Saturday 25 November 2017

Peter Casey: How Obama turned himself into O'Boring

IS FEIDIR LINN: President Obama dusts down his cupla focail for the Dublin crowd in 2011. Photo: Frank McGrath
IS FEIDIR LINN: President Obama dusts down his cupla focail for the Dublin crowd in 2011. Photo: Frank McGrath

Peter Casey

When they visited Ireland, we cheered US Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama in their turn. If Barack Obama should return today, the Irish people would be terribly polite, but also terribly bored.

During his visit in May 2011, President Obama proudly claimed to be one-eighth Irish. We welcomed his claim and had a giggle at his good-humoured insistence that he could trace his very name to its Irish version: O'Bama.

But, for the Irish and, indeed, a growing number of Americans, O'Bama has become O'Boring.

And this, I believe, reveals a lot about the president's plummeting approval rating in the States, which stands at just 42pc.

At America's political fringes, there are people who call Obama evil, un-American, a traitor, or worse. But none of these things explains the growing magnitude of discontent among the mainstream.

It's not evil and not even incompetence. It's disappointment.

We Irish have long had a soft spot for the USA. After all, at least 41 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, making the US the biggest single centre of the Irish diaspora.

It's also home to over 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants, concentrated mainly in Boston and New York City.

However, between 2002 and 2011, Ireland received only 15,389 of the 10.5 million permanent resident visas the US granted globally. That's 0.15pc of the total visas issued, with Ireland ranking 85th in priority worldwide.

I have lived and worked in the US for 20 years, and I can tell you that few people have a greater and more positive cultural presence in the country than the Irish.

American presidents, including Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton visited Ireland before Obama. Like Obama, they professed their affection for our land. Unlike Obama, however, they proved themselves great friends of Ireland.

I'm not saying the current president doesn't want to be a friend, I just don't think he has the capabilities, the engagement, or the passion, to follow through on any big picture policies.

At this year's St Patrick's Day reception at the White House for w Enda Kenny, Obama went into full O'Bama mode (he wore a green tie) and called for comprehensive US immigration reform, to include a path to legal residency or citizenship for the undocumented Irish living in the US and paying US taxes. Joe Biden, his Irish-American Vice President cheerily backed the call.

And then what?

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, approved by the Senate over a year ago, was stillborn in the House of Representatives, where Republican Speaker John Boehner has refused to bring it to the floor either for debate or an up-or-down vote.

So how is this the president's fault?

The thing is, most of the 58pc of Americans who don't approve of their president don't really know why. Their vision is too obscured by the malaise oozing out of the Obama presidency to see the true source of their disapproval.

Speaking from a perspective straddling Ireland and America, it's clear that the American people have fallen victim to a bait-and-switch scam.

They elected a dynamic, charismatic, exciting practical idealist. Like FDR, candidate Barack Obama had the marks of all that was best about the Democratic Party. Happy days were here again!

With each passing day, more Americans have realised that the man they elected was not the man sitting in the Oval Office. The one in the Oval Office has lost the respect of other global leaders. He has become a disappointing bore.

During the election campaign, the epithet 'No Drama Obama' was used as a compliment to a cool, confident customer who just wouldn't let himself be rattled.

As the administration unfolded, 'No Drama Obama' began to sound like a slur, an all-too apt characterisation of an executive style running the gamut from aloof to remote.

Worse, it sums up the president's repeated failure to engage, to wrap his arms around problems.

And, when he has engaged, he has made the wrong tactical call, such as his attack on firms who "play the system" through "magically becoming Irish" through inversion deals.

Singling out Ireland may not be a wise move when the practice is prevalent in a number of locations.

Without question, Obama faces relentless, typically mindless, opposition by Republican legislators and the Tea Party is bent on nothing less than his complete destruction.

But how does Obama meet these formidable challenges? By rising to them, like FDR? By confronting belligerence with belligerence, in the manner of Harry Truman?

No way.

Mostly, No Drama Obama ignores them. Or so it appears. Certainly, he does not grapple with them, scuffing his shoes and soiling his hands.

If anything, he seems bored by them. And, to me, it looks as if most Americans - even those who don't tell pollsters they "disapprove" of the president's performance - are, as a consequence, bored with him.

Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton were very different from one another. Yet, speaking as an Irishman, I understand why we embraced them all. They were engaged. They generated enthusiasm, both pro- and anti-, because they were, each in his way, passionate about leadership and service.

What we Irish saw of Obama the campaigner made us eager to greet another exciting American president.

We hoped his administration would fix the US economic disaster that engulfed the world.

Inspired by his message of hope and change, we hoped he would lead a change in US immigration policy to grant hard-pressed Irishmen and women the legal opportunity to make better lives in America.

Even more urgently, we hoped he would ensure undocumented Irish immigrants a path to legal residency or citizenship.

On immigration reform, Obama's inattention has managed to brown off both the American right and left. The right calls him soft on "illegals," while the left condemns him as "deporter-in-chief". Most astoundingly, both sides base their name-calling on the same numbers.

Single-mindedly fixated on the struggle to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, the president has largely ignored immigration reform and has failed to lead on the issue, to passionately stake out a position.

Yes, Congress is stonewalling on the immigration bill. Yet instead of taking that stonewall as a challenge - remember when Ronald Reagan stood at another wall and told Mr Gorbachev to tear it down? - Obama just accepts it.

The fact is, there are things he, as president, can do to bring about reform with or without Congress. First, he can take a stand and appeal directly to the people as a leader.

Second, he can write some executive orders, starting with one waiving the existing 10-year bar on US re-entry for those who have lived in the country without documentation for 12 months or more.

But, clearly, the president is not thinking about the Irish in America or, for that matter, about the Irish in Ireland.

Dan Rooney resigned as US ambassador to Ireland on December 14, 2012. Obama didn't get around to nominating a replacement (St Louis attorney Kevin O'Malley) until June of this year. Those 19 months of dumbfounding indifference does not make Obama a friend to Ireland.

There was no delay at all, back in December 2009, less than a year into his administration, when he hopped on Air Force One to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. And for what? Reaching out to the Middle East.

How's that been working out?

For America, my home since 1994, I hoped the level of inspiration generated by the campaign would rise to new heights.

Bait and switch. It's made Americans too angry to understand that their president's worst failure is a failure of inspiration, resulting in a failure to execute on his promise of hope and change.

Some now call Obama the worst president in US history. A bright man and a sparkling orator, he's dead as a doornail in the absence of a teleprompter.

Americans elected 'Yes, we can!' and ended up with 'Uh, whatever...'

No, Barack Obama's not the worst president. He just turned out to be the most boring.

Peter Casey is founder of Claddagh Resources, an Irish-based global recruitment business. He is also a panellist on RTE's 'Dragons Den'

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