Rupert Cornwell: Don't believe the critics – Obama is off to a good start

For once a US politician is treating his electorate as grown-ups
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He hasn't waved a magic wand and solved the economic crisis. Since his inauguration barely three weeks ago – an interval that already feels in some ways like three years – Wall Street has tumbled further. The right accuses him of being a socialist, the left complains he's too centrist. Elements of both say he's ill-prepared and naïve. "Amateur Hour", blared a headline in The Washington Post, summing up a widespread first impression of the 44th president at work.

The truth is rather different. Mercifully, the giddy euphoria of victory is no more. Inevitably, in febrile hyperventilating Washington, DC, the pendulum has now swung towards disappointment. In truth however Barack Obama has got off to a good start. Events may yet derail him, but the promise of his presidency is no less now than it was on that 4 November night in Chicago's Grant Park, when all things seemed possible.

Inside his first fortnight, he signed two important pieces of legislation, one establishing equality of pay for men and women, the other expanding health care to 4 million uninsured children. And now the amateur president has secured Congressional approval for an $800bn economic stimulus bill, the largest such measure in American history.

The process wasn't pretty. But such things rarely are – least of all when the Republican opposition is out to test him. But Obama got more or less what he wanted, as even the most diehard Republicans realised that the party could only ignore 4 November's message at its peril.

Thus far, Obama in government has almost exactly resembled the Obama on display during the general election campaign. His decisions have been those of a pragmatist who rejects the extremes, convinced of the power of reason and common sense to prevail. Thus, to the anger of the left, he has rejected any witchhunt into the transgressions of the Bush administration, believing it is more important to confront the future than to rake over the past.

On occasion, again just as in the campaign, that cerebral approach has seemed to slip into passivity. In that sense, the stimulus bill was a very rude awakening – proving that your opponents will fill any political vacuum, and denting the notion that an economic crisis as grave as this one would automatically compel rivals to work together.

So much for bipartisanship, the conventional wisdom has quickly decreed, after the stimulus passed in the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote, and with the support of just three in the Senate.

Of course Obama has made mistakes. The vetting failure that cost him Tom Daschle, his nominee as health secretary, not only damaged the Obama aura of competence. It also delivered a heavy blow to hopes of comprehensive healthcare reform. By presenting only a vague bank recovery plan on Monday, he and Tim Geithner, his Treasury Secretary, badly misjudged the moment. Far better to have waited until they had something specific to announce.

But what new president doesn't make mistakes? Nothing can prepare you for the job. Never has the learning curve been steeper and more brutal than now, and never has a presidency been at greater risk of simply being overwhelmed by events, whatever the qualities of the man in charge.

And worse undoubtedly is to come. As Obama deliberately warns, the recession will deepen, stimulus or no stimulus. On the financial front, he may have to bite the poisoned ideological bullet of bank nationalisation. And all this without the threat of trade wars and climate change, and before some inevitable crisis over Iran, the Middle East or wherever.

But the potential of Obama is undiminished. As none of his recent predecessors, he projects a sense of purpose, a focus on the long term. In the Daschle mess, for instance, he quickly admitted error and moved on. That focus also explains his dire language about the economic calamity that awaits if nothing is done. Why not a little happy talk, critics ask, that would make everyone feel better? But Obama knows full well it was such happy talk – a short-termist refusal to face underlying facts – that dug the hole in which US now finds itself.

For once an American politician is treating his electorate as grown-ups. That is why he will continue to press bipartisanship. And who knows, if you treat your voters and your fellow politicians like grown-ups, maybe they'll act that way. All in all, it's been a pretty good start. Just as on that magical night in Grant Park, Barack Obama still looks the right man for the job.