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.
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.
Losing Respect Worldwide
In his much-celebrated Cairo speech, Obama promised a new beginning for the US's relationship with the Islamic world, a relationship "among equals," but when push came to shove, nothing much happened. In the Middle East conflict, he allowed himself to be put under so much pressure by the Israeli government, even more so than his predecessor, that a resumption of the peace process became less likely.
Obama has yet to find a convincing response to the revolutions that began with the Arab Spring. In Egypt, where he was long hesitant before eventually supporting the goals of the Arab Spring, the United States is less respected today than during the Bush administration.
It is now clear that Obama is simply not the man to help conflicting parties out of entrenched positions or give new impetus to an alliance. He instinctively leans toward measured, often delayed reactions, leaving his promises of change to fall by the wayside.
A member of his staff once characterized his foreign policy strategy as "leading from behind." It sounds contradictory, and it doesn't chime with the self-image of a nation that still believes in its role as the world's superpower and the driving force of global politics. Many of his friends, particularly those closer to him, are convinced that his ideal of bipartisanship is in fact detrimental to his own party when faced with the powerful, cynically calculating Republicans. Their goal is to show that Obama is "too weak to run a cowboy nation," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.
Obama is defined more by others than by himself. Some call him a socialist who is out to destroy America, while others, including some of his fellow Democrats, say that he is in bed with the country's rich and influential. This criticism shows how great their disappointment is.
Obama has always been cautious, says Douglas Baird, who recruited him to teach at his university in 1992. Baird, an expert on bankruptcy law, had been charged with finding new talent for the University of Chicago, which has produced dozens of Nobel laureates.
A colleague had drawn Baird's attention to Obama, an unusual black man who had made it into two of the country's elite institutions, Columbia University in New York and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When it comes to making decisions, Obama takes a wait-and-see approach, weighing the options, Baird says today, referring to his former protégé. He gathers together "enough information" before he makes a decision, Baird explains.
In Baird's experience, Obama was always courageous, demanding and even audacious. He wasn't sure how seriously Obama would take his teaching job, because the promising lawyer also wanted to go into politics. It was an experiment: a black professor who taught constitutional law, which included the history of the elimination of racial barriers, at a university where more than 90 percent of the students are white. Obama was a popular teacher, Baird recalls. "The students loved him," he says. "There were never any complaints."
One of the keys to Obama's success was that he, as a black man, was reserved. He knew exactly how to handle his white students, and what appealed to or frightened them. He was the son of a black Kenyan who had left the family when Obama was two. He was raised by his white mother and, at times, his white grandparents, in Indonesia and Hawaii, and he was raised as a white person. In fact, Obama was a white man with black skin, someone who had to teach himself how to speak the way black people did, and who started playing basketball, the most popular sport in black America, to become more comfortable in his role as a black man.
His guiding principle was not to come across as unpleasant, loud or aggressive. Early on, his approach was to exercise restraint and behave in a moderate way. For six months, he looked on as the Republicans tore his healthcare reform proposal to pieces, and then he signed a law that only remotely resembled what he had first envisioned.
Steering Clear of the 'Angry Black Man' Image
"I think the most feared person in American society is the angry black man," says Hermene Hartman, editor-in-chief of the Chicago weekly newspaper N'DIGO, which targets a primarily black readership. Hartman campaigned for Obama. He was a new, friendly face that didn't scare white people.
The desire to distance himself from the image of the angry black man also prompted him to part ways with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Wright had played an important role for Obama, even giving him the title of his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, "The Audacity of Hope." In that speech, Obama said: "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America." It was the sentence that catapulted him onto the major political stage.
But then the pastor became a liability. He represented black anger. He preached against the racism which still hasn't been eradicated in America. Wright is no longer in touch with Obama, but he continues to preach throughout the country, and he likes to focus on the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7. Sheep get lost "six feet at a time," he says, because they can't see very far. They see a clump of grass six feet away from the flock and move towards it. And then they see something greener still and move another six feet. Six feet by six feet, "they stray from the flock," he says.
Although Wright no longer mentions Obama by name in his sermons, it is clear to everyone who this sheep that is straying from the path is, this sheep that can only see six feet in front of him -- as far as the next compromise. Wright's sermon can be read as a parable of Obama's blocked presidency.
Compromise is the essence of democracy, but Obama's willingness to compromise has now become a problem. Critics claim to have discovered an "obsession with the political center" in Obama. His presidency today lacks a big, unifying idea.
His complicated identity as a black man and his moderate and conciliatory approach have become obstacles that threaten his presidency. Hartman, the editor from Chicago, says that she sometimes wishes Obama were angrier. "You did not see fists going up, you do not see pounding on the desk," she adds. "That's not his style."
An economic crisis affects any president, and a downturn is often the reason presidents are voted out of office. But because the great communicator has apparently forgotten how to talk to his voters, the crisis affects him more adversely than other presidents before him. Everything he does now is seen in a critical light, which only reinforces the impression that he doesn't understand the problems of Americans and that he is weak when it comes to making decisions.
This explains the increasingly vocal criticism of the president from within his own ranks. Democrats are frustrated over the fact that he has been forced to abandon his campaign goals, and that he is losing sight of the promises he made, especially to stimulate job growth. Is what he is doing pragmatism or capitulation? Is he merely trying to stay in power? In Washington, "compromise has become a dirty word," Obama said in his television address to the nation. He was referring to his own supporters.
But Obama could have one last chance. For one thing, his political adversaries have become too confident. And their success in the budget negotiations will only reinforce their extremism and dogmatism. Finally, if in next year's presidential election they support candidates like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Michele Bachman, politicians who go too far in their furious attacks against the government, they could even scare off many right-wing voters.
Could the growing divide within the country, the fiery rage of some its citizens, in fact strengthen Obama's chances of being reelected next year?
Perhaps, writes columnist Andrew Sullivan, Obama has in fact suffered something of a "pyrrhic defeat" in the debt debate. Perhaps it is a defeat that will ultimately turn into a victory.