Matthew Norman: This is a terrible reverse, but don't write off Obama

There is discontent about the US economy. But that is expected to improve dramatically

Share
Related Topics

As first-anniversary gifts go, the one prematurely delivered to Barack Obama on Tuesday night must be the least welcome in human history. I'm a bit startled to type those words, recalling the reaction of a friend's wife on unwrapping his present to mark their first year of wedlock to discover a top-of-the-range Dyson. But there it is. The voters of Massachusetts have filled Edward Kennedy's Senatorial seat with a Republican – an upset akin to the Tories taking Sunderland North – and Obama's flagship domestic policy, and some argue his presidency itself, is in jeopardy.

With the Democrats' filibuster-proof 60-40 Senate majority gone, Obama faces what may prove the political battle of his life (and that's saying something after the war with Hillary Clinton) to extend adequate health care to the near 50 million Americans without insurance.

The symbolism of defeat can be barely less distressing than the fact. That it was the death of Teddy Kennedy, heroic fighter for universal health care for decades, that imperils it now has the strong flavour of one of those immorality tales in Greek myth about the brutal capriciousness of the gods.

What the result reveals about the state of Obama's presidency is harder to discern, especially from this side of the Atlantic, but even the thirstiest Kool Aid drinker accepts that it puts the seal on a troublesome year in which his approval rating has dipped from 70 per cent to 50. He has displeased far more than the Birthers – those lynch-mob fantasists who affect the belief that he was born in Kenya and is therefore constitutionally debarred.

With the Afghan troop surge and failure to punish the bankers, Obama has disappointed those on the left who moan that his fiscal stimulus was too small. He has infuriated the "Tea Partiers" of the right, so many of them voluble fans of Jesus's teachings, who regard the extension of medicine to the poorest as a pernicious tax. They complain that his stimulus package was too large.

He has pissed off the the deranged, the credulous and the repulsive across the political spectrum, but plenty of independents in the middle as well. And he has done so by staying uncannily loyal to not only his general promise to govern from the centre, but (the closure of Guantanamo apart) his specific campaign pledges too. Even acknowledging his naïveté in confusing Benjamin Netanyanu with an Israeli leader interested in peace, and in underestimating the ferocity of public resistance to health care, he has made no dreadful mistakes. He has averted the depression, and shepherded the economy back into modest but promising growth.

He has, as he always said he would, stayed in Afghanistan. He has radically reformed foreign policy towards the Islamic world. He has elegantly reversed the Bush-Cheney march towards pariah statehood. Al-Qa'ida, though still a grave threat, is thought to be in decline.

"A new dawn of American leadership is at hand," he reassured the world in his election victory speech in Chicago, and there he has been as good as his word. Whether his election will prove a false dawn for America is a verdict that the jury won't return for years, but to this self-confessed Obamaniac he has made a hugely encouraging start.

If many already dismiss him as a one-term president on Jimmy Carter lines, a rival precedent strikes others as more persuasive. Ronald Reagan inherited a gruesome legacy of economic chaos and degraded international status from Obama's fellow Nobel laureate Mr Carter, and a year into his tenure his approval rating had also slumped to about 50 per cent. It would sink much further in his second, but two years later he was re-elected, winning every state but Walter Mondale's native Minnesota.

Reagan won that historic landslide not just because he, like Obama, was droll, likeable, supremely comfortable in his own skin, and gave great speech. It was, as always, the economy, stupid. Then, as with all modern US recessions, the growth in jobs lagged far behind the improving statistics, but midway through that term unemployment began to fall. Those who claim to understand such things believe that the trajectory of the economic cycle will be no less favourable to Obama.

Given that and the rudderless drift towards the rocks of a dementedly vindictive Republican party that may be crowing today but still lacks a single credible presidential candidate, the even money about Obama's re-election available on Betfair looks to me the bet of the millennium.

For all that, there is no denying the voters of Massachusetts sang him a slightly less seductive version of Happy Birthday Mr President than Marilyn Monroe's, or that losing that 60-40 majority in the Kennedys' backyard is a nauseating blow to the solar plexus.

The Democrats now face a horrendous logistical and political scrap to enact universal health care, which has defeated administration after administration. An earlier Teddy, Roosevelt, had the first crack almost a century ago, but so impotent in effecting domestic change is an American president that the Founding Fathers might recoil at the result of their genius. Their righteous obsession with building a power counterbalance between President and Congress into the Constitution, as a check against tyranny, creates such stasis that, at times like this, benign dictatorship seems alarmingly attractive.

Such is the reality of US democracy, though, and Obama is nothing if not a realist. He is also inhumanly calm under fire. It must infuriate him that they will, to pay brief tribute to the late and great rugby commentator Bill McLaren, be dancing in the boardrooms of the insurance firms today. It must disgust him that the hundreds of millions of dollars this endlessly poisonous industry has spent hiring thousands of lobbyists, to peddle such lunacies as "death panels" in the cause of denying one in six Americans access to treatment, has helped to win this triumph.

But he won't panic. Nor will he be tremulously humming the Bee Gees line that "All the lights went down in Massachusetts". If he is in the middle of a tunnel, the true cause of the dark discontent is a sluggish economy expected to improve dramatically by 2012, and he foresaw this backlash with crystal clarity at his Inauguration. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real," he cautioned America a year and a day ago, in a speech that sounded strangely downbeat then but reads rather better now. "They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."

The United States was too intoxicated to hear that warning or notice that the elegiac verse of his campaign had already given way to the stolid prose of governing. Those who mistook him for a quick-fix Messiah then were as deluded as those who see in him a red revolutionary now.

Obama is to his core a pragmatic centrist, however guided by liberal instincts, and every bit as granite tough as he is whippet smart. He has made about as strong a start as the barely imaginable pressures on so many fronts permitted. And while there's no disputing the horror of this reverse, the one thing likely to leaven his gloom is the memory that all those, like Hillary, who have written him off in haste before soon enough had cause to repent at leisure.

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’  

Children's TV shows like Grange Hill used to connect us to the real world

Grace Dent
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine