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Sunday 11 July 2010

Leader more 'Barack no mates' than 'No drama Obama'

A politician rather than idealist, president has become distanced from electorate, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

STYLE matters. So for Barack Obama, whom many feared had more style than substance, it matters more than for most incumbents of the American presidency. He won votes even among Republicans, many of whom worried that John McCain was too old, irascible and impulsive to be president, and took a chance on the reassuringly young, calm, thoughtful 'No drama Obama'.

African-American voters were a given: he won 95 per cent. And for first-time voters -- 69 per cent of whom voted for him -- apart from his good looks, he offered the fusion of cultures represented by a mixed-race Harvard-educated lawyer at ease with white and black alike.

"Obama," observed an African-American Studies academic, "is like the hip black friend you have, so it was never a stretch for them to visualise him as president." They loved it when Professor Cool greeted men with the 'brotherhood clasp' and the message of hope and change and 'Yes We Can' that launched tens of millions of T-shirts.

Reality has dimmed the enthusiasm of the black and young supporters, whose vision was that their hero would end wars, make peace with traditional enemies and behave at home like the Chicago community activist who once hung out with radicals like the one-time domestic terrorist, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.

But Obama is more politician than idealist. Did he not emerge triumphantly from the political sewer that is Chicago and rise to the highest office in the land without ever having proved himself by running anything or being an effective senator?

Did he not appoint as his chief-of-staff the fiery, thuggish Chicago veteran Rahm ('Rahmbo') Emanuel?

Obama is no more keen than any of his predecessors to be a one-term president, so he must deal with the reality that he is in charge of a conservative country.

The latest Gallup poll finds 42 per cent of Americans describe themselves as either very conservative or conservative, 35 per cent as moderate and only 20 per cent as liberal. While these figures are not far out of line with the usual pattern, conservatives are at a record-high level -- 42 per cent versus 37 per cent in 2008 -- and what is particularly scary for Obama is that 36 per cent as opposed to 30 per cent of independents now classify themselves as ideological conservatives.

Worse still, 49 per cent of Americans -- up 10 points from 2008 -- think the Democrats have moved too far left, while just over 40 per cent believe the views of Republicans are "about right" -- a 7 per cent increase in the last two years.

Obama knows he's facing a real possibility that his party could lose control of Congress in the November mid-term elections. Conservatives think he's wasted almost a trillion dollars on a stimulus package they don't think is working, while believing his health care plan ill-thought-out and ruinously expensive.

They regard him as a hypocrite for jettisoning his policy of ruling by consensus to force through contentious legislation and are not to be easily placated by his trimming of environmental policies like cap-and-trade.

And it's not just conservatives who are alarmed by the president's record in foreign policy. Obama's initial approach was to start afresh by showing respect, deference and flexibility towards hostile regimes. At home that was seen by the majority as counter-productive and humiliating appeasement. That Obama's wooing of the Islamic world and Iran in particular has produced no concessions has been a cause of grim satisfaction to his critics.

His coldness towards Israel in the spring alarmed the right, while his cosying up to Prime Minister Netanyahu last week is generally seen as cynically self-serving. And his rush to a deal with Russia over spies alarms those who believe it necessary to hang tough with a bully like President Vladimir Putin.

Then there's the war, where he has pleased no one. The left are shocked that the US is still in Afghanistan and that drones are killing civilians in Pakistan. The military -- as was graphically illustrated during the recent debacle that ended the career of General McChrystal -- find Obama disengaged, unsympathetic and a ditherer. And Americans venerate the military. Democrats, who were savage in their attacks on George W. Bush's failures over Hurricane Katrina, are aghast that Obama seems equally powerless to deal with the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Threatening to "kick ass" was seen as a pathetic sop to macho America.

Obama's friends too often dismiss his domestic enemies as racist (which, of course, some are), but for most it's not the colour of his skin that alienates them, but the feeling that he is un-American -- not just because he spent so much of his youth abroad, but because his values are perceived as European and he is often seen as arrogant, didactic, elitist, statist, politically correct and unknowable.

Republicans are smelling victory. With his approval ratings plummeting, and Lady Gaga -- with 10 million followers -- outstripping him on Facebook, Obama will need all his considerable brains, charm and cunning to re-connect with the electorate.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards