Adrian Hamilton: From 'Yes, we can' to 'No, we can't'

Great presidents make the political weather; yet Obama is hobbled by America’s recession
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The Independent Online

If the year 2009 started with the promise of a new President coming to power in America, it is ending with the picture of just how limited is that power, not just for himself but for America as a whole.

The fractious end to the Copenhagen talks on climate change, the deepening impasse in the Middle East, the hesitant commitment of more troops to Afghanistan, the intensifying confrontation with Iran – it is hard to avoid the feeling that somehow a President who promised so much has been unable to break free of the past and that his moment is somehow now passing. The President who set out to be so different from his predecessor, George W Bush, is now being compared more and more to Bush Senior, a man of decency, pragmatism and good intentions, who ended his single term not so much as a failure but as an also ran in the list of America's best leaders.

What Bush Senior lacked, of course, and what Obama has in great measure, is the rhetoric of aspiration and change. If Obama's critics now accuse him of achieving change more of tone than substance, it's still worth a lot. Just as President Bush Jr disturbed many of his allies and upset much of the world by his language of unilateralism and his ideological fervour, so Obama's replacement of that with a language of consensus, practicality and multilateralism has served to change the perception of the US through much of the world. The fact is that he has stepped back from his predecessor's unqualified support for Israel and unremitting confrontation with Iran. He has set a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq and he has opened up a new dialogue with Russia.

And yet there has been in Obama's first year a growing contradiction between the rhetoric of hope, of which he is such a master, and the reality of the constraints about him, of which he has become a victim. Great presidents may make the weather, but Obama has had more than his share of difficulties. It's not his fault, after all, that China still sees itself as the victim of climate change not its generator; that Iran's disputed election has thrown that country's political system into crisis and pushed it further towards confrontation with the West, or that Israel's new government has adopted policies inimical towards a peace settlement.

In greeting a new President quite so enthusiastically the world forgot, as it always forgets, that presidents are ruled by domestic considerations and are finally creatures of what they can achieve against domestic political constraint. They can try to break out of the shackles of Congress by using America's clout abroad in a way they cannot at home. Indeed the tighter the constrictions at home, the more presidents have tried to do abroad. But, while they can sometimes improve their popularity rating within the country by their perceived success outside, as President Nixon did for a time, they are more often damned by their failures, as Jimmy Carter found to his cost.

Obama's burden – tragedy if you would have it – is that, from the very first, he has been hobbled by the financial catastrophe and economic downturn that has hit the US and every other country. Not only has it caused the world to revise their perceptions of America's power and authority, it has also forced the new President to keep looking backwards for fear of the accusation that he is more interested in the world outside than in his own patch.

Thus it was that, in deciding to send more troops to Afghanistan, Obama was forced to couch his decision within the terms of how much it would cost and how there were limits to the price America could bear – a thought inconceivable to George W Bush and most preceding presidents, all of whom couched their forays in terms of an America that could go anywhere and do anything at any time. Thus it was that the President, in going to Copenhagen, also had to emphasise that, in reaching any agreement on carbon emissions, he had to think primarily of American jobs and prosperity – a plea that aroused little sympathy from China and the other developing countries.

The world can't have it both ways, of course, although many – the Africans and the Arabs especially – would have an America that intervenes on their side whilst keeping out of their internal affairs. Barack Obama, to his great credit, has been surprisingly honest about the limits of American power and equally open to dialogue with all, Burma as much as Iran. But his strength is also his weakness. He would see all sides of an argument and thus seek consensus, whether it be on healthcare at home or Afghanistan abroad.

Nowhere was this more manifest than his speech earlier this month accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace. It was a prize that he had not sought and was clearly embarrassed at accepting (a more experienced president would have sidestepped at the start). Nonetheless it was a masterly exposition of why a peace-loving country might have to go to war, why an ethical state might still have to deal with ruthless ones, why taking life and preserving it were worthy and even compatible aims. What it didn't say is where you drew the line between competing pressures, at what point you had to decide between rather than seek for compatibility of the contradictory.

Left to himself I think Obama would pursue a far more even-handed approach to Middle East peace and a far more limited military action in Afghanistan. But he hasn't been left alone. Domestic considerations mean that he cannot face down Israel as President Bush Sr once did (only half-successfully). In the same way, having promised to be tough in Afghanistan while retreating in Iraq, Obama was effectively bounced into a surge in Afghanistan once the details of the military's requests were leaked. Not to accede to the military's advice posed more of a political challenge than going along with them.

In the end, his prospects for a second term will rest with America's prospects for recovery from recession. With luck, and with some quite effective policies he and his team have put in place, the US will grow again, unemployment will fall and recovery will prove sustained. But for the world at large, the moment of hope is passing. The President who carried so many hopes for a decisive break from the past now seems a more ordinary politician left coping with its residue.