Rupert Cornwell: You have to feel sorry for the hostage in the White House

Out of America: Both at home and abroad, Barack Obama is finding that his fate is in the hands of others

Share

Pity poor Barack Obama. There he was in the Oval Office on Thursday morning, the most powerful person in the world, waiting to learn whether the Supreme Court would cast into the dustbin the healthcare reform to which he had devoted the first two years of his presidency.

Like the rest of us, he had to watch television to find out. The court is the one institution in Washington that does not leak. Even though the nine justices had taken the basic vote almost immediately after hearing oral arguments on the case in late March, and dozens of people, from court clerks to printers, must have been in the know, not a word filtered out. Not even the occupant of the White House, the most directly interested party, was accorded the courtesy of advance notice (the White House, after all, most certainly does leak).

And to compound Obama's agony, the main cable news channels got it wrong. Both CNN and Fox initially reported that the individual mandate, the centrepiece of the measure requiring individual Americans to purchase insurance coverage, had indeed been thrown out as unconstitutional. Initially, thePresident thought he had lost, and only discovered otherwise when the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler came in a few minutes later to clear matters up. Obama, according to officials quoted by The Washington Post, hugged her in relief.

For CNN, however, the error may cause more lasting damage. The pioneer cable news network's ratings have been declining for years now, but until Thursday it could at least still claim superiority as an impartial and accurate source of news, in contrast to Fox, which often acts like the television division of the Republican Party.

Now that reputation has taken a hit as well. Like CNN, Fox also blundered by rushing on to the air without having read the ruling in its entirety. Unlike its rival, however, the "fair and balanced" network was unrepentant. "As we were reading it, we let our viewers know about it," a spokesman said, before adding with the truculence that makes Fox so endearing: "You don't have to wait until the end of the Yankees game to give the score."

But I digress. My point is the powerlessness of power. After expending vast amounts of political capital and popularity in driving through Congress his one legacy achievement thus far, Obama found himself at the mercy of nine unsackable justices, seven of them appointed by his predecessors, concerned only with the constitutionality of the measure, and whom no rousing speech could sway.

That particular reef has now been navigated. But the game is far from over. A majority of Americans still say they oppose "Obamacare" and the Republicans vow to get rid of it. If Mitt Romney wins, and his party gains control of the Senate in November, they will.

First and foremost, though, the election will be decided by the economy, and here too the President is a hostage to events. If the recovery continues, Obama will probably win a second term. But if growth peters out, and the next three or four months produce more dismal unemployment figures, then all bets are off.

And the fate of the US economy depends in good part on what happens in Europe. The President and his Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, can issue exhortations to eurozone policy-makers until the cows come home. But exhort is all they can do. Like the rest of us, Obama must wait, and hope that Friday's bank rescue deal at the Brussels summit does the trick.

Ah, you may say, but what about foreign policy? At home, an American president's powers are indeed limited by the checks and balances built into the system, and by the constitution's deliberate separation of powers. Abroad, on the other hand, can he not dispose much as he pleases? Here again, however, the answer increasingly is no.

Of late, there's been a cavalcade of summitry on this side of the Atlantic too. In May, Obama hosted a G8 meeting at Camp David to much fanfare, immediately followed by a Nato summit in Chicago. A prize for anyone who can remember what happened at either. A fortnight ago, the G20 leaders met in Mexico. The one abiding image of that occasion is of Obama looking miserable at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, having plainly failed to change the Russian President's mind about anything.

America, the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright liked to say, was the "indispensable nation". And up to a point, that remains the case. In every major crisis, eyes turn automatically to Washington. But consider the case of Hillary Clinton, who holds Albright's old post now.

Last week she became the most widely travelled Secretary of State ever. When her US Air Force jet touched down in Riga, Latvia, she was visiting her 100th country, eclipsing the previous record of Albright, who managed a mere 96. Since taking office in January 2009, the State Department said, Clinton had spent 337 days – more than a quarter of that period – abroad, and no fewer than 73 of them in the air.

But what precisely has this globe-trotting by the most famous and well-liked Secretary of State of modern times, the top diplomat of the world's most powerful country, actually achieved? The Middle East is in turmoil, peace between Israel and Palestine is as remote as ever, Syria is ablaze, sectarian strife continues in Iraq, while US relations with Pakistan are at an all-time low. The vaunted "re-set" with Russia has not materialised, and the US has failed to impose its will on Iran. Then there are those infuriating Europeans.

The list could go on. No one doubts Clinton's competence. Her ability – and that of her boss – to actually change events is, however, another matter. Still, there are consolations. On balance, being swept around the world in a custom-fitted Boeing 757 is probably preferable to pacing the Oval Office, wondering whether a bunch of judges are going to strike down your most far-reaching accomplishment. Oh yes, and with the TV networks messing up as well.

React Now

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

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments