'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

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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.

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