Three and a half years ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States of America on a frigid January morning in Washington. He was basking in adoration: Americans were giddy with the promise of epochal change. Expectations set by the young president’s messianic campaign had by then gone stratospheric. In the years since, for many Americans, a sobering realisation has dawned. The man they had so enthusiastically elected to the highest office in the land was, after all, just a man and not the harbinger of miracles they had expected.
Obama’s approval ratings have dropped, his fan base has dwindled and he is in a bruising battle for his political life against Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, in the November election. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who once led a private equity firm, has made his business experience the centrepiece of his campaign and says that as president he would be better at restoring jobs to America’s tepid economy.
Polls suggest it won’t be smooth sailing for Obama. A Gallup poll found his approval ratings at 67 per cent at the start of his presidency. Fast-forward to July when a Reuters/Ipsos poll found his ratings down to 48 per cent. So how did the prophet of hope and change find himself at such a pass? What went wrong? The short answer: the economy.
“The economy, more than any other single factor, drives public opinion of the presidency,” says Chris Jackson, research director with Ipsos Public Affairs. “While the presidency does not have a lot of control over the economy, that is what voters use—their own economic conditions—to judge how good a job the president is doing,” he adds.
The top concerns of most Americans are tied to the economy: do they have a job; can they make ends meet; and is their community economically viable? As global economies, including in Europe, India and China, have sputtered, the Obama administration has struggled with its share of seemingly intractable problems. It has tried desperately to bring down the unemployment rate, but monthly statistics have provided little cheer.
Obama continued the unpopular bailouts, started by the Bush administration, for struggling banks. Insurance companies and an auto industry teetering on the brink of extinction were also thrown financial lifelines. The stories of greed and corruption in the financial sector sparked the Occupy Wall Street protests in September 2011, which the bank bailouts only served to fan. The protests started in New York and quickly spread to major metropolitan cities, including Washington and San Francisco. In the US Congress, the partisanship Obama railed against as a candidate has only grown worse.
So has the glow that surrounded the United States of America’s first African American president dimmed since that January morning in 2009? Absolutely, says Jackson the pollster. It is not just the economy that has hurt Obama. In many ways, he is the victim of his own popularity, the unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled promises. “He had been promised as everything to everyone...and there was no way that any person could deliver on all the expectations,” says Jackson.
On the international front too, things have not gone as planned. Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes Obama has fallen short of his transformational promises on issues like controlling global warming, reducing global poverty, repairing US ties with the Islamic world and pursuing nuclear disarmament. He says Obama went out of his way to raise expectations because it was critical to his strategy of winning the presidency at home and gaining popularity abroad. “I believe he had a great deal of self-confidence that his brand of politics, or as he sometimes called it, ‘post-partisan politics’, would allow him to do some commonsensical things that had escaped the previous presidents who tried to govern in more traditional terms,” O’Hanlon says.
“He believed he could actually achieve some of these ‘higher expectations’...it wasn’t just a lot of malarkey and campaign rhetoric. On the other hand, I don’t think it was all that realistic and the disappointments that have resulted in many places have been partly caused by the heightened expectations,” adds O’Hanlon who co-authored the book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy, with Brookings colleagues Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal.
Indyk told an audience earlier this year that there is a “considerable gap” between Obama’s vision and the final result. That’s because the president is a compromiser, he contended, echoing a top complaint of many American voters who believe Obama has been too quick to compromise. “We see that so much in the way that he handles domestic politics, but you see it very clearly in the way he handles foreign policy too,” Indyk says. That’s not been bad for the country, he hastens to add, “but there’s no breakthrough moment. There’s no inspirational, transformational events under this presidency”.
The blame for a dearth of significant policy achievements does not lie with Obama alone. In the US Congress, he has had to deal with a hostile Republican Party which has thwarted his every effort to push through major policy since it gained a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. For most Americans, this political gridlock reflects poorly on Congress, which has of late scored some of its lowest approval ratings ever.
“There was considerable hope that Barack would bring change to American politics,” says Dean Robinson, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, “a hope predicated on a ‘moralistic’ view of American politics—that sound, bipartisan leadership was the antidote to the gridlock and deep partisanship that stands in the way of good public policy. That view was and is misguided.”
Obama came to office promising a multilateral approach to foreign policy with the goal of repairing the damage caused by Bush’s unilateral style. In an unprecedented campaign speech in Berlin in July 2008, he promised better transatlantic relations. And in the summer of 2009, as president, he delivered a stirring speech in Cairo in which he vowed to heal the rift between the US and the Islamic world.
But unlike Bush, spreading democracy to other parts of the world was never the focal point of Obama’s agenda. So it’s ironic that on his watch the Arab Spring protests have toppled long-entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and replaced them with democratically elected governments. And that in Burma, the military held historic elections in which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament. The Arab Spring, in particular, caught the administration by surprise. “When you begin your discussion of the Obama foreign policy with the issue of hope and change and expectations, you wind up in a fairly sober assessment of what he has been able to do,” says O’Hanlon.
In most polls, Obama scores high marks for his handling of national security, traditionally a strong suit of the Republicans. He has eliminated dangerous Al Qaeda militants and ended an unpopular war in Iraq. His shining moment was the killing of Osama bin Laden in a daring US Navy Seals raid inside Pakistan in May 2011. However, that high was quickly eclipsed by the grim news on the economic front. “In American politics, events like the bin Laden killing have a much shorter shelf life than they had two decades ago. And when the economy is bad, it has a tendency to trump everything else,” says Jackson.
One of his staunchest constituencies, the green brigade, are also a tad disappointed. “On the night he won his party’s nomination, he said that in his presidency the ‘rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet begin to heal’,” says Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign that works in 188 countries. “But the substance is far more mixed—he failed at Copenhagen, and also in the Senate, to win significant climate change legislation. He increased gas mileage stipulations for cars which is good, but also pursued much more mining and drilling in the US, which will in the end undercut carbon goals.”
Healthcare offers a case study of the ways in which Obama has delivered and fallen short of expectations, feels Robinson. “By expanding Medicaid eligibility and mandating that individuals buy insurance on pain of penalty, the Affordable Care Act will expand coverage to millions of Americans currently lacking health insurance. However, it is estimated that something like 25 million will still lack health insurance,” he says.
Robinson feels that Obama’s not managing expectations well may in part be due to the fact that the president faces heightened scrutiny on account of his race. Still, as O’Hanlon puts it, “The expectations are part of what he really believes in...maybe he has been sobered and brought down to earth by the realities of governing”. That last part will perhaps be key for how America and the world judges Obama’s term now.