Obama – grey-haired, detached, wearily lecturing – increasingly sounds as if he would rather be on the golf course.’ Photograph: Tony Avelar/AP
Whatever happened to the messiah? He for whom Americans danced in the streets chanting “yes we can!” on that unforgettable election night just six years ago. He whose name was on every European tongue. He who promised that humankind would look back and remember this is moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”.
As we approach the midterm congressional elections on 4 November, six years to the day after Barack Obama was elected, Democratic candidates don’t want to be seen with him. Elizabeth Drew, a veteran observer of US politics, writes: “Probably not since Richard Nixon have so many candidates shied away from being in the presence of their party’s president when he shows up in their states.” His approval rating is down to around 40%. In Europe, we barely talk about him any more: he has gone from being “Obama! Obama!”, via No-drama-Obama, to Nobama.
What went wrong? Or is this new low just as unrealistic as the original high? During a summer spent in the United States, I have been asking various observers to draw up their Obama balance sheets. Obviously, much can still happen in the more than two years left to him, but he has probably done most of the big things he is likely to attempt, and – grey-haired now, detached, wearily lecturing – he increasingly sounds as if he would rather be on the golf course.
It’s important to recall that no president since 1945 has been dealt such a difficult hand. He came into office facing the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, the legacy of George W Bush’s disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq, a dysfunctional political system that snarls around a gerrymandered, polarised and money-dominated Congress, and a millennial shift in the global balance of power. This year sees China overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy, measured at purchasing power parity. In a column I wrote from Washington the morning after Obama was elected president, with the chants of “yes we can!” still ringing in my ears, I already expressed my doubts whether that spirit of hope would be enough to surmount all these obstacles.
One obstacle I did not sufficiently anticipate. While the arrival of a black president in the White House was hailed as finally overcoming the greatest stain on the world’s greatest democracy, it turns out that much prejudice endures. “It’s undeniable,” Drew soberly comments, “that the president’s race has a significant part in the destructive ways in which he is talked about and opposed.”
All this being said, what is the interim balance sheet? My answer is: moderately good in domestic policy, very poor in foreign policy. The US economy is doing better than any other major developed one. It has grown nearly 8% since the first quarter of 2008, while the eurozone economy is still more than 2% down over the same period. Unemployment has fallen below 6%. The federal budget deficit for the fiscal year 2014 was under 3% of GDP (the eurozone’s notional limit). We can argue till the cows come home about who should get the credit for this – the administration, former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, shale gas, the dynamism of a huge domestic market, the native entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, God almighty – but it happened on Obama’s watch. The Dodd-Frank restraints on the financial sector are timid and incomplete, but his Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers significant new protection for those on the wrong side of the banker’s desk. He has done what he can to start reducing carbon emissions, despite a lobby-dominated Congress.
The initial rollout of the Obamacare website was a managerial disaster, for which he bears responsibility, but the whole programme has already brought perhaps 10 million people into insured healthcare or Medicaid for the first time. Two Princeton scholars have found that, in his first term, Obama quietly budgeted far more for means-tested anti-poverty programmes than other Democratic presidents. He talked less about the poor but did more for them. He hasn’t (yet) done comprehensive immigration reform, but that’s mainly because Republican politicians are putting their own re-selection in Tea Party-infused primaries before the Republicans’ larger interest in winning over Hispanic voters. This is a respectable domestic record for hard times.
In foreign policy, by contrast, the president from whom the world expected so much has delivered so little. He might not have “done stupid stuff” like invading Iraq. But that’s about it. The visionary statesman of the 2009 Cairo speech failed to seize the opportunity of the Arab spring, especially in Egypt, where well over $1bn in aid gave the US real leverage with Egypt’s now again dominant, repressive military.
He declared a “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria, and then let President Bashar al-Assad cross it with impunity. Assad proceeded to concentrate his fire on the moderate Syrian opposition, which Hillary Clinton had urged Obama to support more vigorously. This let what is now Islamic State (Isis) gain a stronger foothold.
Meanwhile, his weakness in dealing with the Shia Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – a weakness criticised in a recent memoir by his own former defence secretary, Leon Panetta – meant some discontented Sunnis also turned to Isis. And now Americans are again militarily engaged in Iraq.