Rupert Cornwell: Don't let on, but Obama's doing well

He’s on his way to achieving the biggest public policy reforms since Lyndon Johnson
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The Independent Online

Barack Obama may complain about the "curse of Hawaii" – the unfortunate juxtaposition of a President taking a deserved Christmas break in the sub-tropical islands where he grew up, and his countrymen struggling to cope with ice, snow and the travel inconveniences caused by the most dangerous terrorist threat to the US since 9/11. But his real curse right now is the curse of the past.

It might have been a great American writer who observed that "the past is never dead; it's not even past," but that's not the way America likes to see itself. The past is for wimps and Europeans. Here in the brave new world, the future is what matters, in a country that prides itself on renewal, on its capacity to re-invent itself. Why waste time on what happened yesterday, when today is better and tomorrow is bound to be better still?

The fact however is that, as a miserable decade ends, and another of at best uncertain promise begins, America and its President are prisoners of the past: not a relatively distant past, the kind that trapped the South of William Faulkner – but the very recent past, of Obama's immediate predecessor in office. And in its way, the argument is as fierce as the mighty wars over national history in Europe, even in Russia.

In America as everywhere else, history is not set in stone. It is a subject of unending re-interpretation and revision. Control the past, and you have a good chance of controlling the present and future as well – and thus it goes for the legacy of George W Bush, the man more responsible than any single individual for shaping the events of the last 10 years. The revisionists are already at work to prove that they weren't that terrible after all, or at least as good as could be expected.

In the next year or so, a raft of memoirs by such pillars of the ancien regime as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove and Bush himself will be published. Ostensibly, these will be accounts of the past, belonging to the category of history. But their equal purpose will be to shape the current political debate, to provide ammunition for Republicans as they head into the coming battles of November's mid-term elections and the 2012 presidential election.

Today's across-the-board refusal of the Republican opposition to co-operate with Obama – even if that means the hypocritical rejection of policies they embraced a year or two ago – should also be seen in this light. If American politics are more venomous than ever, the reason is simple. The only way the Bush past can be made into a success is if the Obama present fails. And of course the rules of the game, above all the 60-vote super-majority required in the Senate to pass any significant legislation, provide Republicans with opportunity aplenty.

In truth, though you might have missed it amid the partisan tracer flying in the air, Obama has got off to a quite promising start. It hasn't been perfect, and he hasn't been the miracle worker his most adoring supporters dreamed of. Indeed, who could have been, given the economic and foreign affairs hand he was dealt? In the circumstances though, by any reasonable accounting, he hasn't done badly.

Last February, with the economy in free fall – and having to make do without a single Republican vote in the House, and just three in the Senate – he pushed through a record stimulus package. The package wasn't ideal, but it signalled the government's determination to do whatever it took to prevent the Great Recession turning into a second Great Depression. Ditto the bank bailouts, and the rescue of the car companies. If these measures hadn't been taken, would today's fragile recovery be taking place? Maybe, but you wouldn't bet on it.

No less important he will in a month or two's time, if all goes well, be signing into law desperately needed healthcare reform, again probably without a single Republican vote. This too won't be perfect; the US healthcare system will still be the most expensive and most wasteful in the developed world, and millions of Americans will still lack coverage. But it will be a huge step in the right direction. All in all, not bad for a first year's work. And if Congress manages to pass measures overhauling energy policy and financial market regulation, Obama will have achieved the biggest public policy reforms since Lyndon Johnson, almost half a century ago.

Abroad, he has cleaned up America's image. Yes, critics on the left may complain that despite the beguiling rhetoric, Bush policies are continuing. Cuba remains under an absurd 50-year-old embargo, and yet again an Israeli government has called America's bluff on Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Despite the promise to close Guantanamo Bay by the end of this month, the place remains open. Indeed, after the near-miss terrorist attack on Flight 253 on Christmas Day, it may well remain open for a long while yet.

But the right is no less unhappy, accusing Obama of being soft on China, soft on terrorism, and far too soft on Iran and its nuclear programme (although even that particular crisis is now overshadowed by the deadly struggle between reformers and hardliners for the country's future, beyond the power of any American president to influence).

He might console himself that if he is upsetting everyone, he is doing something right. The reality is that in foreign policy, Obama is forging his version of the hard-nosed pragmatism that was the hallmark of his Democratic predecessors Harry Truman, John Kennedy and LBJ – at least until Vietnam intervened.

Which brings us back to the past. Memories of Flight 253 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab will fade, its legacy just extra airport security hassle that we will soon take for granted. The true test for Obama lies in Afghanistan, where more than 900 Americans have already died, where seven CIA officers have just been killed by a suicide bomber, and where parallels with Vietnam multiply by the month. Britain and the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan. Although the fate of America's venture on that treacherous terrain is as yet unknown, the curse of the past is poised to strike again.