Obama victorious, but not yet the master politician

Barack Obama talks on the phone in his motorcade in July 2012

Barack Obama has been re-elected president of the United States, defeating his Republican rival Mitt Romney. But the last four years have been a rocky ride for him, and a test of his leadership qualities.

It was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where I first really questioned Obama's political skills.

Heading out in a speed-boat to see the oil spill, I felt exhilarated in the hot sun - the wind blowing spray in my face.

I felt as excited as a little boy as I waded ashore a tiny island looking for tell-tale signs of rusty-red liquid among the puddles and reeds.

I was pleased to find a restaurant owner, standing over a steaming vat of crawfish, explaining how the catastrophe threatened her business.

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A politician needs to be able to go door-to-door with their wares”

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There it is. It's not pretty, but I love my job - and sometimes it means covering situations that are dreadful for other people.

Of course I wish they hadn't happened, but for me, they are an opportunity and - frankly - a thrill.

Some politicians feel the same. Those who get called "great", are the ones who seize whatever moment comes their way, make it their own, impose their will on it - indeed shape it - to make it better for their people.

In the Gulf, Obama seemed curiously detached from the people. A president making a speech from the Oval Office is a big moment, and I watched it from a house on the shore, with the concerned owner, who was in the tourism business.

A dead oil-covered fish lies on the beach in May 2010 on Grand Isle, Louisiana

It wasn't a bad speech - the president had said sensible things. But he hadn't wrought the phrases that make a nation lean forward on the sofa, or bring strong Americans to the point of tears. It was a bit ordinary.

Until then, I had resisted the conclusion that he wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. The criticism seemed premature, and missing the point - he was elected to be different.

So many of the attacks, then and now, are the puerile work of fantasists - that he was born in Kenya, is a communist revolutionary, or secretly a convert to Islam.

They are attacks on an icon for daring to exist, and they make it easier to be over-generous in overlooking the flaws of the real man.

He was accused of dithering before deciding what to do over Afghanistan. Much of the world might be relieved that he thought before acting.

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Some expressed surprise that he tackled healthcare at the same time as the economic crisis - but if he was going to do something big, he had to start it in that first year.

But it was clumsy in execution. The deal-making was grubby, Obama didn't impose his will with that false bonhomie, back-slapping and elbow-grabbing that is the heart of the dark art of handling Congress.

It is curiously easy for someone with real power to awe these wily vain old men. Obama couldn't stoop. He barely conquered, and what emerged was an obscure compromise, hard to sell in a 10-second sound bite.

On the anniversary of his victory, I sat around the kitchen table in student digs to hear the complaints of young people who had celebrated that night in Grant Park.

They were worried that he was too keen to use the troops, hadn't moved ahead on gay rights, or immigration. Fair enough. A leader of the left will often disappoint the left.

A woman holding an Obama sign saying "hope"

During the mid-term elections, I travelled across the country, clutching that famous poster of hope, asking people if they still had any. Despite the state of the economy, many did.

But it did not stop Obama getting what he called a "shellacking". Rarely have I seen a politicians so exposed, so bewildered, so raw.

In a news conference he seemed, like Prince Hamlet, to rove the stage soliloquising on his failure. Hamlet surely was Shakespeare musing on what happened when a modern renaissance man ended up in an old-fashioned revenge tragedy.

Thinking too precisely on the event, Obama concluded he had lost hold of the narrative. For a man who first intended to be a novelist - the only politician to create his own narrative even before he sought office - it was a sobering analysis, but accurate.

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Perhaps he has found his groove. Perhaps I've just got used to his style”

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Take the stimulus money. He wanted a "moonshot" - a symbolic high profile project, that would make America proud of the whole policy. Their step to the stars?

Green energy. Immersed in detail, he forgot the big picture.

Obama now dismissively calls Romney "a salesman". But a politician needs to be able to go door-to-door with their wares.

This is why the first debate was such a defining moment. Rarely does a single event loom so large in an election. If Obama had lost, those 90 minutes would have been blamed.

It mattered, not because Obama lost and Romney won - as if it was some arm-wrestling contest - but because of what it seemed to show.

But more than that - even supporters saw in Obama a lack they had long feared. He was hardly present, let alone presidential. He was dully dutiful, devoid of zest, zeal or zing.

Barack and Michelle Obama at their inauguration ball in January 2009 That was then: four years ago on the night of Obama's inauguration

His book, subtitled "reclaiming the American dream", was called The Audacity of Hope. And "audacity" means - according to my dictionary - intrepid, daring, adventurous, recklessly bold, marked by originality and verve.

Were the president of that debate to a write a book, it might be entitled The Aloofness of Lowered Expectations.

But there has been another vital moment in this election campaign - the moment Obama came off the trails to deal with the ravages of the great storm.

It could be seen as the moment he won the election. A president in a raincoat, rather alone, coming down the steps of Air Force One, walking tall through the lashing rain.

By stopping campaigning, he killed Romney's momentum and looked like a chief in command. Perhaps he has found his groove. Perhaps I've just got used to his style.

After cancelling a rally, President Obama walks through the driving rain

For somebody who can be an amazing orator, Obama can also be a really dull one.

For the last few days of campaigning, he really pulled out all the stops and his victory rally was a classic.

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I often feel that Obama is in office out of a burdensome sense of duty, not a selfish zest for the job”

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When he takes on the cadences of a black preacher you know he is fired up and ready to go. But at other times he can be as unpersuasive and uninspired as a long-winded professor in love with the sound of his own voice.

I'm tempted to say he can be lazy, but I doubt that it is that simple. Perhaps he just gets tired of the rather forced passion play that is the lot of a democratic leader, and believes too much in the force of rational argument.

Here's the problem. Whether it's Sandy, or the Gulf, or the economy, in a complex modern world acting as a co-ordinator, allowing experts to do their job, may be the most grown-up and effective way of dealing with problems.

I often feel that Obama is in office out of a burdensome sense of duty, not a selfish zest for the job. He is self-confident, which is not unusual in a senior politician.

But he's also self-contained and balanced. He's the polar opposite of Bill Clinton.

He lacks the driving need to be loved, the craving to excel, the desperation for the warmth of human contact that compels Clinton to be a far better practitioner of the art of politics.

Many Americans like to see the guy in the saddle, riding herd on a crisis, corralling it into some sort of shape and sense.

People learn. Sometimes they learn just in time.

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US Presidential Election 2012


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  • rate this

    Comment number 997.

    992 AndreaNY
    ‘Why people keep expecting O to change when it comes to fiscal responsibility is beyond me. Structural economic problems are beyond his capabilities’

    That's it Andrea. You just keep on campaigning for your hero, Mittens. One day soon the electorate will realise the error of their ways and see you were right all along. Romney/Ryan in 2016! And when they lose again – 2020!

  • rate this

    Comment number 996.

    All could belong
    Property law 2-edged
    Don't think public servants push-overs
    Best settle

    Some kids 'above study', work 'enough to take-over from Dad'

    Non-business families, able head for profession, science, art, life-times of study, teaching, service

    Those who went for commerce, less able, some rise, most 'bump along', laughing in booms, grumbling in busts

    Players, ALL needed

  • rate this

    Comment number 995.

    AndreaNY@992"End of story."

    If that's true Andrea, why continue to get so worked up about it? Are you going to spend the next 4 years with churning bowels and non-stop bitterness?

    Why not get to work and help bring some constructive common sense back to the GOP? Better that than what you're doing. We already know who -- and what -- you are. Time for you to grow a little, isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 994.

    Over-taxing the rich is biting the hand that feeds you.

    The Trumps & Kennedys won’t be worried – super-rich can afford good tax lawyers. The extra taxes will hit local restaurant owners, family doctors, dentists & other supposedly “evil rich people”.

    Obama peddles the politics of envy, without funds to bail out those to whom he owes big political debts. It will all end in tears.

  • rate this

    Comment number 993.

    ref #957
    Simple math. More tax revenue means less need to cut entitlements. Rich pay more, as they can afford to, so poor are not totally in the weeds
    Lets look at CA where they have just passed a question which will raise taxes to pay for the goverment. Why don't goverment workers take a major cut to pay their fair share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 992.

    988. DavidinUSA

    Humour is the only way to survive Obama's rhetoric.

    Which sounds remarkably the same. Analysts expecting something new and big from him were quite disappointed.

    Why people keep expecting O to change when it comes to fiscal responsibility is beyond me. Structural economic problems are beyond his capabilities.

    Tax the rich. Birth control coverage. End of story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 991.

    DavidinUSA @974

    When serious?

    Was the plight of parents @974 part of "humour", along with Santa?

    And the plight of a graduate with no job also "funny"?

    Are you amongst US patriot-geniuses just waiting for a Rep President to unleash your ideas, to win investment, to help your countrymen?

    Now too obsessive to risk for yourself a larger slice - in percentage poorer - of a larger healthier cake?

  • rate this

    Comment number 990.

    987. DenverGuest

    Recession is not the time to cut spending.

    Sure, and deficits don't matter. Still pretty much dem silly season on spending. I shudder to think when you would actually find it the "right" time.

    Please define the "right time". What measures would indicate it's the "right time"?

    (God, I miss Romney.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 989.

    ref #985

    How this higher taxes on the $250K net earners not small business
    major cuts in spending eliminations of PLAs on all goverment levals and ending of all goverment pensions for non essentials for the next 10 years

  • rate this

    Comment number 988.

    #982 AndreaNY
    “Santa's North Pole was closed down for lack of funds. All the elves have been laid off...now receiving food stamps.”

    Well said, Andrea.

    Humour is the only way to survive Obama's rhetoric.

    To all the jobless, Obama-voting 20-and 30- somethings watching Scooby in their parents’ basements – let’s hope there’s a new round of “Occupy” protests soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 987.

    Recession is not the time to cut spending. Look at the example of WWII and the end of the Great Depression. It took the war and massive gov't spending to lift us up out of the Depression.
    We tackle the debt when everything is more stable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 986.

    970. Magic

    ref #897
    I am not sure what the Repubs could have done to convince some of the electorate including posters like Kingsley who refuse to consider a Repub.

    Obama spent trillions to get re-elected. He will be now president without money to burn. Let nature run its course.

    The problem for Obama has always been when the money runs out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 985.

    Thank you for your comments.Hope you have a great weekend ahead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 984.

    Still thinking!
    But reach across aisle!

    Not wrong to imply that 'legal pensions' (& salary scales), public & private, are fraudulent - whether grotesquely 'guaranteed', or grotesquely 'back-of-the-queue market-fluctuation-based'

    As a pensioner I would gladly settle for lower, given secure equality for all. Reps have to come half-way, for equality, to end dysfunctional see-saw

  • rate this

    Comment number 983.

    "You sound like one of the 47% asking Santa for a handout"

    Santa Obama promises to bail out America. Great intentions, but the money to do so isn't there. Even to tread water, with a crumbling infrastructure & mass homeless on urban streets, the US is overspending by trillions.

    When fiat currency eventually meets reality, it'll be lights out for Obama & the Dems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 982.

    974. DavidinUSA

    Can you help, Santa?

    Santa's North Pole was closed down for lack of funds. All the elves have been laid off. They are now receiving food stamps. Santa's waiting until Christmas morning to tell the kids.

    It's now Christmas morning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 981.

    ref #975

    How about if the taxes are raised on the so called rich, Union leaders are asked to forgo their salaries and be paid what their members make. Let all goverment employees take a cut in their pay. And let well off people like Sandra Fluke pay for her own birth control pills

  • Comment number 980.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 979.

    DavidinUSA @974
    Sorry to read plight

    Forget past intentions, those who laid foundations, your parents who helped build, and you after 28 years given to study, SHOULD have the security of belonging: minimum being 'social security' & 'health cover', like US military, the best - no middle-men corrupting care

    You write well. Think better of fellow-citizens, and together you will fly

  • rate this

    Comment number 978.

    sometimes a good leader must be characterized by the behind the scene tactical display of control. it may seem americans are used to the opposite. americans are simply used to leaders coming on TV and showing some absurd display of control of the situation rather than being realistic.

    it's no wonder Obama suddenly seem odd to people.


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