'Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job': from satire to fact

Out of America: 'The Onion' published a spoof headline back in 2008 which surely foresaw this weekend

Share
Related Topics

Yes, here in Washington, as in Britain, it's been Syria, Syria, Syria. But first, an anniversary congratulation. Last week, The Onion, which was peddling satire in the US long before Jon Stewart's Daily Show was even a gleam in a producer's eye, celebrated its 25th birthday, as a minor national institution. Not bad for a publication founded as a lark by a couple of University of Wisconsin undergraduates back in 1988, and thus named, the story goes, because the pair were so hard up they were subsisting on bread and onions.

Over the years, The Onion has had some terrific headlines, but few better than its offering on 5 November 2008, the day after Barack Obama's historic election triumph. For The Onion, though, it was a case of "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job". The piece noted that "in his new high-stress, low-reward position as President of the United States", Obama would have to overhaul the country's broken economy, repair its crumbling infrastructure, and generally cater to the every whim of more than 300 million Americans on a daily basis.

And, it continued, "as part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person [John McCain] even bothered applying for it". As these last few days in the life of Barack Obama have shown, the best satire comes true.

Seven months into his second term, Obama has had to deal with all of the above and more. By and large, he's made a reasonable fist of things. Economic recovery is starting to look self-sustaining. He's rammed through Congress something close to universal health coverage. He's cleared up various other messes bequeathed by George W Bush, rescuing the car industry, and getting the US out of Iraq and (next year) Afghanistan. He even caught and killed Osama bin Laden. And all this in the teeth of unprecedented Republican obstructionism, that by his opponents' explicit admission, aimed to make his job not just bad, but downright untenable.

Last Wednesday, however, should have been different. That day saw a ceremony on the Washington Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. For the first black president, living proof of King's dream come true, this was a moment when, surely, his job would be for once the nation's very best. Not so. The weather was awful, wet and sticky, and the celebration oddly insubstantial, almost irrelevant. Obama delivered a decent speech, but his mind, like most other people's, was surely elsewhere, consumed by Syria. Not so much whether to attack or not to attack – but when to attack and how.

How, he must wonder, has it come to this? As a little-known Illinois state senator, he had criticised his predecessor's invasion of Iraq long before it took place. He had pulled US troops out of Iraq, and soon would do the same in Afghanistan. His foreign policy goal was a "pivot to Asia", whereby America would focus on the world's most dynamic and fast-growing region. Yet now he was being sucked back into the quicksands of the Middle East, into what might prove as "dumb" a war as the one he had excoriated in 2002.

His every instinct told him to stay out of Syria. Yet now he stood on the brink of a conflict in which the US would be fighting, in effect, on the same side as its sworn foe al-Qa'ida. The campaign, he promised, would be short and purely punitive. But the supremely analytical Obama knows as well as his generals that war, once unleashed, can be impossible to control. The first casualty of any military campaign, it is said, is the plan. What if the other side retaliates? What then would be the exit strategy?

The problem is partly of Obama's own making. Had he not publicly made the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime a "red line", his freedom of manoeuvre would be greater. Instead, he is a prisoner of his own rhetoric. American presidents cannot give hostages to fortune and expect to get away with it.

Failure to deliver on threats, we are told, will dent the credibility of the only country that can aspire to the role of global policeman. If Assad can get away with it, the mullahs in Tehran are presumed to believe, so can they get away with building a nuclear bomb. More bluntly put, America must not lose face, even if that means going it alone in a war about which his countrymen are deeply ambivalent. They loathe chemical weapons but, polls suggest, they loathe even more the prospect of another draining, costly and probably futile intervention, and one that will probably merely inflame further the ancestral sectarian antagonisms of the region.

So again, what if Assad raises the stakes? Britain on Thursday considered that possibility and said, no thanks. And here too, once the thrill of "Shock and Awe", Damascus-style, has worn off, Congress (which will not be allowed a vote on the matter) could feel the same way as Westminister. Yet by the time you read this, the first salvoes of US cruise missiles may have struck Syrian territory.

One day, of course, the Syrian crisis too will end. But other problems loom. Stifle the yawn, but this autumn, another government shutdown is threatened, along with another showdown with Republicans over the federal debt ceiling, a rerun of summer 2011. There is one new twist. His opponents, who control the House of Representatives, say they will block funding for Obamacare, his bitterly won health-care reform whose key provisions take effect in 2014, unless they have their way. At moments like these, you wonder why anyone wants to be president. The Onion had it right. Black guy landed with the nation's worst job.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?