Bruce Anderson: Is this President really strong enough?

A year on from the inauguration, worship of Obama has given way to disillusionment
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The Independent Online

Disappointment was inevitable. Barack Obama is not divine. Yet even a strenuous God would have had difficulty in coping with the weight of expectations which descended on him. Even in human terms, there was nothing in his background to suggest he possessed exceptional ability. A first-term Senator, he had made no significant legislative contribution. He had become well-known, because of his colour and because he was just about the most left-wing member of the Senate. But he was one of the least experienced Presidents of all time.

There was a further difficulty. No-one knew what he stood for. The left-wingery was quickly dumped when he hit the Presidential hustings, without being replaced by anything coherent. Candidate Obama behaved like a British Liberal candidate. He invited the voters to write letters to Santa Claus, and promised to deliver the presents. So was he still a closet Leftie? Or was he the equivalent of the young Tony Blair: a left-winger in order to commend himself to the party activists, who moved to the centre as soon as politics became serious? Or was there a third alternative: that Barrack Obama did not really know what he believed? That seems much the most likely.

This creates a problem. Politics is hard enough for those who do know what they believe. Without a political and moral compass, it is impossible to navigate a passage through the wild seas and the wrecking rocks. The keynote of the Obama presidency has been tentativeness. It is as if he were working as an electrician without knowing much about electronics: sneaking a squint at the textbook whenever the householder was not looking.

The health reforms are an obvious example. I have never understood why it is impossible to devise a universal system of insurance-based health care for all Americans. The current arrangements, which effectively force those without cover to use accident and emergency departments, are not as inhumane as European liberals allege. But they are inefficient and wasteful. It ought to be possible to devise something like the French model. Not that much more expensive than the UK one, it more or less satisfies those notoriously hard-to-please French.

Whatever the answer, it would require a great deal of hard thinking. There should be an attempt to reach a consensus. If that proved impossible, the effort would not have been wasted. The issues and alternatives would have been clarified in a rigorous debate.

There was none of that. Instead, partisanship and thoughtlessness prevailed. The result? No one knows. Although a Bill will be passed, there is widespread dissatisfaction. That could be a good sign, if it indicated a closely-argued, hard-fought compromise between idealists and sceptics. But there has been none of that. The Democrats used their majority to force through rather think through. Increasingly, a number of Democrats became doubtful as their constituents protested. This explains the confusion, tentativeness and complexity of the current draft. It also helps to explain its likely cost. In the words of the American journalist P.J. O'Rourke: "If you think health care is expensive now, just wait until it's free".

Over long years, America has displayed the ability to innovate its way out of any difficulty which has confronted it. We can only hope that this elemental vigour is unimpaired, because Congress has legislated for the most almighty future confrontations. Medi-care, Medicaid and now health-care reform: even on the most optimistic assumptions about future growth rates, the costs of these and other entitlement programmes could easily break the budget. Congressmen have got into the habit of voting for measures which will involve huge expenditure in future years and then brushing aside all anxieties: "Don't worry – the next decade will pay". Posterity may come to curse them. In the interim, a Republican administration may have to reform Mr Obama's health reforms.

The travails over health help to explain why Obama-worship has given way to realism, and to disillusionment. It merges in to the questions about his core beliefs and values. A lot of voters who still like Mr Obama have begun to wonder whether he is strong enough to be President. The Presidency is a peculiar office. At moments, presidents can seem so strong; five minutes later, so constrained. For all the talk about the imperial presidency, many presidents might well have envied the power that a British prime minister enjoys, with a whipped Parliamentary majority rather than a fractious Congress.

An American president will only be strong if he can use the White House as a bully pulpit, in Theodore Roosevelt's phrase. Mr Obama has been unable to do this, because he is not good enough in the pulpit. This is not only due to lack of political conviction; the man is not that good a speaker. Last year's Inaugural Address was hailed as a blend of "I have a dream", the Gettysburg Address and the Sermon on the Mount. Yet the delivery was uninspired and there was not a single memorable phrase. On the big occasions, George Bush was a much better speaker.

The Inauguration highlights a further disappointment. A year ago, President Obama's prestige was unlimited. Nobody wanted to be the first foreign leader to diss him. Even the Israelis were wary. If anyone could relaunch the Israel/Palestine peace process, it was Mr Obama. So what has happened? Nothing. Nobel Peace Prize? The President deserves a Nobel prize for ineffectuality, to be shared with Tony Blair and Senator George Mitchell. All their combined efforts have achieved combined efforts have achieved zilch. The odds on an eventual tragedy are much shorter.

A year ago, we should have all taken the odds against Mr Obama winning a second term. Now, they too will be much shorter. If the Republicans could find a decent candidate, the President would be beatable. But that is still a big "if". Sarah Palin is the feminists' nightmare. If Lefties believed in scaring naughty children, they would use her name to do so. God knows what they say about her in the Quai d'Orsay. Even so, that does not qualify her to be President of the United States. One suspects that she would be Barack Obama's preferred candidate. For that reason alone, Republicans should look elsewhere.

Barack Obama is not a bad man. But he is not a good President. He will not deserve to be re-elected.

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