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There's still time for Obama to redeem his presidency

January 27, 2010 12:29 IST

India should continue with its cautious approach toward Washington as the coming year will find Obama being even more obsessed with his domestic agenda than he has been so far, writes Harsh V Pant.

What difference does a year make? A year ago, Barack Obama was being feted as the first African American to have assumed the US presidency -- ostensibly the most powerful position in the world.

His charisma and ability to carve beautiful, inspiring sentences had convinced Americans that a new era was dawning for their nation. He had inspired a whole new generation of young Americans to see politics as a means for social transformation.

That he came after George W Bush had also enamoured him to the world at large. Bush haters had convinced themselves that since Bush was responsible for every global disaster since September 11, 2001, Obama's ascendance would transform US approach towards the world and the world would become a much better place.

One would be hard-pressed to find similar sentiments today either in the US or anywhere else. The American public's anger at the political establishment in Washington is at an all-time high.

The economic situation, though an improvement over last year, has not been able to provide succour to the ordinary Americans, who are still not getting jobs of their choice. The deficit is ballooning, and the ability of US policymakers to control it remains questionable. But what is most galling to those who voted Obama to power is the distinct left turn that his policies have taken since assuming office.

The year 2008 was supposed to be the death-knell of conservative power in the US -- the end of the "Age of Reagan". Despite voting Obama to office, it is clear that conservative economic and social values remain predominant. The independents who voted for Obama wanted him to chart a middle course in politics, something he had promised in his election campaign.

But the leftists in the Democratic Party saw his victory as a chance to implement their own agenda and shape the US' socio-political landscape for years. This has angered the independents so much that just a year after the Democrats' resounding victory, their leaders are finding that they can't win even their long-held seats.

A spate of withdrawal from this year's senatorial and gubernatorial races by prominent Democrats has caused consternation in the Democratic rank and file about the party's ability to hold on to its majorities in the two houses of the US Congress.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 40 per cent of the American public identified as "conservative" in 2009. The percentage of self-identified "liberals" stood at 21 per cent. Moderates dropped four points to 36 per cent. The percentage of independents identifying as "conservative" rose from 30 to 35 per cent. Independents have moved away from the Democrats as the party has veered left.

This is happening at a time when Obama is coming under a lot of flak for his leadership on security issues. The near miss by a passenger plotting to blow up an US airliner as it flew into Detroit on Christmas Day seems to have shocked Obama as much as the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon did Bush. Obama reportedly has warned his Cabinet colleagues that another "screw-up" like this cannot be tolerated, signalling that his benign leadership style seems to have reached its limits.

Declaring that "the buck stops with me", Obama has ordered a series of incremental measures meant to close gaps in the US intelligence system. It remains far from clear how this renewed focus on terrorism and security issues will alter the priorities of the Obama administration.

Domestically, Obama is being pressed to rescue a badly wounded economy while lobbying a reluctant but allied Congress to pass controversial, ambitious changes in healthcare, climate control and financial regulation.

In foreign policy, Obama's focus is on bringing troops back home from Iraq even as he is expanding US presence in Afghanistan. His ability to lead the world on major global issues is coming under scrutiny. The deal on climate change that he negotiated in Copenhagen is little more than a regurgitation of commitments made at the G20, the 2007 Bali climate ministerial and other climate confabs.

The administration's negotiating strategy continued to rely on a clearly misguided belief that the Chinese were more willing to deal than they turned out to be. Despite Obama's overtures to the Iranian and North Korean regimes, no one seems interested in engagement. North Koreans have ignored Washington while Iranians mullahs have only contempt for the US as they continue to make progress with their nuclear programme.

There is a worry that Obama is ceding the strategic space in Asia-Pacific to China without articulating any meaningful response to the emerging changes in regional balance of power. And his decision to shelve a plan for installing an anti-ballistic missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland may have mollified Russia, but it has created panic in eastern European states and raised questions about credibility of the US as the guarantor of their security.

Despite (Indian Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh being invited as the first State guest of the Obama presidency, it was clear even before Obama's victory that India would not be the top priority of the new administration. As a result, India was perhaps the only country that had not placed too many hopes on Obama.

India should continue with its cautious approach toward Washington as the coming year will find Obama being even more obsessed with his domestic agenda than he has been so far. India as usual will have to fend for its own security interests.

Where as a presidential candidate Obama's lofty rhetoric was inspirational, as a chief executive his leadership style appears vacuous. Often it seems purposeless, drifting to the tunes of his media-obsessed aides who mistake politics for policies and manipulation for statesmanship. There is still time for Obama to redeem his presidency, but that span will only get shorter from now on.

The writer teaches at King's College, London, and is presently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
Harsh V Pant