Thursday 21 February 2019

Forget the critics, he really is more steak than sizzle

Niall Stanage, author of a book on the Obama campaign, assesses his presidency a year on

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton trip over themselves to praise each other these days. Not so long ago, it was a very different story.

The battle between the two for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination was long, intense and often bitter.

One of the earliest -- and most memorable -- examples of the rising enmity between them came in February 2008. As the prize that had seemed hers for the taking began to slip from her grasp, the former First Lady delivered a sarcastic speech to supporters.

"I could just stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified'," she said, aping Obama. She adopted a grandiose, mocking tone and threw one hand theatrically into the air: "The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect."

Like so much else about Clinton's campaign, the comments were both cynical and ineffective. They did little more than seal a perception of her as the gloomy 'anti-hope' candidate. TV satirist Jon Stewart joked her new slogan should be: "Vote Clinton -- Because a Deaf God Ignores Our Pleas."

But even if Clinton's remarks did not do her much good, the idea that they encapsulated remains the central critique of Obama: that he is too soft and reluctant to accept that change can sometimes require brute political force rather than charm and moral suasion.

The story of Obama's supposed lack of grit has been propagated in recent weeks by publications as diverse as Washington's National Journal and London's The Sun. The former carried a cover story last month bearing the headline "Is Obama Tough Enough?"; the latter ran an appraisal of his first year in office in which he was accused of "dithering" and being "weak".

Obama has a standard response to these taunts. The same month Clinton made her "celestial choirs" speech, I watched him address a rally in Baltimore, Maryland. "I have to explain to people: I'm skinny but I'm tough," he said, amid laughter. "I'm wiry. Don't mess with me. Let them bring it on."

The jocular response was classic Obama. But it hinted at a larger truth. The accusation that he lacks iron is one Obama has faced repeatedly. He has repeatedly disproved it. Yet this has, weirdly, done little to inhibit its spread.

A few obvious facts bear repeating.

First, no-one could defeat the Clintons in a Democratic Party election without having toughness in abundance. Second, no Democrat in the modern era has had an easy journey to the White House -- in the 44 years between Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide and Obama's 2008 triumph, a grand total of two members of the party won the presidency. Third, it is laughable to suggest that an African-American whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama could make it to the Oval Office on hope and charm alone.

The accusation that Obama lacks resilience goes hand-in-hand with complaints that he is insubstantial -- a rock star of politics who is, as the phrase has it, "all sizzle, no steak".

Obama has embraced the populist aspect of his appeal, albeit with occasional shows of ambivalence. Detractors carp about his willingness to sit down with talk show hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno, to make his case for policy proposals from within the pages of glossy magazines, or to muse publicly and at length, as he did earlier this year, about what kind of dog to get for his daughters.

None of this is fake. But there is a shrewdness at work, too. Obama's personal popularity has long exceeded that of Democrats generally. His appearances on chat show couches remind America of the likeability that encouraged them to elect him. Taking his message to unusual forums helps Obama connect with audiences that do not pay microscopic attention to the twists and turns that are discussed so breathlessly on TV's cable news channels. On more orthodox political matters, the natural calmness of Obama's temperament, which worries the more skittish of his ideological allies, has potent strategic uses.

During the summer, with the push for health care reform apparently becalmed, even observers sympathetic to Obama were demanding that he become more demonstrative and forceful before all was lost.

Obama instead stuck with the strategy that he and his advisors had formulated at the outset. The president would assert the importance of the issue and would enunciate the principles he expected any legislation to enshrine -- but he would leave it to Congress to fill in the details.

Even those who oppose him are now coming to accept that Obama will get some form of health reform passed. If that happens, the purportedly callow Obama will have succeeded where the Clintons failed ignominiously in 1993. He will also bring the country within touching distance of universal health coverage -- a goal which every Democratic president has dreamed about.

There have been other examples of understated political courage. When Obama led the push for the $787bn stimulus package that was passed in February, he took on conservatives furious about what they saw as excessive government intervention and liberals who argued that the stimulus was too small to be effective.

The third-quarter of this year saw the US economy grow by 3.5pc, thus bringing the recession to an official end. America still has huge economic problems, but Obama's approach is gaining traction.

In the wider world, Obama has shown little sign of timidity or naivety. He set a withdrawal from Iraq in train months ago. Frontline US combat troops will be home by the end of next summer; all US forces will be out by the end of 2011. The outlawing of torture by US forces and the banning of secret overseas prisons run by the CIA were among his first actions on taking office.

As for Afghanistan, what is unforgivable "dithering" in the eyes of some is, to others, an admirable belief in the need for rigorous analysis. When it came to dispatching American troops to far-off lands, George W Bush never dithered -- and two botched and disastrous wars were the consequence.

There are undoubtedly some areas in which Obama has fallen short. He is unlikely to meet the one-year self-imposed deadline for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay. His attempts to re-invigorate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians have been noticeably lacking the sure-footedness he has exhibited elsewhere. But, overall, he is performing perfectly well. And the American people seem to think so, too. For all the talk about his decline, a Gallup poll taken this week found his job approval rating to be 53pc -- a figure that precisely matched the share of the vote he received in his decisive victory a year ago.

Though it is true that Obama received a lot of positive press coverage when his election campaign first caught fire in early 2008, there has also been, for a long time, a lesser-noticed media trend: a constant suggestion he casts some kind of spell which will inevitably be broken. A London Times headline announced: "America starts to sober up from a heavy dose of Obama-mania" in February 2008, nine months before he was elected. In that same month, New York magazine asked the same question that was posed by National Journal just weeks ago: "Is Obama Tough Enough?"

Wiser heads are not fooled by the media noise. Obama is not an electoral sorcerer who is about to be found out. Underlying the personal charisma and lofty rhetoric is a formidable range of political skills. Previous opponents long ago discovered something that the naysayers of the moment will realise soon enough. There is plenty of steel behind Barack Obama's smile.

Irish Independent

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