifts are deeper than for decades, grappling with debt that threatens a future of decline, governed by an inspired Constitution conceived in an utterly different time, this is as good as it gets.