It takes an effort these days to recall the thrill that surged through the world when Barack Obama was elected Americas president. It was not only that he was the first black person to assume the globes greatest office. He seemed to be preternaturally thoughtful,dignified and decent; a man who could heal Americas wounds at home and restore its reputation abroad. Though too many were swept away in a collective longing to see hope triumph over experience,none of it seemed wholly unreasonable at the time. Yes,many thought,he can.
Two years later,the magnitude of the let-down is palpable everywhere; and at home the president is caught in a vice. To many on the left,he is a cowardly compromiser,whose half-baked plans to get America back to work have done little to help those who voted for him,and whose health-care and financial reforms were gutted at the behest of special interests. To many on the right,he seems a doctrinaire spendthrift who has squandered trillions of dollars on wasteful bureaucracy,mortgaging the future while failing to grapple with the present. To centrists who backed him,including this newspaper,he has been a disappointment,his skills as a president falling far short of his genius as a campaigner.
Awaiting a thumping
It looks as though an angry America is about to exact its revenge,giving Mr Obamas Democrats a painful kicking in the mid-terms on November 2nd. The likeliest outcome is that the Republicans will take back the House of Representatives and make solid gains in the Senate,where,though falling short of majority control,they will effortlessly be able to block any bill they wish. But,in our view,the rage directed at Mr Obama is overdone.
Consider the main reason why Americans are angry: the economy. The slow pace of job re-creation is primarily the result of consumers and companies trying to rebuild their finances. Balance-sheet recessions always take time to recover from. Mr Obama is guilty of promising that the pain would be over sooner than was ever likely. But he did not cause the bust,and he deserves more credit than he is getting for steering America clear of a much worse fate,especially considering the constraints of a political system designed to make big changes difficult. He was right to go for a big,bold and immediate stimulus plan. He has been right to resist,with minor exceptions,calls for a wave of protectionism. He is guilty of having no credible medium-term plan to reduce the deficit. But then nor do the Republicans; and it was they,after all,who oversaw the tax cuts,the entry into two wars and the financial collapse that are the source of most of Americas gigantic deficit.
In other policy areas,too,Mr Obama has got some big things right. He was correct to try to deal with a dreadful system that leaves tens of millions of Americans without access to health cover,though he should probably have postponed doing so until the economy had recovered. In foreign policy,he has made generally sensible decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the people he has retained or put in place have done well,including his ex-rival,Hillary Clinton.
So what went wrong? The answer is a series of smaller thingsrhetoric,details,execution,even an aloof vaguenessthat have cumulatively undermined his presidency. He has made enemies of the businessmen who are needed to drive forward Americas recovery,haranguing them as fat cats and speculators. He has even,as we report here,forfeited the goodwill of Americas most dynamic and entrepreneurial asset. Silicon Valley,which once saw Mr Obama as a promising start-up,now sees him as a bad investment.
His decision to leave details to others has also cost him dearly. By choosing to subcontract the stimulus,health reform and finance reform to the Democratic leadership,he ended up with shoddy bills that Republicans could safely vote against and that many Democrats are now anxious to distance themselves from. A more accomplished president would have controlled that process better,and found ways to make the Republicans offers that they could not refuse. Mr Obamas macroeconomic soundness has been undermined by the Democrats tendency to meddle with microeconomics,leading to a health bill that imposes onerous requirements on business and a stimulus bill larded with pro-union giveaways.
America is now an uncharacteristically uncertain place. Abroad it seems unsure of who its friends and enemies are. At home there are too many imponderables: over how the health bill will play out in practice; over what might happen to energy prices if carbon-pricing is resurrected via executive action; most of all,over what Mr Obama can do about those yawning deficits. People do not like uncertainty; so if Americans are angry,it is hardly surprising.
Mr Obama seems curiously unable to perceive,let alone respond to,the grievances of middle America,and has a dangerous habit of dismissing tea-partiers and others who disagree with him as deluded,evil or just bitter. The silver tongue that charmed America during the campaign has been replaced by a tin ear. Some blame this on an emotional detachment his difficult upbringing forced on him,others on the fact that he has lived all his life among tribal Democrats. Whatever the reason,he does not seem to feel Americas pain,and looks unable either to capitalise on his administrations achievements or to project an optimistic vision for the future.
Which ought not to be so hard. Despite its problems,America has far more going for it than its current mood suggests. It is still the most innovative economy on earth,the place where the worlds greatest universities meet the worlds deepest pockets. Its demography is favourable,with a high birth rate and limitless space into which to expand. It has a flexible and hard-working labour force. Its ultra-low bond yields are a sign that the worlds investors still think it a good long-term bet. The most enterprising individuals on earth still clamour to come to America. And it still has a talented president who can surely do better than he has thus far.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010