Obama’s Political Clock Winding Down
American Way: The clock is running down fast for the fourth-quarter president
Source: The Telegraph – Peter Foster (01/03/2014)
When Barack Obama returns to his desk on Monday after a 15-day festive break in a Hawaii – far longer than most working Americans have enjoyed – he will be conscious that 2015 has the potential to be a make or break year for his own political legacy.
That might seem premature with two whole years remaining, but Mr Obama will know how quickly the political sands are now running out on his presidency as thoughts begin to turn to Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and whoever else declares for 2016.
The outside world might not see it, but Washington is already starting to look away: staffers and media are placing their early bets on 2016, candidates are visible in the wings waiting to declare and senior White House officials are already looking for exits to the private sector.
This is the political slow-puncture suffered by all second-term administrations, which is why the heat is now on Mr Obama to use 2015 to secure a legacy that, even at this late stage, remains curiously indistinct.
On the home front, there is Obamacare, the signature health reforms that are now bearing fruit but remain under attack, both in Congress but – more worryingly perhaps – at the Supreme Court which will hear another potentially fatal challenge to the law in June.
Then there is the economy which is finally looking up – third quarter 2014 growth came in at five per cent, unemployment is down to 5.8 per cent – and officials say Mr Obama will make trumpeting those achievements a key mission of 2015.
Unfortunately for Mr Obama, down on Main Street the recovery still feels rather too much like being on life-support. US median household incomes rose to $53,880 in November 2014 – up from a rock-bottom $51,562 in August 2011 – but still five per cent below the $57,128 they were in 2000. The public could be forgiven for not celebrating being worse off than they were over a decade ago.
In other areas where Mr Obama can claim progress – cutting carbon emissions, say, or improving school nutrition – he will now find himself struggling to defend those achievements from a Republican Congress and state legislatures determined to oppose him.
The administration says it wants to ‘work with Congress’, but there are limits to what the Republican Tea Party base will permit their leadership. Some progress on (desperately needed) infrastructure spending is possible, as is backing for international trade deals, but not much more.
Abroad, it is Iran that offers Mr Obama his best hope of laying the foundations of a legacy. Even if it is not immediately apparent when he leaves office, history could give yet give Mr Obama credit for ending the Cold War with Iran.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and their respective lobbies in Congress will kick and scream, but America’s war-weary public will ultimately be on the side of a reasonable nuclear deal with Tehran. Even if the nuclear talks fail – and diplomats put the chances of success at “less than 30 per cent” – Mr Obama will still want to preserve wider relations so that if political realities change, he can take belated credit for at least planting the seeds of a new order in the Middle East.
But a total breakdown with Tehran and a return to the status quo ante risks leaving Mr Obama with precious little. Trade deals are unsigned, Iraq is barely stabilised, Syria is unresolved, Libya is crumbling again and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is locked in a petulant new Cold War that is allowing China to play off one side against the other.
True, Mr Obama did engineer the recent diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba – Mr Obama could even visit Havana later this year – but that feels less like making history than clearing up one of its Cold War fag-ends.
If this all sounds rather disappointing given Mr Obama’s whirlwind entrance onto the world stage, that is because it is. But for those who observed Mr Obama closely, the prospect of a lacklustre close to his presidency was clearly written in its beginning.
As early as August 2010 in a postscript to Game Change, the definitive insider account of the 2008 election campaign, the journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin identified with immense prescience the four key traits that risked preventing Mr Obama from becoming a great president.
They noted his “odd passivity” and strange inability to engage; they fretted about the reliance on a “tiny claque” of Chicago sycophants who ran brilliant election campaigns but were not equipped to manage a government; and they identified the absence of a “theory of the case”, a binding vision for his presidency that left Mr Obama a “worryingly indistinct figure”.
Lastly, they noted Mr Obama’s tendency to perform at his highest level only when faced with an immediate crisis, while becoming oddly becalmed when faced with a sustained challenge. In the parlance of American Football, they called him as the “ultimate fourth-quarter player”.
Well, the fourth quarter of the Obama presidency is upon us, and the game appears to be heading inexorably to its mediocre conclusion: perhaps only an unforeseen crisis can sting Mr Obama into rescuing his team.