Barack Obama comes to London this week – the heads of 20 other governments do too because G-20 has suddenly grown into G-22 but of course it’s Obama who sets the pulse racing. Everybody knows his host, Gordon Brown, needs the G-20 to be an all-out success; anything less – mere solid achievement, for example – will be spun as failure by the UK government’s army of critics. But is Obama in a similar situation?
That the challenges are immense is doubted by no-one. The Obama administration’s agenda on the day it opened for business included two protracted wars, the worst economic recession in over six decades, a messed up world banking system, the long unfolding emergence of new powers onto the world scene, the impact of climate change and the dark legacy of how this and other key issues were neglected by the last US administration. It faced not only these issues but their knock-on political effects of uncertainty and division both at home (masked by the vote and the atmosphere of yes-we-can change) and abroad (masked by the almost universal welcome and fascination that greeted the new President). And it did so burdened not only by a surfeit of expectations and admiration that demanded immediate progress on multiple fronts simultaneously, but also by the curious American system of having to invent the government and get it approved by the Senate during the first weeks and months on the job.
With these challenges, expectations and constraints upon him, it is perhaps not surprising that Obama has already begun to disappoint. The knocking noises off started as soon as he swung into action on the economic front. Some of the objections and complaints can be dismissed. It is inevitable that most Republicans and even some Democrats will oppose some of Obama’s economic stimulus package and budget, and some will predictably oppose the whole approach. And those who oppose what he intends to do are inevitably among those who decry the lack of action as Treasury secretary Tim Geithner took a whole two months till now to get his show rolling. Never mind the paradoxes or the lack of logic. That is what politics is about. It’s what politics is for.
But there are more serious critiques to be found as well and these are surfacing in international commentary. In the April issue of Prospect magazine, Bartle Bull declares Obama’s wagon to be losing its wheels and offers a list of failures and examples of incompetence. Some of this list is laughably inaccurate while parts of it are bolstered by unargued optimism about the scale and length of the current crisis and some dodgy comparisons with the 1930s; it’s a bit silly, for example, to take the car industry as an indicator of this recession’s light impact in the US when output has already fallen by 50 per cent for the three big companies and the signs are that at least one of them (Chrysler probably) is going to go bust. And Bull is evidently full of bile, casting Obama’s election campaign as ‘the lie of the century.’ But even if his basic antipathy leads his analysis astray in several places, he nonetheless scores some hits, if more tellingly on the handling of the machinery of government than on the substance of policy.
The current issue of The Economist magazine has a more nuanced and balanced overview of Obama’s first two months in office, which is critical in significant respects but believes the President ‘may at last be getting a grip.’ Note the ‘at last.’
This seems to me to be the legitimate core of the critique of Obama’s initial weeks in office. When everybody wanted and expected him to move fast and deliver immediately, and when that was what he and his transition team wanted to do, some things have moved very slowly. In particular, the administration has yet to be fully constructed. The US Treasury team is barely there at all; to date, just two of 23 confirmable positions indeed been confirmed by the Senate. At this time, to go slowly on the Treasury is hard to excuse. Gus O’Donnell, the UK’s top civil servant as Cabinet Secretary, has complained there is nobody in when he calls.
Surely State, Treasury and Defense were the top priorities; with Robert Gates staying at the Pentagon and Hillary Clinton breezing through her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State, why was all the energy not poured into getting the Treasury functioning at full speed? Instead, it has been slow going preparing the nominations (so it is not the Senate’s fault) and the situation has been made worse as ten nominees for senior positions have withdrawn after being named.
Yet on other issues Obama and team have moved extremely quickly. Obama has announced the closure of Guantanamo, the review of strategy in Iraq and a timetable for reducing troops there, and now the strategy in and towards Afghanistan has also been reviewed and revised. Whether the administration can deliver results on these issues inevitably remains an open question, and you may or may not like the policies that have been worked out and announced, but you can hardly tag this as a do-nothing administration.
Meanwhile fundamentally new approaches have been taken towards Russia and Iran. The Iranians have responded robustly but are almost certainly mulling the implications while Russia has responded with interest and what looks initially like readiness to engage. None of this looks in the slightest like an administration that has lost its sense of direction; it seems to have plenty of forward momentum, despite the complexity of the questions it is addressing.
So the picture is full of light and shade: it does seem to be on the domestic and economic front that Obama is facing most problems and on the international front that he has made most strides. Even on the home front, however, while building the administration goes slowly, they are hitting their stride on policy, as indicated by the budget, the stimulus and now the automobile industry. Again, you may like or dislike the policies but the administration has been getting its act together and that is now visible, even if, so far, with less distinction than in foreign policy.
Obama could do with recovering some ground on domestic and economic issues. The G-20 summit this week focuses on the world economy. That could offer just the occasion for him to use his still strong international credit to strengthen what is, despite enthusiastic doom-sayers, a domestic position that is so far only marginally weakened.
Obama is in nothing like the political position of Gordon Brown. Nonetheless he probably wants a G-20 success just as much as Brown does, and for approximately the same combination of reasons – to strengthen the world economy, to stand strong as a leader, and to win some plaudits at home.