Rupert Cornwell: Obama is still liked but he isn't feared

Thirteen months into office, America is in as foul a mood as when Bush reached his nadir

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What went wrong? In January 2009, Barack Obama took power in a nation that overwhelmingly yearned for him to succeed. He was a fresh face, eloquent, thoughtful, plainly intelligent. On Capitol Hill, his party had massive majorities. All of that remains true. Yet, just 13 months later, America is in about as foul a mood as when George W. Bush reached his nadir.

Most parties that win the White House lose seats at the next mid-term elections. This November though, Democrats are bracing for a wipe-out that could conceivably see them lose control of both House and Senate, as the independent voters who, in November 2008, bought Obama's message of change and renewal abandon him in disillusioned droves.

The man they thought was an outsider has behaved like the quintessential insider. He and his administration talk tough about Wall Street, but after their near-death experience the banks are paying bonuses as they did in the locust years. Instead of bringing a fresh broom to Washington, Obama has deferred to the crusty old barons of Congress. He promised a new era of unity. Instead, the system is so gridlocked by partisanship that some call the country ungovernable. And then there's the healthcare morass.

Today the president is bringing Democrats and Republicans together for a televised "summit" in a last bid to rescue his signature initiative that after nine months was about to cross the finish line – until the Democrats contrived to lose Ted Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts, and with it the 60th Senate vote that would have enabled them to break a Republican filibuster.

The calculations underlying this event are far too complex to go into here. An ever more confused American public no longer knows what it wants. The Republicans will play nice to the national viewing audience to show they're not bloody-minded obstructionists. In reality, they have no incentive to compromise now. The Democrats will also be on their best behaviour, even as they plot to ram through a final version of the bill over Republican objections, using a procedural manoeuvre that requires just 51 Senate votes, not 60, for passage.

Whether they can pull it off is anyone's guess, but for Obama the gamble is huge. Having invested so much in healthcare reform, he cannot walk away now. Yet after a while persistence starts looking like a political obsession to match Captain Ahab's hunt for the great white whale. Moby Dick, of course, hauled Ahab to his death, and healthcare could easily drag Obama to disaster.

One thing, however, is guaranteed. The president will be at his best today: master of ceremonies and master of his brief, thinking on his feet and arguing his case with a cogency and reasonableness no other US politician, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, can match. Obama did it a few weeks ago at an unscripted televised encounter with Republican congressmen, which had jaundiced commentators fed up with the lifeless rituals of American politics talking about an American version of Prime Minister's Questions.

However the big lesson of the Obama presidency thus far is the opposite. Intelligence, eloquence and sweet reason alone are not enough in politics. Yes, it seemed that way to voters when they chose a successor to the dogmatic, tongue-tied and defiantly anti-intellectual Bush. Obama was the most politically inexperienced person to become president in a century, but in 2008, a majority of Americans either overlooked that fact or saw it as a positive virtue. Obama, they thought, would summon what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

In fact another Illinois politician, the former governor Adlai Stevenson, hit the nail on the head, more than half a century ago. Like Obama, Stevenson ran for president (twice, both times unsuccessfully). Like Obama, he was highly intelligent and rather cerebral. He was also very witty. "You have the vote of every thinking person," a woman supporter called out during Stevenson's 1956 campaign. To which he replied, "that's not enough, madam, we need a majority."

Today Obama is on the verge of losing that majority, if he hasn't lost it already. When an administration is struggling, the pundits' advice machine moves into overdrive. The current wisdom is that Obama must broaden his circle of close advisers beyond a "Chicago mafia" at the White House, and maybe jettison Rahm Emanuel, his foul-mouthed White House Chief of Staff.

That the infighting is seriously under way was proved by a column in The Washington Post at the weekend, surely inspired, if not leaked, by Emanuel or his allies, arguing that Obama's mistake had been to ignore his top aide's advice on key issues, and that Emanuel was the one reason Obama's presidency hadn't already gone the way of Jimmy Carter's. When such pieces start appearing, you know a president's in trouble.

But the person who probably needs to change is the boss. Events have proved Stevenson right, that reason and intelligence take you only so far in politics. Obama cannot be accused of masking the truth about America's financial and economic situation. Nor does he fail to make the case for sacrifice.

But he rarely demands sacrifice directly. Take healthcare. To win agreement, Obama now proposes that a crucial revenue-raising provision, a tax on higher-end employer-sponsored schemes is now being deferred to 2018, long after he leaves office. Such moves only reinforce a feeling that this president is a soft touch.

Which in turn suggests a second truth. When times are tough, successful leaders must not only be liked. They must also be feared. No one fears Obama, in part because he hasn't faced anyone down, least of all the Congress that is now supreme emblem of everything the public thinks is wrong with the system.

It's not yet too late; Obama is far more popular than the Congress. There are parallels too with the early stages of Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton also failed to push through sweeping healthcare reform. After a crushing mid-term defeat in 1994, he changed tack and went for smaller changes. These now add up to a decent legacy. But the 2010s are not the 1990s. Big things need to be done, and Americans instinctively knew that when they voted Obama into office. Thus far, he hasn't delivered.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

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