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SPIEGEL ONLINE

10/19/2010 01:10 PM

Dreams of 2008

Obama's Lost Magic

By Klaus Brinkbšumer

Two years on from his historic election victory, US President Barack Obama is trying to recover his lost magic as defeat for the Democrats looms in the midterm elections. But he is no longer the man he used to be, and his window of opportunity has passed.

He wants everything to be as it was before. He wants it to be as innocent and passionate, as honest and boundless. He wants it to be as full of promises and the conviction that everything is possible in the Land of Opportunity. Because, as he told his supporters back then, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." It was a rallying cry so powerful and romantic it sounded like a line from a good song.

Today, Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States. Back then, in 2008, he was probably the best election campaigner of all time. And now he is on the campaign trail again. This fall he is speaking in Philadelphia, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, spreading the message that "they" (the Republicans and their donors) want to rob "us" (open-minded, young Americans) of our future.

At the Crossroads

It is like a grown-up going back to the places of his youth: the public swimming pool where he learned to swim, the intersection where he had his first kiss. It's a sentimental journey, and at the same time an admission that youth doesn't last forever.

There are crossroads in every life, decisive moments. Afterwards, what was reality until a moment ago is just a memory, and the present has changed. The politician who once embodied a brave new alternative with his iconic slogan "Yes, we can" would probably love to be able to freeze frame the moment of his triumph as it was and hang on to the ease of those early, naive years. But that's not possible. Political careers, like biographies, succeed or fail -- but they do not stop.

President Obama, who has been in office for 21 months, has gone gray during his time in the White House. He has become even thinner and wirier than he already was. He is campaigning this October because he has to. He is campaigning on behalf of those Democratic candidates who still stand a chance in the midterm elections on Nov. 2. If Obama is to have any chance of passing legislation in the next two years, his fellow Democrats must defend their majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the last two weeks before the elections, Obama must reverse all the trends and bad poll ratings. To do that, he needs to create the illusion that it is indeed possible to reclaim your youth and your dreams, and that mistakes can be corrected -- even the one big mistake that changed everything.

Disappointment with Obama

Barack Obama is not a bad president. He is eloquent, sharp-witted, and has certainly not lost any of his talent since moving into the Oval Office. Members of his staff say he still listens to what people say. A senator who once lost an election to Obama says the president demands dissenting opinions and that he's reliable, funny and works best under pressure.

Nor is he a weak president. He has begun withdrawing American troops from Iraq. He has been able to strengthen his alliances. And he has tackled the global economic crisis with an $800 billion stimulus package and a reform of the financial markets. His education policies target performance and aim to improve the disastrously under-resourced public school system. Millions of Americans have been dreaming of healthcare reform for decades. Bill Clinton failed to get it passed. Barack Obama succeeded.

Why then does it appear as if the American people would prefer to bring about a political stalemate between the White House and the two chambers of Congress, and thus ensure their own ungovernability, rather than giving the president a little more time? Why is the United States again leaning toward the kind of Republicans who have little to offer but tax cuts and who left Obama with a legacy of two wars and an economic crisis?

Because Barack Obama is not as good as he wanted to be.

Sometimes We Can

"Yes, we can," was boundless and absolute, a moment of political ecstasy. It was a movement, and a young one to boot. Since then, a qualifier has emerged: sometimes. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. That's political reality. That's the grown-up Obama, with all his shortcomings and weaknesses.

And there have been many weaknesses. Obama allowed Congress to negotiate the details of his healthcare reform while he deliberately held back. What emerged was a half-hearted reform that is complicated and that is really a reform of the health insurance system. But to get that reform, Obama used up his political capital, the one window of opportunity every new president gets.

Weren't there more urgent issues he could have tackled, like energy reform for example, which would have entailed a real change of direction and which would have meant re-educating America's consumers? Or what about the labor market? Obama admits he underestimated the problem of unemployment, which stubbornly hovers above 9 percent. He also concedes that he set himself up to be portrayed as yet another Democratic big spender who happily doles out tax dollars.

During the presidential election campaign, he masterfully controlled his public image. In office, however, he has been sending out some rather strange signals. As the BP oil spill was polluting the Gulf of Mexico, his wife and younger daughter flew to Spain, while the president himself played basketball with his chums. It gave the impression that Obama was part of a carefree, macho group that amused itself while the country suffered.

Obamaland Is No Longer United

Usually the president's team looks robust. It is filled with clever people who begin work at 6 in the morning and go home at 11 at night. But Obamaland is no longer the cohesive place it was during the presidential election, when everyone was united behind the same vision. Disappointed supporters are quitting, exhausted staff will leave after the midterms and the weak are being thrust aside. And when people talk about the mood in 2008, they sound like former classmates at a school reunion 20 years on: Remember when we were still young?

Obama has done little for African-Americans, and nothing for homosexuals. As a result he has lost voters on the left. It was inevitable, of course. Everyone who is elected in the US moves to the center when they come to office. But the fact that the president managed to lose the support of this middle ground too was a remarkable achievement.

It may well be that America can't simply walk out of Afghanistan, but nobody in the US understands this war any more. The conflict long ago ceased to be Bush's war, and is now Obama's. Worse still, it will inevitably end with an inglorious withdrawal. Why, then, should the US send in yet more troops? Why spend $100 billion a year waging war when train stations and schools back home are falling to pieces, and the money would be better spent on other American projects and research? Congress refuses to approve extra spending on renewing America: The money has already been spent.

Far from Perfect

When Obama came to office, the country craved perfection. His government is far from perfect, however. It's not even close.

But what is more appalling still, what is more shocking on so many levels, is the state of the nation -- the political stupidity of entire federal states and systems that seem hell-bent on self-destruction. Europe and the United States are much farther apart than many Europeans think. The US is different, completely and utterly different. Americans have a completely different understanding of social solidarity and the duties of the state. But there are also contradictions. Millions of Americans want to reduce the power of the government, because that's the way their countrymen have always thought. Yet these same Americans want their president to lead them out of crisis. They want railway stations, schools and clean energy, but they don't want to pay taxes. They are the descendants of immigrants, and proud of it, and they oppose immigration.

Decades of prosperity have made the US a lethargic country. And in contrast to Europeans, whose lives and countries have been shaped by war, Americans are accustomed to feeling unique and invulnerable. They therefore react with near paranoia to a powerful China or a black president. Americans know they need change, yet they fear change. Such attitudes may be called schizophrenic. They're certainly a recipe for hysteria.

Hate-Mongers and Gun Freaks

The older, conservative German demonstrators who have recently been taking to the streets to protest against the controversial "Stuttgart 21" railway station project are the product of demographic change and their own fears. But the German protesters look absolutely harmless compared to America's hate-mongers, gun freaks and Tea Party demagogues who first compare Obama to Hitler and then minutes later to Stalin. They are people so filled with vitriol they can no longer think straight -- people like television presenter Glenn Beck, who says that putting the common good first is "exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany." Beck has millions of followers, and appears in public with former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, the darling of the Tea Party movement, who gleefully pronounces Obama's middle name Hussein as if it were a naughty, menacing word. Just two years ago, such things would have been taboo, and considered below-the-belt by Republicans.

This is the new atmosphere in America, and it is reflected in the Senate and the House of Representatives, two self-confident bodies populated by two political parties that eagerly take turns holding the reins of power. They paralyze themselves with rules that demand unattainable majorities for everything that is important. And even the Constitution irrevocably decrees that a senator from sparsely-populated Alaska has the same rights as a senator from New York.

The German media alternate on a daily basis between talking about "Obama's victory" and calling him a "loser." But often neither view is accurate, because the president has little or no influence over much of what is done, or not done, in the US and its 50 federal states.

Cries of Hate

Of course the American media is largely responsible for the impression people get of President Obama as well as the state of the nation as a whole. Fox News, Rupert Murdoch's TV news channel, has come to specialize in partisan mudslinging. Four of the potential future Republican presidential candidates are on Fox's payroll. The liberal channels are only different -- they are no longer any better. CNN has atrophied into a soapbox for journalist presenters. There is no analysis anymore on American TV, and little news -- only polemical attacks and shouting delivered in 90-second chunks.

Only the major newspapers still provide intelligent analysis, by people like the New York Times' insightful and levelheaded columnist David Brooks. Unfortunately, Obama's America is so polarized that the views of Brooks and his ilk are only read on the east and west coasts, and thus have little influence.

While the older, white hate mongers make loud noises, surveys show that the younger generation are generally satisfied with the direction their country is heading in. Or rather, they are indifferent, taking a benevolent view of the nice, pleasant adults, their nice, pleasant president and those wild stories about 2008. The haters, on the other hand, will go and vote in November.

Lost Dreams

Now they are calling Obama a "weakling." But that's not fair. Naturally Barack Obama reacts in a more mature, adult way than his predecessor, George W. Bush. The problem is simply that Obama is smaller than the promise he made, and tiny in comparison to the hopes an entire nation placed on him in 2008. There's one thing that Barack Obama failed to do. That was his real failure, the big mistake he made, back when everything seemed possible.

Barack Obama had a mandate. He promised to change America, change Washington and change the nation. He said that everyone would have to invest something and give something. He said that everyone would have to roll up their sleeves and work hard. Yet 69 million Americans still voted for him. Indeed, they elected him for precisely this reason.

Back then, Obama was like a high-school graduate who talked about wanting to sail around the globe, become a writer or a president. Instead, the dreamer started work as a trainee bank clerk. Now he has become a bank manager. It's certainly not a bad position, and he's doing rather well for himself. But every now and again he remembers who he once was and his dream about prolonging his youth. He knows it would have been difficult, but at least he could have given it a shot.

He did not find the courage to try.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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