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Hope and luck

Can Barack Obama do what Bill Clinton did and comeback from the political dead?

By Edward Luce

If anyone had been asked in 1994 to provide a two-year assessment of Bill Clinton's performance, even supporters would have had a difficult time mustering a strong case. Two years into what we now know was president Clinton's first term, a fair observer might have described him as inept, overreaching, unpopular and almost certainly a one-term president.

As for the first lady, Hillary, whose ill-drafted healthcare plan helped bring the Democratic Party to a crushing mid-term defeat, whatever political ambitions she might have harboured could be safely written off. History, of course, has already rendered a different verdict.

As those who write the hurried 'first draft of history', journalists can often be embarrassed by what they had once written long ago. It is with that cautionary parallel in mind that this journalist weighs up President Obama's performance at the halfway mark—or indeed, quarter-way mark—of his White House tenure.

Things, to put it mildly, have not got gone according to plan so far. To be sure, in his strikingly sombre inaugural address in January 2009, which, by some estimates, was the most watched television event in history, America's 44th president warned of the "gathering clouds and raging storms". He added: "No less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable and that the next generation must lower its sights..."

Then, as is often his wont, the young President pivoted sharply. Icy currents were replaced by sunlit uplands. This was the moment "to set aside childish things". He continued: "On this day we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

If only President Obama had been half-right. What went wrong? And will it eventually start to go right? Casting posterity aside, this journalist would suggest there are three tactical errors that can be laid at Obama's door that explain why the backlash against his presidency came so quickly and with such force. None of these transgressions comes close to justifying the instant and enduring vituperation with which Obama was greeted by America's conservative movement—both the Republican Party and its allied radicals in the various Tea Party groups. But these errors, both of commission and omission, help explain why Obama may have been so late in recognising the challenge posed by his ill-wishers.

The first, and easiest to illustrate, was Obama's tendency to stoke expectations way beyond his capacity to meet them—and way after he needed to do so (his inaugural words, for example, were spoken almost 80 days after he was elected). People in the Obama transition team glibly offered parallels with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps forgetting that it took a lot longer than FDR's fabled 100 days to push through his most enduring achievements.

Even without the economic crisis, Obama more than tee-ed himself up to disappoint his swelling army of supporters, hundreds of thousands of whom gave up their time—and some, their jobs—to volunteer in one form or another for his campaign. They drank the Kool-Aid. But in retrospect it seems clear that Obama himself, and his close-knit inner circle, had been swigging from the same bottle.

It was excessive for Obama to have promised the oceans would stop rising, and the planet would begin to heal, on the day he took the Democratic nomination the previous year. But it was borderline reckless to promise an end to division and disunity as he took the oath of office. In addition, Obama's almost ethereal self-confidence served as a provocation to the millions of Americans who clearly wished him to fail.

Obama's second error was to underestimate the severity of the economic crisis. In spite of pushing through a $787 billion fiscal stimulus within his first few days in office and releasing the second half of George W Bush's $700 billion troubled asset relief program for the banks, in hindsight we now know that a great deal more was required to revivify the US economy. Evidence of the Obama administration's relative insouciance about the direction of the US economy can be found in its first formal budget which was submitted in February 2009 and which predicted that unemployment would not exceed 8 per cent.

The fact that joblessness topped 10 per cent a few months later—and the fact that the official numbers understate almost by half the number without jobs because they drop out of the labour force altogether—was perhaps the defining body blow to the Obama administration's credibility. Obama and his economic team expected a V-shaped recovery. But at the time there were legions of economists arguing otherwise. Obama's declining approval ratings closely tracked the rise in joblessness and remain, like unemployment, in a bad place.

The third, and closely related, error was to embark on all manner of initiatives that had nothing to do with fixing the economy—the overwhelming number one concern of all Americans according to every poll taken since Obama took office. Of these, healthcare reform, which may well, as time goes on, cause historians to think of Obama more positively, was the most egregious in the eyes of the American voters. To healthcare could be added the cap and trade bill and attempts at immigration reform. The latter two failed.

But it was healthcare, and the manner in which it was pursued, that turned the electorate sour on the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. Whether it was the backroom deals with the various healthcare lobby groups, or the fact that wavering Democrats took the bill hostage to win pork-barrel funding for pet projects in their home states, Americans recoiled at the spectacle of legislative sausage-making. It confirmed all their worst prejudices about the ethics of lawmakers. And it left in tatters Obama's promise of transforming the way Washington does business.

Many on the right, of course, did not want any kind of sausage in the first place. But the manner in which it was made offered them a political windfall that helped put life into the emerging Tea Party movement. That movement, which offers no realistic answers to America's deepening structural problems and only scorn towards their country's first black president, is now in a position to wreak further damage on Obama's presidency.

Which brings us back to Bill Clinton. Readers may have noticed that this essay has not mentioned Obama and the world—or any aspect of his foreign policy. There is plenty to say on the subject, some of which is much more positive. But if it was "the economy, stupid" in 1992, then in 2010 it is "the economy, stupid" cubed.

Obama's fortunes, and those of his country, will not principally depend on whether he can close Guantanamo Bay, or push through further nuclear warhead cuts with Russia—important as these goals may be. Without doubt they will rest principally on Obama's ability to restore the US economy to growth in the short term and lay the foundations for a new period of sustained growth in the medium.

Whether Obama can do this will depend in the immediate future on luck and the US Federal Reserve. Beyond that it will hinge on whether he can win a second term in 2012. The latter, in turn, will depend on his ability to outsmart his Republican opponents over the next two years.

James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, once said: "The more I practise at golf, the luckier I get." Clinton got steadily better at the tactical skills of governing as time wore on. The same may also be true of Obama. Given the alternatives, friends of America should be wishing President Obama all the luck in the world.