Matthew Norman: Obama: an enigma instead of a leader

One minute the President is a cool, aloof sophisticate who refuses to affect the belief that ranting would stop the flow of oil. The next he strikes a tone of synthetic moral outrage
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a race on which a small fortune rests, fellow compulsive gamblers will confirm, there is often a moment of doubt when your horse comes under pressure and for an agonising while, it's unclear whether what looked a magnificent beast in the paddock is the thoroughbred you took it to be or yet another arthritic mule.

With Barack Obama, that moment has arrived. Those of us who bet the mortgage a couple of years ago must face the fear that, like so many hugely promising colts, he hasn't trained on. Try as we might, the question cannot be suppressed. Have we backed another schtummer after all?

The current consensus in the United States, where admittedly they lack the necessary perspective to make the judgement, is that we have; that the man hailed as the messiah is, at best, a very average presidential boy indeed. Obama remains under incessant fire from left, right and centre over everything from his tonally confused response to the oil spill, via last week's unnervingly Blairesque appearance on a daytime chat show, to his deliberate neo-Marxist ruination of the thriving economy he inherited from George W Bush.

If the latter's re-election in 2004 confirmed how tough it is, for the breathing, to be a one-term US president, the failure of both W's father and Jimmy Carter highlights the peril when the economy, and specifically job creation, is sluggish. With even a distant election, the only useful guide is the betting, and for the first time on Betfair, Obama has drifted to odds-against for 2012. The fact that the professional money makes him more likely to lose packs an even stronger psychological punch than approval ratings down to about 45 per cent and slowly sinking by the week.

With the US economy growing and seemingly on course to avoid that double-dip recession, the traditionally delayed improvement in job figures may yet revive his popularity when they come. Yet the suspicion remains that the loss of confidence, though he remains well liked, is due not to anything he has or hasn't done, but to what he is or isn't; and that his tonal failure to connect with his electorate, nebulous and hard to rectify as it is, poses his gravest threat.

Reflecting on his first, frantic 18 months in the White House, it's hard to imagine history rating them as other than a remarkable triumph. The stimulus package he pushed through Congress rescued the economy from the abyss. The essential recalibration of US foreign policy in the Middle East, for all the futility of seeking a genuine breakthrough while Benjamin Netanyahu remains Israel's Prime Minister, was quickly and decisively achieved. Passing his healthcare Bill ensured that he would go down as a transformative President even if he resigned today.

The infuriating thing about the latter is that it offered such an isolated hint of his potential greatness. When all looked lost, he flung off the academic detachment he generally wears like a professorial cape, and addressed his congressional Democrats from the heart. It was a simple and even clumsy speech by his standards, though all the more effective for that, and its gist was simply this: if not to pass such a Bill, whatever the political price, why the hell did you come into politics in the first place? The President appealed to what his hero Lincoln called the better angels of their nature, and they danced for him like ecstatic cherubs.

That universal healthcare is not popular is predictable, because the benefits have yet to become clear enough to ridicule the misinformation of the lunatic American right, which continues to drown out all other voices with its incessant screeching.

Even recalling the poisonous demonisation of his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the racist element is unmistakable. The latest dementia designed to disqualify him from office, in succession to the Birthers, comes from the state that launched his insurgency in January 2007.

The Republicans of Iowa have a cunning plan to remove him from the Oval Office. It concerns the wording of the original 13th amendment, which had it not been rejected in 1810 would strip anyone who "accepts... any... honour or emolument of any kind... from any... foreign power" of their citizenship. All these geniuses need do is reintroduce and ratify that, and explain precisely how the Nobel Peace Prize committee constitutes a foreign power. Then Bob's yer uncle, and Joe's yer President.

This level of derangement must be as much a comfort to a beleaguered Obama as the prospect of Sarah Palin winning the GOP nomination. Yet stubbornly persistent is the sense that, while his best friend remains the certifiable Republican wing that cannot quite disguise its belief that the only seemly place for a black man in the White House is the janitor's cupboard, his worst enemy is himself; or rather his inability to decide which of himselves to project.

The search for his identity that made Dreams Of My Father such a compelling biographical work has been reflected to his cost in his presidency. The enigmatic quality – a natural result of such a rich variety of genetic, cultural geographical influences – that was such a strength as a candidate is proving a dangerous weakness as a leader.

One minute he is the cool, aloof sophisticate who refuses to affect the belief that ranting would stop the flow of oil. The next he strikes an assonant, populist tone of synthetic moral outrage. Too often he appears as uncomfortable in his own skin as others are with its colour, and that's a mortal threat in a country that copes with paradox and complexity less well than most.

The pressure that Obama has come under in the last 18 months has been unimaginable, the hurdles perhaps unprecedented in their range and height in post-war America. He's had appalling luck, and being only a fraction worse than even money for 2012 is an achievement. But he sorely needs to find the voice that swayed those Democrats to pass healthcare by expressing with plain, sincere emotion why he went into politics in the first place, and to stick with it.

This mug punter still believes he has the makings of a great President, and wouldn't take a refund if offered it now. Then again, I wouldn't want to double up.