There is a rough rule of thumb that British political leaders are obliged to contend with, and with mixed feelings. Just as their domestic polls begin to drop, foreigners begin to appreciate them more. Sometimes this converse relationship in opinion polls has had British Prime Ministers being booed on the streets of London and Edinburgh, while cheered on the streets of Washington and Moscow. Towards the end of her tenure, Margaret Thatcher was much more liked by foreigners, while the average Brit had had quite enough of her. It was – and is – much the same story for Tony Blair.
In fact I recall travelling to Utah some years ago, and being proudly informed that on the occasion a few years previously when Margaret Thatcher had arrived to give a very expensive speech, there were literally thousands of people queuing to hear her. This was unimaginable for her even during her pomp. And then there was Tony Blair. I used to get weary of people comparing George Bush to Tony, especially among liberal Americans. The point of course being that both were equally determined to go to war in Iraq and shared a fairly similar World view.
And now I read in a Polimetrix Poll for The Economist magazine that President Obama’s approval ratings are on the domestic slide, while for most of us foreigners, he can’t really put a foot wrong. In fact we like him all the more for the policy prescriptions increasing numbers of Americans say that they don’t like, particularly when it comes to his personal prescription for healthcare reform. According to the Economist’s poll, Americans frown on Obama’s healthcare reforms by 53% to 40%, his handling of the economy by 54% to 40% and social security 49% to 33%. These figures leave many of us on this side of the Atlantic, aghast.
Take healthcare. It is true that Obama’s stab at reforming a system that leaves tens of millions of Americans without any basic provision, and one which is fraught with litigation, vast expense and grotesque profit, is not going as far as he promised and many hoped. But still it looks to many Europeans to be the most sensible thing any President could do. So why have so many Americans who stand to benefit been so easily frightened by the fear campaigns whipped up by the private health companies? Well, I have just provided my own answer to that.
And what about the economy? It is true that unemployment is rising and is probably higher than the story told by the official figures. But the Obama administration moved quickly with the stimulation package, and has probably acted more toughly against the engrained bonus culture of the banks now largely owned by the American taxpayer, than the so called Left of Centre Government. Had the Republicans still been in power, those same Banks would probably have been allowed to collapse, with an incalculable effect on the economy and jobs. And the reason why the United States still has an indigenous, albeit slimmed down, auto industry, is that the Obama administration decided to save the American manufacturing base. If only we still had a manufacturing base to save here in “little England”.
The American Right will see the hand of “Socialism” in whatever Obama does. But what of the American Left? Already, Obama is being attacked for compromising and tacking to the Right. I imagine that there will be some pretty vigorous debate along these lines at the annual Left Forum in New York in March, which will feature amongst others, Noam Chomsky and the Reverend Jesse Jackson http://www.leftforum.org/node/13
There will be plenty at this rather unique gathering of American liberals and Leftists who will be busy waving the flag of betrayal, but I think it would be a little premature to wave it too vigorously. Personally, I never noticed much of an ideological bent to Obama while he was running for office. What I did see was an extremely thoughtful and brilliantly gifted political leader who was made for the times that America found herself in. For just when all too many people had become resigned to the sign “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, along came Obama and his seemingly impossible dream.
Here then are some reasons for standing up for President Obama as he begins to face some midterm blues; despite the acrimonious chorus from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his friends, Obama wasn’t bounced into transporting the Detroit airline bomber to Guantanamo. Whatever the difficulties surrounding trying potential mass murderers in civilian courts, this is what is going to happen. On Russia, Cuba and Iran, the Obama approach is less confrontational, and in the case of Russia is probably producing results. Does anyone now remember that Russia was preparing to site its own long range strategic missiles in Belorussia and Kaliningrad, if the US had gone ahead with the hare brained and hugely costly National Missile Defence? And what about climate change? Progress at Copenhagen was disappointing, and this in spite of the Presidential bluster that it would “mark the moment when the planet began to heal”. But then, does anyone remember that the previous incumbent of the White House not only disbelieved in any such thing as global warming, but deliberately went out of his way to encourage more of it?
It is true that for many on the liberal Left the tougher response to illegal Israeli land grabs of Palestinian territory has not been forthcoming, and that the open ended commitment to a war without end, and one that is unlikely to be won, in Afghanistan, remains. However, as Obama’s popularity is beginning to take a tumble amongst his own supporters, this foreigner just wishes some of his critics had longer memories.
And right now there is no clearer example to the massive divide between Obama the active, humanitarian and Bush the inactive and downright inhumane.
Compare and contrast, if you will, the swift, efficient and massive response to the tragic earthquake that has engulfed Haiti, with the bungling insouciant incompetence of Bush’s response to New Orleans.