Rupert Cornwell: After this week, we may all owe Obama an apology

Out of America: Healthcare reform, standing up to Israel, and a nuclear treaty have transformed his presidency

Sunday 28 March 2010 02:00

What a week it has been. Congress passed the most far-reaching social legislation in four decades. The US and Russia agreed the most important arms control agreement since the end of the Cold War. And an American president, his patience exhausted with Israel's procrastination over what some still describe as "the Middle East peace process", dared send off a visiting Israeli prime minister with a flea in his ear. In short, it was the week that made Barack Obama.

That of course is precisely the sort of flip journalistic judgement of which the man so strenuously disapproves. Anyone who has read his memoir Dreams from My Father, anyone who followed closely the 2008 election campaign, anyone who has watched him pause for a few moments after a question to think through his answer, will have realised that Obama is one for the long game. But a year into his administration, even the true believers were starting to have doubts.

Patience seemed to have turned into stoic passivity. That famously cerebral approach suddenly looked like dilatoriness. Even the trade-mark unflappability had come to resemble a perilous detachment from reality. The vast promise of his presidency was slowly fizzling out, as item after item on his agenda seemed to run into the sand. One respected commentator wrote earlier this month that he didn't seem to be enjoying the job. To others he gave the impression, to borrow Norman Lamont's old jibe against John Major, of being "in office, but not in power".

Foreigners – at least Europeans – took a while to pick up on the disillusion. Indeed last October they even awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize, a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one.

But when he decided to skip an EU summit in Spain, Europeans too started to grumble that Obama was not interested in them. Arabs, meanwhile, complained that despite that pretty speech in Cairo, he was no readier than his predecessors to put real pressure on Israel. Iran thumbed its nose at Obama's every offer to let bygones be bygones. Obama, it was even murmured, was a pushover.

At home the comparison was no longer with FDR or Bill Clinton, but with Jimmy Carter, the standard yardstick for a failed Democratic presidency.

The lowest moment of all came on 19 January, almost a year to the day after his inauguration, with the loss of Edward Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts. It suggested that both the Democrats and Obama himself had worn out their welcome after a mere 12 months. And then came last week.

The change of mood is worthy of one of those Private Eye spoofs: "In recent months we might have given the impression that Barack Obama is a dithering self-absorbed dilettante who couldn't run a whelk stall. We now recognise he is a political genius of a perseverance and farsightedness unmatched in human history. We apologise for any misunderstanding that might have arisen."

Which only goes to prove that history is a funny old business that may have more surprises up its sleeve. It is possible that some unforeseen disaster ahead will undo all the good work. Republicans may be right to argue that the healthcare bill is so unpopular that it will lead Democrats to crushing defeat in November's mid-term elections (though polls are beginning to suggest otherwise).

Some new crisis may crop up with Russia. It could yet be that, far from helping cut through the ice floes of the Middle East conflict, Obama's treatment of Benjamin Netanyahu could freeze them even more firmly in place. But this single week has already yielded enough to ensure this presidency will be one of real consequence.

And now Obama most certainly looks as if he's enjoying the job. The broad smile of 2008 is back, along with the playfully mocking humour. And when he's been out selling his healthcare proposals, the old passion is there as well. Most important, he seems comfortable, totally at ease, with power.

His enemies, of course, are doing him their share of favours. Republicans may have won a few tactical skirmishes, but the benefits of a policy that consists entirely of saying "no" have surely run out. The fact is that Sarah Palin, the best-known Republican in the land, is judged by 70 per cent of Americans to be unqualified for the White House.

And after its failure to stop healthcare reform, Republican obstructionism looks less menacing. The prospects for financial market reform, climate and energy legislation and immigration reform have suddenly brightened. Obama, of all people, will be wary of excesses of optimism. But one thing he knows full well. Nothing succeeds like success.

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