Four years ago, democracies outside the US were sick of George W Bush and his gang of neo- conservatives blundering all over the world killing people, and creating anger. They were the best recruiters for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Millions, if not the majority, of Americans recognised the damage done to their country’s international reputation with the Bush policy of rendition and torture. It was the time of the ugly American.
Four years ago a young handsome US senator seemed the answer to everyone’s prayers. Barack Obama was a superstar in the political firmament. He had everything other western leaders didn’t have. His was a spellbinding eloquence. He was of the highest intelligence, and above all could inspire confidence in a world down in the dumps. His speeches breathed a morality not heard from any US presidential candidate for many years. His condemnation of torture was unambiguous. He could entrance not just the idealistic young, but the much more worldly wise and sceptical middle and older age groups. “Yes we can,” he said. People believed him. Charismatic didn’t adequately describe him.
Opinion polls taken in 22 foreign countries showed great belief in Obama. In France, compared with his opponent he ranked at 84 per cent, Germany 82 per cent, Australia 81 per cent, UK 74 per cent. The usually sober Economist gushed “Bush hatred has been replaced by Obamamania”, while the stuffy Financial Times got carried away, exclaiming that “Europe can scarcely contain itself” about his coming visit. What a visit: he spoke to an audience of 200,000 people in Berlin. “Yes we can” became not only his optimism-laden slogan, but one that I know was used here by teachers in schools and, lest we forget, by Alex Salmond himself in the Glenrothes by-election.
And, of course, Obama was black. At last it seemed there was to be an end, a fitting end, to the disgrace of discrimination against people of colour which had made a mockery of America’s claim to be the land of the free, and the great protector of democracy. A black family was heading for the White House, backed by an electoral machine that was the greatest ever at piling up campaign contributions.
That was four years ago. It is different now. It is doubtful if this year Obama would attract a Berlin-sized crowd anywhere in Europe. He failed to close down the seat of US torture and contempt for the rule of law, Guantanamo Bay, where military trials, not civil ones, are being carried out. His Middle East policy, which promised to reach out to the Muslim states, has gone on the old usual course, backing Israel in whatever it decides to do with the Palestinians. During his presidency, America’s economy has stuttered and spluttered.
If the Republican nominee this time poses the question to American voters that Ronald Reagan used to demolish Jimmy Carter: “Are you better or worse off than you were four years ago?” he will floor Obama. The US economy is stuck, unemployment is high. No wonder that head of hair is turning grey.
Of course the optimism conveyed by “Yes we can” raised expectations difficult to meet. Obama’s inheritance was awful. Not only the US, but the whole world was facing its biggest financial and economic crisis since the 1930s. The federal government’s debt had soared: one, because of the need to bail out Wall Street, and two, because for years it has been impossible to balance the US budget as the country spent far more than it earned – for every $5 spent, $3 were borrowed.
The rise of China as an industrial power was partly at America’s manufacturing expense. The Muslim Middle East viewed the US as an arrogant and ignorant superpower, drunk on its own self-centred rhetoric, manipulated by Israel. In central and south America, once the fiefdom of the CIA, new political forces were arising to challenge American power and influence.
Obama inherited a superpower no longer quite as super as it had been. Moreover, he is not what the US President is often described as, the most powerful man on earth. He shares power, with congressmen and women and senators, many of whom are in the pockets of the lobbyists who oppose him. None of them owe their seats to Obama, as the Congress elected in 1932 owed theirs to Roosevelt who could, therefore, demand and get their support. Obama has to negotiate.
Four years on the “Yes we can” uplifting, positive President Obama has been transformed into a defensive one whose reply to an opponent hammering at his economic failures, is the purely negative cry: “Show us your tax returns.” Unlike 2008, Obama is being outspent by his Republican rival, and in US politics money talks and usually holds sway. No wonder the Democrats are concerned that they may have another one-termer on their hands.
No doubt there are those who believe that if he wins a second and final term, we will see that other Obama again, forging new paths and breathing new life into world politics. Don’t bet on it.