Desperately seeking luck of the Irish ...
Paul Harris in New York says President Obama's visit to Ireland will be a carefully crafted moment in the fight for re-election in 2012. The trip will also bolster a recent flurry of key political successes
Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00
Making the trip across the Atlantic has become a ritual for an American president. Obama is no different.
After all, though he identifies as black, he is the son of a white mother whose relatives had Irish blood.
Visiting Ireland and acknowledging that background allows Obama to defuse some of the race issue in America's domestic politics. It plays up his appeal to white Irish-Americans.
"Visiting Ireland as the 'home of some of his ancestors' may be intended to emphasise the mixed nature of his ancestry; to assuage people here who are freaked out over demographic predictions that in a number of years a majority of the US population will no longer be lily-white," said Professor Kerby Miller of the University of Missouri, who has written several books about Irish-American history.
There is likely a harder edge to the trip too. An American president's time is valuable and spent only where needed.
While a visit to Ireland might be a pleasant diversion from the 2012 political battle, Miller believes there are geo-political realities at play too.
Ireland's weakened economy might allow Obama to cement the country into his re-booted global financial system, fore-stalling any bid to renegotiate its European bailout or abandon austerity.
Or perhaps even persuade the Government to adopt a more willing attitude to helping American military missions.
"The extraordinary weakness and dependency of the current Irish Government may make it exceptionally vulnerable to US economic and perhaps military demands," said Miller.
For such tough realpolitik is the bread and butter of being an American president, whether he is in Dublin, Washington or Des Moines, Iowa. It is a hard-edged job, where little quarter is given or received, no matter what platitudes are mouthed at news conferences or in TV interviews. After two and a half tumultuous years in office, and with a bitter 18-month long re-election battle to come, no one knows that better than Obama.
Last month an email dropped into tens of thousands of Americans' inboxes. In the subject line was a simple message from the sender, US President Barack Obama, it read: "Time to begin again."
The message, sent by Obama's staff to supporters of his history-making 2008 campaign, was a battle cry for his re-election. "The kind of change we're working for never comes easily. Now is the time to begin again, and build the campaign that will shape our country's future," the email read.
The message then got to the nitty-gritty of what matters in American election campaigns. "Can you step up and make a donation of $5 to get us started?" it asked, providing a handy link for supporters to get out their credit cards and cough up to Obama's campaign coffers.
As Obama prepares to visit Ireland the American body politic is focused firmly on November, 2012. It is weighing the achievements of the country's first black president and examining his prospects for winning a second term. In many ways Obama and his team can feel happy.
He is, after all, the president under whose watch Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. He is also the architect of ground-breaking healthcare reform. He can point out that America's economy avoided a meltdown during the recession, something far from guaranteed when Obama took office.
But, as Obama's email acknowledged, such optimistic spin does not describe the full picture. There are dark political clouds looming on the horizon. From the Republican side, rarely has a president provoked more dislike.
Though the Republican party is notoriously hard-nosed, the anti-Obama emotions rampaging through its rank and file have emerged in the shape of the Tea Party that helped inflict the huge 2010 mid-term election defeat on the Democrats.
Obama cannot underestimate that strength. At the same time Obama is exposed on his left flank. Despite his proud boasts in his email, the liberal wing of the Democratic party sees Obama as a weak centrist, who has caved to Republicans, big business and politics-as-usual.
And all of that is set against one key fact: the American economy is still terribly weak, hamstrung by stubbornly high levels of unemployment.
That usually spells deep trouble for any occupant of the White House. Just ask Jimmy Carter or George H Bush, both of whom ended up as one-term presidents amid economic malaise. In his email Obama acknowledged the problems and disillusionment among some who once backed him fervently.
"I've met folks who are frustrated by the pace of change. I understand that. But we knew this wouldn't be easy," he wrote. Experts agree he should take nothing for granted. "He still has a precarious political life," said Professor Bruce Gronbeck, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
Some of that disillusionment could recently be found in a sparse room off Manhattan's westside highway.
The room was inside the Brecht Forum, a leftist gathering place where each month Professor Richard Wolff talks on the state of the American economy. It was a lively session in front of 50 or so American liberals and socialists.
Much of the ire was directed at banks. But a lot of it also devoted to Obama and the Democrats as Wolff pointed out how the president had let down the left.
As Wolff detailed, the enormous tax breaks to wealthy Americans that Obama sanctioned last year and the myriad bailouts to the banking industry, he prompted peels of grim laughter with the rebuke: "Out of that, we are meant to get hope and change?"
That perhaps should not surprise. The audience at Brecht is genuinely left-wing and it is hard to see Obama as their fellow traveller.
His rescue of the banking industry during the financial crisis -- continuing the policy embarked on by President George W Bush -- angered many. As did the largely soft effort at Wall Street reform.
Rather than changing a financial system many Americans believe caused the recession, Obama instead mostly resuscitated it, only with banks that are even bigger, more powerful and less likely to be allowed to fail than before.
Indeed, the Obama government has been stuffed full of bank-friendly figures with long careers in finance, like former hedge-funders Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel and ex-banker William Daley, who is now Obama's chief-of-staff.
On the issue of healthcare, which Obama's team tout as their greatest legislative achievement, many liberals say the plan merely writes a blank government cheque to the already vastly wealthy insurance industry.
It does nothing about reducing costs the way creating a powerful, state-backed insurance firm might have. Yet Obama quickly backed away from that so-called "public option".
Experts say that many of the criticisms of Obama are fair enough, but perhaps not in the political reality of a naturally conservative country like America.
Added to that was the fact that Obama rode an unrealistic wave of euphoria into office. "Obama could not possibly have fulfiled all the expectations. There were such hopes placed on him but eventually all politicians are shown to have feet of clay," said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California.
Bowler believes Obama's tendency to move slowly and cautiously on other issues also costs him dearly. His broken promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay and his gradualist move to end 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in the military angered many.
"He is the opposite of the 'Teflon president'," Bowler said, referring to Ronald Reagan's ability to get away with mistakes. "Healthcare and rescuing the economy are major achievements, but he gets no credit for them."
The virulent right
That is certainly true on the right. The depth of dislike for Obama and the violence of the rhetoric used against him is staggering. On the extremist edge of the Republican party are the so-called "birthers" who don't believe Obama was born in America and who -- led by tycoon turned TV star Donald Trump -- forced Obama into releasing his birth certificate. Added to that is the insistence, propagated by conservatives on Fox News, that Obama represents a threat to the American way of life and is a closet socialist or even communist.
Finally, many accuse him of secret Muslim sympathies.
Though they sound ridiculous it is easy to underestimate how popular these ideas have become. Trump, for example, rode birtherism to the top of polls in the Republican nomination race. A study last year showed almost 20pc of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim.
Accusations of his socialism are a regular rallying call for Tea Party activists and other groups, some of which claim they will take up arms to defend the country in the wake of the Obama socialist dictatorship that many expect.
Much of this hinges on Obama's race. Nearly all the extreme charges against Obama -- of being Muslim, a communist or a Kenyan -- portray him as 'other' -- something linked to the historic fact of his blackness. "It is not just race at work here, but racism clearly does play a role," said Bowler.
So virulent is the anti-Obama feeling that it infects the mainstream Republican party and potential candidates in the race to face Obama in 2012. That is bound to put off the vital "middle ground" that so often decides a presidential election.
Yet former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has made no secret she believes Obama is a threat to what she says are America's traditional values. If she does not run then Congresswoman Michele Bachmann almost certainly will. She is to the right, even of Palin, and her anti-Obama claims include accusing him of plotting to create a mandatory youth group where American teens would go to "re-education" camps.
Aside from Palin and Bachmann and their heavy-handed accusations, other potential Republicans also fail to inspire.
Former house speaker Newt Gingrich has held no elected office since the early 1990s and is on his third marriage, which does not endear him to the party's social conservatives.
Politicians like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are low on charisma. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee looks like he prefers to continue his TV career at Fox.
Other big names, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, are staying out. Still others, like Mississippi governor Hayley Barbour, have already given up.
When the Republicans held their first TV debate only five potential candidates bothered to show up. "Republicans are run ragged trying to find someone," Bowler said.
Added to that is a more optimistic analysis of the US economy. Though the jobless rate still hovers at just under 9pc -- which is more than enough to defeat an incumbent president -- unemployment is likely to move downwards as 2012 looms.
That is crucial. An electorate's mood is more likely to be kinder to Obama in a bad economy getting better, than a good economy getting worse. All of that raises the prospect that Obama has one thing that all politicians crave: good luck. "He is a lucky president. The Republicans have given him breathing room and he can capitalise on their extremeness and his own steady image," said Gronbeck.
Part of that image -- of the sensible, centre-loving moderate -- will be crafted on his trip to Ireland.
Paul Harris is US Editor of The Observer
Irish Independent Supplement