2020 vision: The Obama years were all very well, but what this country needs is the decisive might of a military man

As the make-up girl dusted and dabbed, David Petraeus could not suppress a quiet smile of satisfaction. Here he was at the end of 2019, three years in the Oval Office, with approval ratings that Ronald Reagan might have killed for – and an interview on the country's most-watched television talk show to launch what would surely be a triumphal march to re-election the following November.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that in a moment of self doubt, America had again chosen a soldier as its leader. Back in 2008, faced with a comparable crisis, the country elected its first black president. But the charismatic candidate had proved a disappointment, oddly passive when the moment demanded a call to arms, and unable to impose his will on a Congress that regarded him as a soft and youthful touch.

In the end, Barack Obama did win a second term in 2012, but only narrowly. He owed victory less to his own merits and achievements than to the internal divisions that made the Republican Party all but unelectable. Obama's opponent that year was a doctrinaire conservative who had romped through the primaries but unnerved independents and centrists. These latter, however reluctantly, went for the devil they knew in Obama.

In reality, when Obama was sworn in for that second time, the problems he faced were virtually the same as on that brave new dawn of 20 January 2009, when for an illusory moment all things seemed possible. True, the economy was growing again – but unemployment was only a whisker below 10 per cent. The budget deficit was stuck at over $1tn, the trade deficit was still huge, and the Chinese more than ever ruled the economic roost.

Obama's one stroke of fortune was the Iranian uprising of early 2011 that forced out Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and led to a deal on the country's nuclear programme, averting another and even deadlier US conflagration in the Middle East. Petraeus meanwhile, as chief of US Central Command, had done his part as well, by helping extricate the US from the seemingly endless and desperately unpopular wars in Iraq (where American troops completed their pullout in 2011), and in Afghanistan, where by 2014 the US ground presence had shrunk from over 100,000 in 2010 to a politically acceptable 10,000.

By then, however, the Obama administration was exhausted. True, versions of its signature measures to overhaul health care, energy policy and rein in financial markets, had been passed – but only after a dysfunctional Congress had virtually rewritten them, eliminating the savings and efficiencies they were meant to bring in.

But, once again, the opposition had no credible candidate. The Republicans' one star, a former governor of Alaska, had decamped to the richer pastures of television, while the party had not found a philosophy to replace the free market doctrines discredited by the financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed.

By then, the military was practically the only institution Americans trusted any longer. In late 2013 Republicans were already putting out quiet feelers to Petraeus, the military's most prestigious general, to be their standard bearer in 2016. Publicly, he demurred. In private, like General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, he signalled he would not be averse to a summons. After romping through the late primaries, Petraeus was nominated by acclamation at the Republican convention in Cleveland in August 2016, and won the White House by a landslide that November.

What matters for presidents, like generals, is not so much to be good as to be lucky – and Petraeus was. He was shrewd, always careful not to promise more than he could deliver. But he could not have bargained for the turmoil in China, as the population demanded political freedom to match their new economic prosperity – nor for the success of new technologies to extract natural gas from shale, that would drastically reduce the country's dependence on imported energy, and its huge and debilitating trade deficit. Even the dollar was strengthening, after two decades of decline.

Less tangibly, but no less important, Americans finally came to realise that terrorism was not an existential threat, while the world came to understand that the power of the US was finite, and consequently did not demand as much from Washington as before.

So one way and another, things were finally improving after the decline of the Bush and Obama years. So popular indeed was the 45th president by this Christmas of 2019 that some commentators, looking beyond the formality of re-election, urged a change in the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 2022, when he would be 70. But suddenly, the reverie of President David Petraeus was interrupted. The make-up girl was finished. The cameras of The Sarah Palin Show were ready to roll.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game