Obama Can Face 2012 with His Confidence High

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

Obama Can Face 2012 with His Confidence High


Byline: James Fenton VIEW FROM AMERICA

[bar] S Barack Obama looks towards 2012, how does he feel about his chances of winning a second term? Not indifferent, surely. No President of the United States of America could feel indifferent to the judgment of history, even if, like Lyndon Johnson or Gerald Ford, he came to office unexpectedly, and only indirectly through election.

Dignity is addictive. You develop a taste for it, and democracies throughout history have had to take measures to curb the enthusiasm of their leaders for the power and dignity of high office. The current mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, had the law changed to allow him to run for the third term in 2009. Surprisingly enough, New York was prepared to stretch a point in his favour.

A whiff of failure or obscurity hangs over the one-term presidents: Taft, Harding, Hoover, or, more recently, Ford, who was handed the poisoned chalice of withdrawal from Vietnam, Jimmy Carter, who is still cited as a byword for weakness, and George H W Bush, for whom fate prepared the subtle humiliation of a two-termer son.

And there is every reason for the first black President of the US to hope and pray that he will not leave the White House without the opportunity to enjoy the second chance that the constitution offers. Obama still has something to prove in this department. It's not rational. It's not nice, either. But remember that it's only three years since black Americans themselves were astonished that one of their number could win the highest office. Don't suppose that white Americans have become accustomed to the situation, or that Obama has not noticed that he is something of a novelty in office.

A weak president, he is often called.

To which he, his wife and his associates will often reply that Osama bin Laden didn't find him weak. It makes me wince when I hear this, not because Bin Laden should not have been hunted down, but because this definition of strength is so at odds with what was hoped or expected of Obama when he ran for office.

But still, this is the point most generally conceded in Obama's favour, and it proves a handy way of puncturing the fantasy military pretension of, say, Republican contender Mitt Romney when he claims that Obama is weak, for instance, for not having managed to destroy a drone before it fell into enemy hands.

Obama is not weak, even though the role he was given, in withdrawing from Iraq, was not completely unlike President Ford's poisoned chalice of Vietnam. But this was a chalice Obama chose -- campaigned -- to be given, and he has managed the last stage of withdrawal without excessive loss of face. At Fort Bragg this week he was elaborate in his praise for individual military units, and his speech ranged over the positive achievements of a military campaign most people would concede was misconceived and mismanaged by his predecessor.

When the public is polled, it freely gives Obama credit both for the killing of Bin Laden, and for the ending of the Iraq war, and it is noteworthy that among the criticisms of his presidency he is blamed for the continued engagement in Afghanistan. …

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