Riding a wave of “change,” Barack Obama’s election as US president in 2008 generated such euphoria that few dared to question the rationale behind his optimism. While most of what he promised to change has not materialized, he is now fighting to ensure that his presidency remains unchanged so that he can give change another shot.
If the first televised debate between Obama and his contender, Mitt Romney, had been translated into ballots, the present president would have already been in the realm of the past. But since the ballot verdict in the forthcoming presidential election is likely to be influenced and determined by the perceived personal character of the contestants rather than their campaign rhetoric, a “failed” Obama may still deny Romney the chance to succeed.
The people’s verdict on Obama’s second term may or may not reflect the critics’ scathing assessment of his economic and foreign policies. In fact, while Americans would be more inclined to cast their ballot based on current and projected economic indices, non-Americans are likely to judge Obama on his performance in the foreign policy arena and on the ramifications his victory or loss would have for the Middle East and the world in future.
While there was very little that Obama could have done to decisively turn around the domestic economic tide during the last four years, the results of his foreign policy need a fairer assessment. Despite low popularity ratings in the Middle East and continuing regional turmoil – particularly the chaos during the last two years, either due to Washington’s interference or lack of it – credit is due to the Obama administration for restoring some credibility to American foreign policy after George W. Bush’s eight years of misadventure. Even if domestic and economic compulsions conditioned Obama’s policies abroad, the fact that there was no direct US military intervention or full-fledged war under his presidency is his biggest success.
From a non-American perspective, this is the only reason that justifies Obama’s “historic” victory four years ago, apart from becoming the first African-American president. Looking back, it was not as if he were the best man for the job. His victory was largely facilitated by Bush’s cumulative failures. Obama successfully channelled the anti-Bush mood in his favor to secure 349 electoral votes against John McCain’s 163, which did not reflect the mere seven-point difference in popular vote. Obama managed this due to voter dissatisfaction, a generational and partisan shift in political power and the reverberation of his promise of change.
About 12 percent of the votes for Obama were a vote against Bush. If Bill Clinton’s reign was marked by “economic highs and Lewinsky lows”, Bush hit the nadir of the US presidential popularity index – his 22 percent approval rating was tied for the worst in the history of the Times/CBS poll.
And, why not? Afghanistan and Iraq interventions not only failed to play out as scripted, but the war on terror left the international community divided like never before. Domestically, a prosperous nation with a budget surplus in 2000 faced the worst financial crisis in 70 years in 2008.
On election day in 2008, a CNN poll showed that the economy was the most important issue to 62 percent of American voters, the Iraq war was a primary concern only for 10 percent and terrorism was worrying only nine percent. This meant that only 35 percent would have voted to re-elect Bush regardless of who his opponent was, compared to 56 percent who would not vote to re-elect Bush regardless of who the opponent was. This anti-Bush wave translated into Obama turning nine red states that the Republican president won in 2004 to Democratic blue.
Thus, it is now evident that the hype surrounding Obama’s victory was largely misplaced. Going by the current pre-poll surveys, it is clear that Obama’s “notional” success has failed to cut the ice with most Americans and the world at large. A hero - turned tragic hero — is now fighting for survival.
So, will the same mood that contributed to Obama’s success in 2008 rebound to benefit Romney this time? How can one be sure that it would be better for the world if Romney’s sometimes crass, sometimes sombre, but mostly confusing, domestic and foreign policies – especially those pertaining to the Middle East – were to succeed even in half measure. Will Americans decide that a “known devil” is better than an “unknown angel” or vice versa?
A few weeks will tell.
Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst.