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Sunday 1 November 2009

Obama failing to stand the test of time

The US President can talk the talk but not walk the walk, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Mostly, I avoided talking about President Obama when I was in the US last month. The right cried communist and traitor; the left were plunged in gloom because he had sold out to capitalists and war-mongers; and the polarisation and anger was such that the centre seemed scared to talk about him at all.

Worse, the big issue preoccupying everyone was health care and I could barely understand what they were getting excited about, let alone reach a view: the right believe the projected reforms will make doctors kill off the sick and the left think that even to ask questions about where the money is coming from shows a callous disregard for the plight of the unfortunate.

My only firm opinion, which is reinforced every time I go to America, is that the populace is dangerously over-medicated, should eat less and better and walk a lot more. Not that it's easy to follow the latter bit of that prescription. Did you know that post-war housing in suburban America was mostly built with huge garages and no pavements? It was not for nothing that a hotel receptionist in Texas once described me as intrepid when she learned I was going for a 20-minute walk.

Anyway, back to Obama, who had a bad week last week. Republicans won two key elections in Virginia and New Jersey because the young and the blacks who came out in huge numbers during the presidential election stayed at home and the people who bothered to vote think their president doesn't know how to fix the economy. But who does? Like Gordon Brown, Obama is a bit of a ditherer except when it comes to chucking tax-payers' money around in a desperate effort to stop a recession becoming a depression. The average Hank in the street instinctively dislikes big government and big public spending, and worries that the trillion dollars the president has injected into shoring up inefficient bits of capitalism has been largely wasted. The two governors elected last week promise fiscal prudence.

Then there's the little matter of war and peace. Now Obama hates being laughed at, but even some of his supporters find it hilarious that in his first year of office he's been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while his armies are in Iraq and Afghanistan and his air force is bombing dodgy bits of Pakistan. He's far too smart not to know he was given the prize because -- having shown their loathing for George W Bush by honouring in 2007 his old opponent Al Gore -- the Norwegians wanted to diss Bush again; he must wonder if it wouldn't have been wiser to turn it down.

As he agonises over the contrasting views of his generals and his party about Afghanistan and counter-terrorism, he must also know that large swathes of the electorate believe he was rewarded for appeasing Russian and Iranian bullies and for popping in and out of foreign countries apologising for aspects of the American past. It has shocked many that unlike every president over the past two decades, Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama for fear of upsetting China.

There is no shortage of citizens who believe Obama isn't a proper American and it isn't because -- as that idiot Jimmy Carter claims -- they're racist. It's because they regard him as a card-carrying member of the liberal elite they loathe and think him a prisoner of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, whose sanctimony drives them crazy.

Obama reminds me more and more of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the clever, charming masters of crowd-pleasing rhetoric who became more popular abroad than at home. Like them, he's a lawyer, a master of high-sounding rhetoric that disguises naked ambition and ruthless pragmatism, talks the talk better than he walks the walk, seems to be more worried about the next election than about delivering the domestic agenda he promised and has a tough feminist lawyer wife who loves the limelight and never lets him forget she's better qualified than him. Indeed, Obama seems even more anxious to placate his wife than were Clinton and Blair: in the tight circle of Chicago, cronies around Obama are close friends of Michelle.

Intellectually, I thought that a small-time lawyer whose main work-experience was as an activist in the sewer of Chicago politics and who never delivered as a legislator was a poor choice for the presidency. Like many other doubters, though, part of me was delighted to see a black family in the White House.

The world is in a mess, we need a strong America and I would love Obama to do a good job; but as the months go by, he looks more and more completely out of his depth.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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