Dashed Hopes How Obama Disappointed the World

As America's first black president, Barack Obama electrified an entire nation. But now that the nation is in crisis, he seems unable to connect with the people. He wanted to change America and restore its reputation in the world. But now his opponents are dictating the country's political course.



He was constrained by a number: 140, the maximum characters a Twitter message can contain. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, it was US President Barack Obama's own, self-imposed limit. Obama was hosting a "Twitter Town Hall Meeting" in the East Room of the White House, where he hoped to explain his policies through the new medium.

It's a challenge for a politician to restrict his comments to 140 characters, especially during a budget crisis in which anger and shouting seemed to prevail over actual arguments.

"I'm going to make history here as the first president to live tweet," Obama said with an amused smile, as he walked up to a laptop adorned with the presidential seal. These were big words for a particularly insignificant event.

Obama has always managed to win over Americans with big words. He used big words to raise expectations and establish a mood of change in the 2008 presidential election campaign, when he inspired the country with his slogan "Yes, we can."

Obama, who signs his tweets with "bo," began with a question: "In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep?"

The tweeting session lasted more than an hour. But after his first tweet, Obama stopped typing into the laptop and, like any other politician, spoke into the microphone, giving long responses which were up to 3,900 characters in length, instead of the 140-character Twitter messages. It was a barrage of ifs and buts, that included the usual political rhetoric, and when the event drew to a close, some would have been tempted to ask what exactly was different about this first Twitter event hosted by the US president.

High Hopes

When Barack Obama was elected almost three years ago, the country seemed intoxicated. The world allowed itself to be carried along by this wave of enthusiasm, and by its hopes for a new, more peaceful America. A crowd of 200,000 people came to hear him speak at the Victory Column in Berlin; Kenyans spent the entire election night dancing in front of their television sets; in Japan, the residents of a fishing village named Obama celebrated his victory; in Gaza, where hatred for America is normally the prevailing sentiment, there were exuberant parties; and in London, Madame Tussauds wax museum handed out free tickets.

Obama's election was the self-affirmation of a nation that wanted to prove that the American dream was still alive. Not voting for Obama would have been cynical, timid and un-American.

The world also had high hopes for a changed America, a country that would be less militaristic than it was under his predecessor, George W. Bush, and one that would pursue smarter policies, both in dealing with the Islamic world and on issues of environmental protection and climate change.

This wasn't just wishful thinking on the part of his voters or his foreign admirers. In fact, it consisted of tangible promises Obama had actually made. Again and again, he talked of uniting the country and even healing the planet.

And? Did he make good on those promises?

Last week, both houses of the United States Congress approved a lazy compromise shaped by pre-election political interests. In doing so, they averted the threat of a government default, but only because no one could be sure that it might not lead directly to the collapse of the US and possibly the global financial system. The president was not even one of the main players anymore, and his fellow Democrats had already abandoned demands he had previously described as essential. Gone was the spirit of "Yes, we can." Now it seemed as if the rating agencies were dictating America's fate. The country that Obama had set out to lead to new heights now seemed to be immersed in frustration, faintheartedness and mutual finger-pointing.

Approval Ratings Plunge

The financial crisis that Obama inherited has changed America. Many citizens have been overcome by feelings of frustration and rage against people like the Wall Street elite, who continue to make money while the middle class have lost their homes and jobs. According to opinion polls, 54 percent of Americans say they have had to change their lifestyle, their American way of life, while a third of Americans say they are furious with the banks, the politicians and Obama.

Obama's approval ratings have plunged, with only 40 percent of Americans now saying they are satisfied with his performance. In April 2009, shortly after his inauguration, some 68 percent of Americans were still on Obama's side.

All that remains of the great hopes Americans and the world had pinned on Obama, inspired by his stirring campaign speeches about change and renewal, is a battlefield of unsatisfactory and contradictory compromises. Obama, who just turned 50 and was once a symbol of youthful change, suddenly seems old and worn out, as gray as his hair has become.

His decline in popularity has also destroyed the hope that Obama could bring new momentum to America and the world. With the debt-ceiling debate, the right-wing Tea Party movement has taken both Congress and Obama's presidency hostage. It is no longer the president who determines the issues and sets the tone of the debate, but a small, radicalized group of unashamedly amateur politicians who have declared the government to be their enemy. As the Tea Party gains stature, Obama loses credibility. Musician Harry Belafonte, once an ardent Obama supporter, has talked of his disappointment with the president. "He has only listened to the voices that shout the loudest, and it's all those reckless right-wing forces," Belafonte told CNN. "It's almost criminal."

The clash with the Tea Party has highlighted Obama's shortcomings. His opponents have everything he seems to lack. They are loud, confident and uncompromising, sticking to their principles while he repeatedly hesitates and delays. In the US midterm elections, dozens of Tea Party candidates managed to get elected to Congress by capitalizing on the rage of people who Obama had failed to connect with.

Creating an Emotional Vacuum

Obama has ignored this rage. Was it "Obama's original sin," as commentator Frank Rich writes in New York Magazine, that he was too restrained and not angry enough? "By failing to address that populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him," Rich writes. In doing so, he left behind an emotional vacuum that enabled the Tea Party to rise to prominence. In turn, the party created a political climate in which reasonable efforts became impossible.

Obamaland has turned into the Land of the Tea Party.

In this country there is no longer any hope of reconciliation and unity, which was once the biggest and most hopeful promise of his candidacy. Obama hasn't healed the planet either -- an admittedly ambitious goal. Nevertheless, many believed him, so much so that in October 2009, after he had been in office only nine months, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the time, he had promised to put an end to America's loud-mouthed, arrogant, moral hubris. Obama, who in 2008 had called the Iraq War a "dumb war," had come into office promising to reemphasize national interests and bring about a shift, away from a course shaped by American missionary zeal and toward one shaped by realpolitik. He wanted America to limit its involvement in foreign wars, withdraw from the Middle East and focus its energy on competing with rising economic powers China and India.

The first test for Obama came in early December 2009, when it was time to realign Washington's policy on Afghanistan. For Obama, Afghanistan had always been the "good war," the war that Bush had neglected because of Iraq. Over the objections of the political realists in his own administration, he decided to increase troop numbers by 30,000 soldiers, in a "surge" that he hoped would bring the Taliban to its knees. There were some successes, but no one can claim that the enemy has been defeated. On the contrary, the country remains unstable and at war. Now the Americans are beginning their withdrawal -- and they are not leaving as victors.

In the ensuing months, Obama was forced to acknowledge again and again that the new foreign policy approach was not without its inner contradictions. He remained oddly aloof during the revolution in Iran, for fear of jeopardizing a dialogue with the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which then never materialized.


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