The defining moment of Obama’s first term as president came late; during his re-election campaign in fact. It was at the first debate, in which he was overwhelmed by Romney’s slick fusillade of outrageous lies, and barely even noticed. Obama appeared bored and aloof, a lecturer-in-chief suffocating the nation in dour statistical sludge; he was by all estimates thrashed.
It was to this anticrescendo that his entire presidency had built: here he was, having promised so much, exposed as a mumbling dud with no fight and fewer ideas. His lack of fight that night demonstrated once and for all that he wasn’t and could never be that great, transformative crusader we had all hoped for. The pattern of the past four years was obvious, finally: fine talk in high-fallutin’ speeches, followed by enthusiastic capitulations to opponents whom he hadn’t the gumption to fight.
And now we’re here at the crest of his second inauguration. The rhetoric is so lofty we’re all a little shaky from lack of oxygen, and because he hasn’t had any time to dither yet, everyone’s started calling him a ‘great president’ again. They are, as ever, dead wrong.
In 2008, we were promised there’d be a backlash to the first Obama buzz. That came true; there was no way that amount of post-racial self-congratulation could have sustained itself for long. But the backlash we eventually got wasn’t just rightwing catcalling – with every fresh failed defence of his own corner Obama increasingly came to resemble the weakling his enemies said he was - he enjoyed years of mid-to-low-40s approval ratings for good reason, while the Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 2010 midterm elections belongs to Obama’s inability to impose himself over the relentless rightwing noise machine.
Yes, he was beset by a Republican Party of unprecedented truculence, but it’s his own fault that he let them do it. Cast your minds back to 2008, 2009 and 2010: every time Republican Central Command invented a grand new lie to bash him with – which they did on practically a daily basis – their entire party apparatus would be howling it as one from the mountaintop within the hour.
Obama’s inability to issue rebuttals even half as strident was the only other constant in this equation: giant steaming whoppers like the Obamacare death panels, the ACORN ‘scandal’, and the daft notion that Obama is in any way, shape or form a socialist, could be allowed to grow into comfortable adulthood with fallacious little children of their own before the White House would apparently even notice them.
It was this steely determination to fight fire with kindling that would sow the seeds for Obama’s hugest failure: his 2010 shellacking. A British audience might reasonably ask why it needs to be so bothered with American parliamentary elections, especially as they happen every two years. But you should be bothered. 2010 was a census year, which means redistricting. The red tide that swept in that year tucked into some hearty gerrymandering, entrenching Republican majorities at state and national level for a generation, and it was Obama’s lack of spine what lost it.
The most popular criticism of the man from the left is his aggressive expansion of the USA’s programme of unmanned drone strikes in the Middle East. It may keep boots off the ground, but it apparently kills without discrimination: children, the elderly, wedding parties. It’s unaccountable, working to a kill list that they pretended didn’t exist – a fact that runs totally at odds with the promises of transparency, peacefulness and law his campaign lead with in 2008. The drone programme represents nothing more than a total avowal of the steroidal neoliberal militarism for which the world has always hated America. Chuck in all the failures to move on wiretapping, copyright, meaningful financial regulation and the rest, and you get a whole raft of pretty broken campaign promises.
His policy failures are perhaps to be expected. No true leftie could ever rise to the highest office in red-meat America. The best you’ll ever get is a left-teetering centrist, and we should never expect Obama to be a peacenik in the bellicose context of the American bearpit. The fact that he’s managed to dial down a war and a half should be celebrated, even if it has taken him four bloody years.
Then again, ask yourselves this: whatever happened to the Wall Street regulation we were promised? Where are the prosecutions? Why aren’t jails filled with short-sellers, Ponzi-schemers and LIBOR manipulators?
You can talk about all these achievements of his - the stimulus, Obamacare, the recovery - but they were half-assed. The stimulus, at $787bn, was far too small and resulted in an anaemic recovery, while in no sane world should Obamacare be considered decent legislation. At best it covers more people and closes a few of the more outrageous loopholes in the still-worse previous system, but the act of mandating people to buy private health insurance is a bizarro-world notion of universal coverage. The idea, a free-marketeer’s happy dream, was originally Republican.
And before you say it, no, this isn’t the best he could have got. He shouldn’t have taken single-payer off the table. He had the majority, but took the better option off the table in the name of deal-making. A stronger president would have whipped his caucus harder and used the control of Congress he enjoyed in his early years to force through a better bill, instead of doing his opponents’ negotiating for him.
This pattern repeated itself throughout his first term, across budgets, debt ceilings and tax raises. At no point did Obama have the upper hand. He’d vascillate, cower and pontificate, and all he had to show for it was a rampant GOP claiming victory after victory, all leading to 2012.
I suppose you could try and pin this all on Republican intransigence. They were, I will admit, quite monumentally obstreperous, but only one man expected any differently, and consistently refused to use his bully pulpit to do any kind of battle. And with yesterday’s speech, so ripe with grandiloquent promise, is just going to lead into four more years of the same.