In that November of 2008, Barack Obama had broken the highest glass ceiling in America to become the first ‘black’ man to enter the White House. Young, handsome, cerebral, with exemplary oratorical skills, an inspirational life story and audacious electoral campaign. He had caught the imagination of US voters. More than that, the campaign seemed to connect America directly to the world at some level. After a long time, there had appeared the vision of a US president who was truly a citizen of the world, one who wanted to make peace, not one blinkered by partisan national goals. It didn’t take long for the sheen to peel off the man. And four years on, what we see is not merely a diminution, but at least on the world stage, almost an inversion into what you’d have thought a polar opposite.
So, as he sets out in his quest for a second term, it’s with an alarming drop in his popularity ratings, leading many to ask: how big of an underachiever is Barack Obama? The world is reeling under a global economic crisis, but instead of creative ideation one sees him lapsing into protectionist rhetoric. The entire Arab world is in the throes of a political upheaval, but he is a cautious onlooker. For a man who promised to bring a pacifist turn in world affairs, Obama has neither been able to make peace with the Arab world, nor keep Israel complaisant. Hardly the effect one would expect a statesman to have.
Back home, Obama’s detractors in the Republican Party are labelling him as a “softie” and an “apologist”, trying to apologise to the world for the policies of his predecessors. But many of his erstwhile supporters and admirers are also disappointed at the opposite: with the compromises he is making, often by diluting his own policies and at the cost of ignoring many of his electoral promises—whether to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, where over 170 Al Qaeda prisoners are being held, or his vow to deal with the Arab world as “equals” or his claim to encourage a fairer and just world.
He also angered his European allies by trying to spread the blame of the recession across the Atlantic, perhaps under pressure from Republicans and political detractors. The Europeans feel that instead of doing some serious introspection at home—since the economic crisis was kickstarted in the US—Obama was now coolly trying to pass the buck to Europe.
While his domestic ratings have been hovering in the 40s—which his campaign managers justify as being natural for an incumbent president—it is the significant fall in his ratings in the outside world that comes as a surprise to many. The latest survey, conducted by the American Arab Institute (aai) in five countries in the Arab world, shows Obama’s ratings to be as low as that of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. “Though he did not create the problems,” says aai president James Zogby, “he created the expectations that they can be solved.” Zogby attributes the drop in Obama’s popularity ratings largely to his inability to deliver on his promises.
Obama had indeed kindled much hope with his much-celebrated June 2009 speech in Cairo. Quoting passages from the Quran, he had embarked on his first major mission to heal Arab wounds by stressing that Islam was a religion of peace and had no inherent clash with the West. In an attempt to reinvent America’s standing in the world and reach out to countries—friends and foes alike—via dialogue and engagement, he had tried to convey the clear message that outstanding differences would be settled through dialogue, not war. The US president spoke like a sensitive man of the world, one well aware that the war on terror unleashed by Bush post-9/11, an extension of which saw US troops in Iraq, had alienated a large number of people in the Arab world.
“The Middle East peace process was Obama’s biggest foreign policy failure,” Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister, told Outlook. He categorises Obama’s attempt to put a freeze on the settlements as a precursor to the revival of the peace process as a tactical mistake since it hardened the position of Israeli leaders. He appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to West Asia, but the lack of any forward movement soon forced the senator to resign. “The US president talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk,” says Ben-Ami. This failure, he argues, allowed Benjamin Netanyahu to divert the focus from the Palestinian issue to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Even here, Obama retreated from a promising start—the idea of direct talks died in the post-natal ward, under pressure from the Jewish lobby in the US and Israel. From allowing limited uranium enrichment, he hardened to the position of no enrichment, while imposing more and more sanctions on Tehran. According to Trita Parsi, a Washington-based expert on Iranian affairs and author of a book on Obama’s Iran policy, though the American president came armed with a fresh approach on Iran, he had limited political space and wanted to show results fast, something difficult to achieve in relations as complex as those between Washington and Tehran. Even the latest round of talks with Iran in Moscow failed, because Obama was balancing conflicting interests and pressures in an election year. “Even a small deal in Moscow was not pursued in the belief that it would be politically too costly at home,” says Parsi.
Not many are willing to forgive Obama that easily, or allow circumstances to attenuate his blame. They had reposed far too much faith and confidence in his ability to heal the world by establishing the principles of freedom, liberty and justice. And when change did come, with the Arab Spring, Obama was found dragging his feet, his delayed response disappointing people in this part of the world who expected him to be a ready ally in the toppling of autocratic regimes. Perhaps he was trying to rebalance his position with various factions in the US. But as former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmed comments, “If Obama had pursued his conscience, he would have robustly supported the Arab people’s aspiration for freedom and liberty. Instead, he was trying to push an agenda to ensure America’s hegemony in the region against people’s aspirations.” “It is most disappointing,” Ahmed goes on to add, “that Obama’s policies turned out to be no different from those of his predecessors.” Everyone agrees that Obama failed to follow his words with commensurate action in the Arab world. But what of India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, whose portrait hangs in his Senate office and whose words—‘Be the Change’—became the rallying cry on his inaugural poster? How should we see Obama’s policies?
Laden moment From a policy of least involvement, US has moved to attacking enemy positions in Af-Pak region
The US president has come a long way from the days when he laid out his Asia Security Strategy and forgot to mention India. The US has now come to recognise India as the “lynchpin” of its security policy in the region, never mind if it came after Beijing rebuffed his attempt to set up a Group of Two (G-2) arrangement. However, Indian policy planners and commentators are not losing any sleep over hiccups that might have been. As long as India’s core concerns, namely over China, Pakistan, Kashmir and in the nuclear field, are taken care of, and as long as the US is not planning a special arrangement with China to run Asia’s security, New Delhi has no reason to complain. “Obama turned out to be far more supportive of India than initially expected,” says C. Rajamohan of the Observer Research Foundation. Why, from a stance favouring minimal involvement in Afghanistan—largely to keep Pakistan happy—to a position where US drones are not only constantly attacking terrorist positions on the Af-Pak border but it is also asking India to play a much larger role for the peace, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan, it is a significant shift in India’s favour. Not only that, Obama has also promised to support India’s candidature in the UN Security Council and field it in other important bodies like the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
Raghavan also expresses disappointment over America’s policy of trying to isolate Iran, which he feels will adversely impact the outcome of stability in Afghanistan. “Attempts to box in Iran will have serious implications for Afghanistan. It is surprising that the Obama administration is following this course, while simultaneously wanting to leave behind a stable Afghanistan,” he says.
So, in a tired status-quoist sort of way, if one considers national interest to be permanent and paramount in foreign policy, Indians would not be too unhappy were Obama to get a second term. At another level, though, it shares the disappointment with the world over the man who first taught the world to say ‘Yes, we can’ only to discover that, no, he cannot.
How Obama Is Tripping Vis-A-Vis India
Photograph by Prabhjot Singh Gill
FDI Obama’s push for more foreign investment betrays an ignorance of India’s complex socio-economic and political reality
Iran America’s growing pressure on India on economic engagement with Iran ignores realpolitik and traditional ties
Photograph by Quickpix
Nuclear deal Touted as the touchpoint in Indo-US ties, Obama has not been able to work around liability laws
I’m afraid the Outlook piece sounds more a reprisal for what Time did than what Obama did. The economic outlook of the US is far better than when Obama ascended. The recession and preceding years of globalisation had induced a structural change in the economy. A two-tier labour market and inadequate stimulus (mostly due to Republican opposition) have ensured that inequality and unemployment remain stubbornly high, though. As for foreign policy, Obama has shown the brightest spark here. Instead of Bush’s rubbish ‘principalism’ or the idealism of his predecessors, Obama’s played his cards smartly. He recognises the limits of American power, and accordingly presses it where he can (Libya, unmanned vehicles in Af-Pak) and recedes where he cannot (Egypt, Iraq). And lastly, protectionist rhetoric. The US (save for agriculture) is among the least protectionist in the world; India is far, far more protectionist. However, Obama’s lasting accomplishment is Obamacare—ushering in a new period of universal healthcare.
Akshat Khandelwal, Delhi
There is absolutely nothing special about Obama as the POTUS, except perhaps the colour of his skin, which has distracted people.
Khagaraj Sommu, Hyderabad
Your story says Obama tried to attach the blame of recession on his European allies, perhaps under pressure from Republicans and political detractors. Really? Have you not heard about his labour union backers who blame everything on foreigners? Of course, blaming Republicans (and anyone but himself) is Obama’s stock-in-trade. On the foreign policy front too, Obama has as much spine as the nearest centipede. Evidence Iran, where he failed to lift a finger for the real winners of the 2009 elections. Ditto for Syria. He is no friend of India’s either. He has none of the conviction Bush had before the election in 2000 when he alerted Condi Rice to India’s importance. Obama is not just a disappointment but a disaster who makes Jimmy Carter—another non-friend of India—look a terrific success.
Vijay, New York
Obama reminds one of a novice who, to win an election, gave assurances soaked in milk and honey, but fell flat when faced with harsh realities.
G. Venkatesh, Chennai
Obama only played the typical game of politics. He whipped up a massive illusion to have people running after him, and once elected, it went poof!
Ramesh Raghuvanshi, Pune
Sunit Sebastian, Surat
Your analysis of Obama is not wrong per se, but you also have to consider some extraneous circumstances. These include, among other things, the opposition party turning out to be in majority, some of his own party members opposing his ideas, big banks not cooperating, oil prices rising suddenly, the monetary crisis in Europe, the deep holes left behind by the previous administration and the Middle East upheaval.
Ashok, St Petersburg, US
Obama indeed has nothing to show on the policy front. But that wasn’t for lack for trying; he tried to innovate in his initial years and was threatening to “change the way Washington functions” as he had promised, but all his initiatives were futile in the final analysis, they didn’t sustain. Coupled with this, the Republican Majority in Congress in the latter half of his tenure stifled his legislations. The attempt to build bipartisanship failed big time, like no other.
Obama inherited the biggest recession since the great depression and gave it an honest try to change its course, reformed healthcare, saved the auto manufacturing industry, took out bin Laden.... What does Manmohan have to show?
Arpan Banerjee, Durgapur
Apropos your retaliatory cover on Barack Obama (The Underachiever, July 30), you could heed the Gita: “na paapey pritipaapey syat”—do not commit a sin in retaliation for a sin.
V.K. Kapoor, Ludhiana
At a time Obama is putting thousands to death with his missiles and drones in Yemen, Somalia and AfPak, how can you call him an underachiever? By all tests, he’s a monstrous overachiever!
Atin Gupta, on e-mail
Obama is the first person to win a Nobel on the basis of his speeches. His presidency started with an inaugural speech that was a bang—and rest has been whimper after whimper.
Dr George Jacob, Kochi
The question is, why is it only the American president that is making these remarks, or why is it only his perception of India that is given such prominence. What do the various European and Asian countries that have invested in India say? There are many companies, like Nokia, Toyota, Alcatel, Samsung, Alsthom, Matshushita et al that have operations in India. They all seem to be reasonably content, though no one is very happy with the infrastructure in India. There's more to the world than what the US president and Wal-Mart think about India.
It's amazing that a nation that rallied behind the likes of Gandhi, DadaBhai Naroji and Nehru- has a surprisingly low level of tolerance to hear what we know but don't like.
I think you guys have acted in an extremely childish manner by adopting a 'tit-for-tat' approach on this magazine cover matter.
Of late, there's a growing intolerance towards taking criticism about our system. Instead of retaliating with results, we much rather dig dirt on the critic itself. We are facing a policy paralysis - you guys have pointed it out in your previous issues too - so its nothing new. The only new variable here is the commenter, Barack Obama.
India is a growing power - and the only thing Barack's comments show is that the global reliance on india's policies is higher than ever - and we need to deliver.
"The Magna Carta dates from 1215, the American Declaration of Independence came in 1776. How does that make the United States the oldest democracy in the world ?"
That is because a lot of people do not think of Magna Carta as "democracy" - it was an attempt (eventually though didn't work) for the "royalty/landed class/feudals" to avoid a revolution/class struggle, and co-opt at least a significant part of the "lower classes". They of course had not thought thru and understood that once you offer the little pinky the serfs would sooner or later grab the hand.
Part of it of course, is whether you buy the British speel or the American one. Personally, "oldest", "largest" are all a bunch of crap anyways - mostly meaningless. We claim to be the "largest" democracy, because we have regular elections and by and large free-and-fair. This is the gentle slope of democracy to climb and in our case anyways that has turned out to be an "elected monarchy" - since family above all else is a basic building block for us. The real steep slope of democracy is functioning rule of law - we are a long distance from that and nor is it an assured place we will find.
To the extent I understand these things, I do think the American democracy is the "most functional" and hence most mature.
Although the tit for tat cover story might look over the top for a magazine with a fairly decent reputation, i think it was novel idea. Not for spiting Obama or readers in the US – and that seems a bit far-fetched – but intended specifically for those among us who gave far too much credence to the Time article. Whether or not Time's narration was true hardly mattered, but it was painful to see some of our politicians and journalists trying to disapprove the contents of the MMS story. As Shoma Chaudhury asked (http://www.tehelka.com/story_main53.asp?filename=Op210712How.asp), “How can a class of people who lust after ‘superpower’ status show such pygmy-sized self-worth?”
And for the record, i believe both MMS and Obama have been huge disappointments. MMS at least was devoid of hype.
Substituting President Obama with Rahul Gandhi and Governor Romney with CM Modi, if the situation played out like this
Future Union Minister Rahul Gandhi, who steals his bete' noire Narendra Modi's laws in Gujarat and implements them while still attacking those policies of NaMo (Hypothetical situation, could be vice-versa, but substituting Congress for Democrats and BJP fo Republicans)
Do you think such an act is correct or ethical, the person is elected due to his inherent quality @ thinking out and providing quality services to the Public, not politicking and plagiarising programs .... if such a thing happens it will only expose those in power as lackadaisical in atitude towards the public welfae & being aloof from their ideology (In essence politics is about the clash of ideologies)
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