Friday, February 12, 2010

Is Obama Magic on the Wane?

M. Serajul Islam

Published in The Daily Star, 13th February, 2010

PRESIDENT Obama could not resist blaming his predecessor for a lot of the current mishaps to shore up his declining approval rating. In his state of the union address on January 27th , his second since becoming President and given on completion of his first year in office, he said early in his address: “one year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy devastated by recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse and a government deeply in debt.” He said that although the worst was over, deep problems remained with job loss being the most serious where 1 in every 10 Americans was unemployed.

Senator McCain, his opponent in the presidential elections, while giving his reaction on the speech, said that the President did a BIOB or, "blame it on Bush", to explain the not so satisfactory state of the union. The USA is still involved militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the President's election promise to bring the troops home. In fact, he has sent more troops to Afghanistan. Job losses have not yet been contained. These factors have neutralized "Obama-mania" that had brought the President to power last year amidst great expectations.

In fact, going to the address, the approval rating of the President had fallen to 48% in Gallup's daily tracking poll. A year ago, when he had entered office, the approval rating was 67%. That was not the only bad news for him. A week before the address, the Democrats lost the Massachusetts seat of late Senator Edward Kennedy that was considered the safest seat for the party in the country. The loss of the seat was a case of double jeopardy for the Democrats because as a result of the loss, the party also lost its super majority of 60 seats in Senate that was a shield for them against filibustering by the Republicans at a time when the White House had a number of important agenda, including the very crucial health care, in the Congress. More significantly, the loss of such an assured seat for which the President himself had campaigned, hinted at the waning of the Obama magic although the lackluster and casual campaign attitude of the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley was also an important factor for the loss. Earlier in November last year, the Democrats had lost the Governor's elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

Despite McCain's criticism, the President was justified to do the BIOB because a lot of the current problems that the President is facing are indeed because of the misadventures of President Bush abroad and his mishandling of the economy. It is just not that President Bush took the country first to Afghanistan for fighting the war on terrorism; he left that war unfinished to take USA to Iraq where there was no war on terror to be fought. In between the two wars, the USA has spent hundreds of billions of US dollars abroad. At home, President Bush, too busy fighting wars overseas, allowed the economy to fall into the hands of corrupt and greedy bosses of leading financial institutions who helped bring the US economy face to face with its worst economic predicament since the Great Depression that forced President Obama's new administration to pump close to a trillion dollars to save the economy. It is to the President's credit that he has taken up the challenge to take the US out of the doldrums into which President Bush had led the economy and foreign relations instead of putting all the blame on his predecessor. Even in his state of the union address, President Obama has been not been very explicit. He has been forced to do the BOIB because the Republicans have been insensitive, even blaming him for the job losses that have been entirely due to the actions of President Bush.

Not very long ago the elder Bush had lost his re-election bid for his failure to focus on the economy. Success in the first Gulf War and ending the Cold War had convinced him of getting elected for a second term easily. After the state of the union address in January 1991, his approval rating soared to 84% He did not pay attention to an economy that was on the slide. A virtually unknown Governor Clinton of Arkansas who accepted the democratic nomination that many in his party was not too eager to accept cashed on people's frustration with a President engrossed in his achievements abroad and voted him to office on the slogan “it is the economy, stupid.” Although the cases are not similar, the issue is and it goes to the credit of President Obama that he has realized it and devoted the major part of his speech on the economy and job creation.

The priorities in the speech were well conceived for reaching the average American. The health care bill that the President prepared as a top priority in his first year figured inconspicuously in his address with little time wasted to make the case. Foreign policy and national security issues were given 9 minutes only in a speech that was over an hour where the President re-iterated his election promise to bring the troops home. On Afghanistan, where he has committed extra troops against his election promise, the President devoted just one paragraph in which he said that though there were difficult times ahead, he was confident that USA would win. While putting the economy ahead, the President also called for new spending and tax cuts to add to the US $ 787 stimulus package he announced last year that will push stimulus measures beyond the US$ 1 trillion mark. Pushed ahead in the agenda to substantiate his seriousness with the economy and job creation were issues such as doubling exports over next five years that would bring extra 2 million jobs; a 3 years freeze on domestic spending except Medicare and social security that will help save US$ 20 billion for reinvestment to create additional jobs. While admitting that the measures he had proposed in his speech would address the economic ills, he did not think the measures would do enough to bring unemployment down from the 10% at present. For the middle class, the President offered nearly doubling child tax credit and benefits for college education. He called for building more nuclear power plants for encouraging American innovation and emphasized upon clean energy, offering rebates for energy efficient homes.

The speech should go down well with the majority of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down by eight years of President Bush. The President has acknowledged the dangers about what goes with “it is the economy, stupid,” by putting economic issues affecting majority of the Americans ahead of issues of foreign policy and national security. A newspaper carried the story under the caption “a dose of reality; a bid to restore magic,” that aptly captured the rationale around which the President built his speech. It has also helped the President to touch base with supporters in his own party very effectively. The Rasmussen Report daily Presidential Tracking Poll returned a figure of 50% Democrats who strongly approved the President's performance on the morning of his speech. Two days after the speech, the figure rose to 65%. The figure is significant because in the Massachusetts Senate election and the two governor's election that the Democrats' lost, disaffection among the party supporters was a major cause for the defeats. With mid-term Congressional elections later in November when 1/3rd of Senate and the whole House of Representatives will be elected, this surge in the President's approval rating among the supporters of his party is very significant because it could herald the re-energizing of the party for the electoral test ahead. The speech may also have addressed the concern in the party that the diverse coalition that President Obama had brought together to win the White House was not breaking in the seams. It may not have re-kindled the “Obama magic” or Obamamania but it may have stopped it from waning.

The author is former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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