Leading article: Falling polls and impotent populism

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

In politics, people like nothing more than to discover that their heroes possess feet of clay. Barack Obama is on the receiving end of some of that sport at the moment.

The US President's failure to persuade Republicans in Congress to back his economic plans last month was heralded as the end of his political honeymoon. And this week, Mr Obama has been accused of impotent populism for expressing his anger about the bonuses paid out by the government-rescued insurance giant AIG. The President's once towering public approval ratings also appear to have taken a hit.

But this bandwagon is premature. There is nothing unusual about a US president's ratings slipping in their first few months of office. And Mr Obama's ratings are still ahead of his two predecessors at a similar stage in their presidencies. This is no small achievement, considering the magnitude of the economic crisis.

The significance of Mr Obama's failure to get Republicans to sign up to his economic rescue packages should not be overestimated either. The opposition is weak and divided; it is hardly surprising that, in their present state, the Republicans have chosen the easy option of objecting to Mr Obama's proposals. Moreover, the Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress. A bipartisan consensus would be good for confidence but, in practical political terms, it is not essential.

And on the subject of AIG's bonuses, those who accuse Mr Obama of seeking to distract attention from his own troubles fail to recognise how the rules of the political game have been turned on their head by the taxpayer-funded bailout of the financial sector, not just in America but worldwide. AIG is being kept alive through unprecedented injections of US taxpayers' money. Its remuneration practices are therefore a very public matter too, and it is to Mr Obama's credit that he understands this.

It is, of course, true that the new President will be judged on how he deals with this economic emergency, but the time for that judgement is still some way off. Mr Obama would be making a mistake if he allowed these present squalls of criticism to throw him off his larger course.

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