Sunday, 4 January 2015

President Obama's successful presidency

So. President Obama (above), then. Elected in a frenzied wave of optimism about 'hope' and 'change'. Re-elected in a trench-warfare battle with a rival he successfully defined as elitist and out-of-touch. Surely he's history, right? Down in the dumps, his party shattered in the recent mid-term elections, he should be just about ready for the lame duck antechamber out of power when the next Presidential election really gets going later this year.

Well, no. Not so, actually. His ratings have been creeping up and up, and there are now some polls that give him ratings comparable with Ronald Reagan's at this stage in his presidency.

And the reason? Well, in the short-term, the economy seems to be going somewhere at last. Lower petrol prices, in particular, are making Americans - for the first time in many years - feel as if many of them can take part in and profit from what growth there is. It's not glad, confident morning - wages have sagged for too long to make the respite feel like anything more than just the beginnings of a hopeful start - but most citizens think that it'll do for now.

But there's more to it than that. Freed from the last set of elections he'll ever contest, whether on the ballot or in voters' minds, he's now free to be himself. In an age when authenticity matters more than policies - when voters are crying out to hear someone who just sounds like them, and sounds like they're not reading from a pre-prepared and jargonised crib sheet framed by either the left or the right, that matters. It matters a lot when it's combined with bold policy initiatives that seem even more important than those launched when President Obama's party controlled the legislature. Changing the immigration regulations to allow many of America's recordless residents to stay (for now, at least). Standing up to North Korea - and for free speech. Forging a cautious peace with Cuba. Appealing for calm and moderation on the many racial and social problems that confront the United States.

Put that together with his longer-term record, and it's no wonder that he's never going to be anything like the demonic, polarising figure that right-wing commentators want to paint him as. Health care reform - for all its problems - and a stimulus programme that lasted for longer than most of Europe's will get taught in history classes across the world as cautious but important steps that made America (and the world) a better place. Do you see a Republican leadership desperate to repeal Obamacare? Well, no - right now, they're trying to piece something together that can hold on to some of its gains if the Supreme Court strikes down some of its federal subsidies. Do you think that a new Great Depression would have been averted without swift action in in 2008 and 2009, at the end of the George W. Bush administration and (much more markedly) under President Obama? No again.

A historian looking at his numbers (we know, that's our job) simply has to conclude this: his lowest approval rating, at his worst possible low, was still higher than George W. Bush's, Bill Clinton's, the elder Bush's, Reagan's, Carter's, Ford's, Nixon's (unsurprisingly) and Johnson's. Only Kennedy, Eisenhower and FDR outperform him. You know what? Anyone mortal would take that, any day of the month.

President Obama's popularity is never going to soar again - certainly never to the unrealistic heights of yesteryear. But he's restored the economy to something that looks more like normal service, while refusing to slash and burn social services. He's personified calm and at least the aspiration that we should make public policy in a more rational, more objective way. And the man himself is more comfortable in his own skin than he's been able to be for many years. He's more confident and assured that, just by being himself, he can reach out to his fellow citizens, speaking both to and for them in a way that befits a man who's still going to be President for bang on two more years.

If only we could have more governing in this vein, and less campaigning.