The location, Washington’s National Mall, is the same. The backdrop, Capitol Hill, is the same. The crowds, chanting and waving banners, number the same. The object of their attention, President Barack Obama, is the same.
But the scenes of January, when thousands packed Washington’s streets to exalt in the election of a President “to change America”, are a far cry from the angry, violent protests that have marked his adminstration this year, and driven his approval rating below 50% barely eleven months since his inauguration.
In January, a relaxed Barack Obama strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, self-assuredly showing the world he was calm in the face of his detractors. Today, chilling slogans and movements call for his head, and White House staff fear for his safety at previously innocuous public engagements.
Thousands flocked to Washington this September to condemn the actions of a man elected on a sea of positivity just ten months previously. Banners labeled him a ‘socialist’, posters depicted him as a modern-day Adolf Hitler and chants demanded him to “show us the birth certificate”, in support of the ‘birther’ movement that came to prominence this summer and accuses Obama of being a non-US citizen.
Obama-sponsored legislation is stalling, and White House-backed candidates have lost state elections. Democratic members of Congress are rebelling, and his closest supporters in the press are starting to distance themselves from the President. For Americans, the Obama dream is over.
Yet in Europe and in the majority of countries across the world, he is still a man adored and revered, a man to take climate change seriously, mend decades of aggressive and failed US foreign policy against the Muslim world and bring peace to the Middle East. A recent Pew Global study found that in Europe, his support shows no sign of disappearing. Results showed that French and German voters have more confidence in Obama than in Sarkozy and Merkel, their respective leaders.
Obama was elected President of the United States by the people of that country. But for the first time in recent history, ‘The Most Powerful Man in the World’ also had the planet’s backing to make that grand title ring true. The world expected, and America expected. But what if we all expected too much?
President Obama is spread too thin. Not only expected to resurrect a Democratic party that had been loosely bonded together in mutual hatred of the Bush Adminstration, left-leaning voters demanded long-overdue climate change and healthcare legislation. But then right-wing voters who defected from the GOP wanted an economic package to stimulate a sluggish economy – and tax hikes aren’t going to please them. Then there’s the lobbyist and military pressure over Afghanistan and America’s continued presence as Israel’s strongest supporter to juggle with the world’s expectations on him to clean up America’s record overseas and resurrect its tarnished foreign policy.
So far, he’s achieved little. His acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in October had the critics sharpening their knives, and his supporters bewildered. After almost eleven months in office, he has little to cheer about.
Obama, who was inaugurated with an approval rating of 68%, stuck to the party line and to campaign promises, and has seen his personal support among Americans sacrificed for the passage of bills that the Democrats have been waiting to pass for over 35 years. Not since Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 have the Democrats had control of The Oval Office, the House of Representatives and the Senate at the same time, and it’s been a case of making up for lost time as fast as possible.
Gore’s paper-thin loss in 2000 and Kerry’s implosion with the Presidency on a plate in 2004 confirmed that the Democrats were the jittery losers that many commentators feared they were. So, when Obama – who would surely make it eight years of Blue at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – won the party nomination, hands were rubbed gleefully and decade-old legislation that Republican fili-busters and Presidential vetoes had curtailed for so long was dusted off and prepped for re-drafting.
This forcing through of legislation, and the compromises that have had to be made in order to move the bills through quickly, has been the real drain on the Obama dream. The Bailout Bill to support failing banks, the Cap and Trade Bill which places taxes on non-renewable energy, and pledges huge government spending for clean fuels and the recent Healthcare Reform Bill which saw thousands of protestors mobilise across the country in opposition to its potential to create ‘socialised medicine’ have all dragged the President’s ratings to their lowest-ever level.
Lower-class Americans are appalled by the President’s concessions in the Healthcare Bill to appease Republican lawmakers, both anti-war campaigners and the hawks in the Pentagon are upset by the President’s flip-flop attitude to Afghanistan, and blue-collar workers across the 50 states are wondering why their taxes are increasing while at the same time unemployment is soaring.
The criticism is simple: since entering office, Obama has focused on Congress and the foreign arena, and – distracted by both – has lost touch with the people that voted him in, and who will have the choice to vote him and his Democratic colleagues in again.
In the face of his domestic failings, some US commentators have slammed the President’s apparent aspiration to help the world before he helps America. John Danforth, a former US Ambassador to the UN, remarked that while it is good to have a popular President, the US does not reap the benefits from other governments. “It’s nice to be popular [abroad],” said Danforth, “but I just don’t see the seeds of a partnership in this information.” “He really is a rock star,” he said of Obama, but “my response is, ‘So what?’”
But a drive through Wheat Ridge, Colorado, quickly confirms that people here don’t think of their President as a rock star. His face might be on a bill-board, but it’s a cartoon of him wearing a turban with the slogan “PRESIDENT or JIHAD?”. The comparison of Obama with a Muslim terrorist is chilling, as is the smaller message, which reads: “WAKE UP AMERICA! REMEMBER FT. HOOD!”, in reference to the mass-killing of US soldiers at a base in Texas by a Muslim Army psychiatrist last month.
“Since Fort Hood, I’ve had it…You can’t suggest things. You can’t profile. You gotta call a spade a spade,” the billboard’s owner Phil Wolf told FOX News. “Everything I have read about Mr. Obama points right to the fact that he is a Muslim. And that is the agenda of what Muslim is all about. It’s about anti-American, it’s about anti-Christianity.”
It is an ominous trend that is growing as fast as ‘Obama for President’ t-shirt sales soared in late 2008. The Christian right have weighed in with their own disturbing anti-Obama messages, and an alarming new popular bumper sticker states: ‘Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8’. What appears to be a supportive sentiment of their beleaguered President is quite the contrary. The Psalm in question reads: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office”, while the following verse chillingly states: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”
David Axelrod, the man who masterminded Obama’s journey to the White House has publicly voiced fears for the President’s safety, specifically targeting the Tea Party organisation that has sprung up across the country as an aggressive anti-government movement. In September, authorities moved to shut down a poll on Facebook that asked whether respondents thought Obama should be killed.
People are starting to take note. The Anti-defamation League of America report, ‘Rage Grows in America: Anti‑Government Conspiracies’, published a few weeks ago condemned the right-wing media in particular for “demonizing President Obama and promoting conspiracy theories about his administration… [which] may result in an increase in anti-government extremists and the potential for a rise of violent anti-government acts.”
But it’s difficult to just write these attacks off as right-wing nut-jobs pining for a return to the glorious Bush years. Support for Obama isn’t just falling among ordinary American voters: even his Democratic Congressional colleagues are becoming more vociferous about a man that they saw as a saviour of the party just a year ago. John Conyers, the prominent liberal black Congressman from Michigan, attacked Obama’s weak leadership and accused him of “bowing down to every nutty right-wing proposal about healthcare”. The concessions, Conyers continued “are a disservice to the Barack Obama I first met.”
Then, as reports showed an ever-increasing number of unemployed Americans and a rising number of defaulted mortgages, a vote on financial reforms proposed by White House policymakers was pulled at the last minute as black caucus members, formerly the President’s closest allies, threatened to vote against it in protest of wider economic policy.
The Republicans, like any good opposition, are doing all they can to make this uncomfortable period as prolonged as possible. Cap and Trade and the Healthcare Bill are still awaiting Senate confirmation, and the longer that bills take to be debated, the longer they stay on the front pages. Not only does this anger left-wing voters who expected Obama to pass these measures quickly, it also allows Republican strategists to maximise the critical sentiment. And with the Mid-terms looming like the scales of justice above the US Capitol to judge the Administration’s first 24 months, right now all publicity is bad publicity.
As Republican leaders unabashedly contemplated picking up Senate seats across the country from Obama-tarred Democratic incumbents, one conservative commentator told the Sunday Times, “We don’t need to slam Obama – his own folks are doing it themselves.”
This sentiment, of Democratic implosion in the face of Obama’s sliding approval rating, bubbled over in the wake of October’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and confirmed for the first time a swing from the Democrats at the ballot box.
Virginia, which had voted for Obama after 50 years of support for Republican Presidential candidates, and New Jersey, traditionally a Democratic-voting state, both voted to oust Democratic incumbents in what many commentators saw as an opinion poll on 12 months of the Obama Administration.
While Democratic officials insisted that the vote was not a referendum on his presidency, many in Washington felt that it reflected widespread disillusionment with Obama over the weak economy, job losses and the ongoing debate over healthcare reform.
David Gergen, the US political scientist and commentator, told CNN: “It shows the way the wind is blowing … the Democrats can’t take power for granted,” while one Democratic adviser told the New York Times that the Virginia vote was “a race between Barack Obama’s spending and Bob McDonnell’s thesis,” referring to the Republican candidate’s controversial University paper regarding women and homosexuals.
The White House was directly involved in both races. Aides were sent to review advertisements and attend strategy sessions, and Obama himself campaigned with Virginia incumbent Craig Deeds twice, and took part in last-minute rallies in New Jersey for Democratic candidate John Corzine.
With polls suggesting that African Americans, Latinos and young voters – who had elected Obama in 2008 – had swayed away from the Democrats, the Republicans were elated. Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman, said: “We have a long way to go to prepare for next year [when congressional elections are held] but it is a great night to celebrate…This is not just about Virginia but about the leadership in the White House and in Congress.” In 2008 an eight-year Obama administration seemed almost inevitable, but if the current slide away from the Democrats continues, Republican candidates could stand a very good chance come 2012 of swinging the White House their way.
Eighteen months ago, Obama was supported by over 95% of countries polled by The Economist before the election. The world wanted him, and moreover, wanted him to deliver. Now, it seems that support and the pressure that comes with it have similarly harmed his US approval.
It hasn’t helped that the world’s expectations were wild and varied. Obama was cautious not to completely nail his colours to the mast in terms of a climate change policy, but this didn’t stop green campaigners across the world exalting at the prospect of a US President that would finally agree to Kyoto-like pledges.
The Cap and Trade Bill, loved and loathed in equal doses across Washington, was a step in the right direction for Al Gore and his followers, but was a crippling tax on an already struggling US economy for voters across the country. The Senate are yet to tackle it head-on, stuck as it is in the log-jam of bills that Republican law-makers are doing all they can to delay.
In only the past week, emails leaked from the University of East Anglia exposing an alleged plot to ‘cover-up’ scientific research that discredits the global warming theory are spreading across Washington like a congressional wildfire. Some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are claiming that these revelation, with the backing of Fox News’ omnipotent anti-Obama rhetoric, may mean Cap and Trade is “toast”.
Even earlier in his term, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the illegal detention centre that for many exemplified Bush’s loathed presidency and disasterous foreign policy, was lauded by people across the planet. Obama was praised for enacting a campaign pledge so early in his term, and for actively seeking to repair the US’s awful reputuation overseas.
Yet the American public, initially skeptical of an effective admittance that the camp was illegal, turned hostile when it was suggested by the Administration that large numbers of former inmates would be transferred to jails in the US. The plan stalled, Gregory Craig, Obama’s former White House Counsel was made the scapegoat and fired after being labelled “too close to human rights groups” by White House whispers, and the squeaky-clean image of a President looking to clean up politics both at home and abroad took another hit.
Ambitious overseas trips to China and the Middle East have also come with little reward, save a few mumbled promises from a reluctant Hu Jintao and a bullish Benjamin Netanyahu
There is also a flip-side to the hope thrown on Obama last November. Bob Ainsworth, the British Defence Secretary, took the audacious step of blaming Obama for falling UK support for the war in Afghanistan last month.
Ainsworth claimed that a “period of hiatus” in Washington, and a lack of clear direction, had hindered the British government’s efforts to whip up public support for a continuation of the conflict. It seems that the US President is responsible not only for his own cabinet, but ours as well.
A trip to the Far East that Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel had reportedly hoped would boost his ratings as a leader on the world stage monumentally backfired when photos of the President bowing to Japan’s Emperor Akihito hit the Los Angeles Times, and were picked up by the hugely influential Matt Drudge’s drudgereport.com. It was a carbon-copy of the PR disaster that unfolded when Obama did the same thing in April to the King of Saudi Arabia. Americans were aghast at the action, and the condemnation of a President that shows deference to other foreign leaders flowed.
So where does Obama go from here? His two legislative stumbling blocks, Cap and Trade and Healthcare, will either require an ugly Democratic smash-and-grab job while Republicans and the mighty Fox News cry foul, or a host of concessions that will render the final product spineless.
The President needs to refocus on his electorate. Ignoring Congress and the global expectations is easy to say and hard to implement, but is necessary if his personal attraction is to be enough to stem a Republican upswing at the looming mid-terms.
If Obama doesn’t turn back to the ordinary American people soon and work for their best interests, there’s a strong danger that at least one House won’t be his for very long.
Charting the fall