Barack Obama

Only the magic of true leadership can save America from the deathly hollows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am


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Was it merely symbolic or could it have been a defining moment? President Barack Obama got up on Monday to praise the United States: 'No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a triple-A country.' The stock market had fallen heavily before he started, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average just above 11,000; it slid below 11,000 as he was speaking, and continued to drop, closing 634 points down, its worst fall since 2008.

Whatever the country's standing, there is a growing consensus from the left, and from the right, that Obama's own rating is approaching junk status. It is no longer a whisper but has become a murmur among commentators that it might be better if Obama were to step down after a single term. Some are urging him to be a good single-term president rather than a mediocre man who does two terms.

The New York Times this week ran an analysis posing the question for Obama: 'Is he willing to try to administer the disagreeable medicine that could help the economy mend over the long term, even if that means damaging his chances for re-election?'

It may be compelling to cast Obama as some real-life Harry Potter willing to sacrifice himself to save the US and the world from Lord Voldemort and his dark forces. Unfortunately, life is not as simple as fairytales.

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, forecast that there is likely to be little or no growth in the US for the next two years. There are no easy levers to pull, no magic wand to get the economy moving, people back to work, government revenues flowing, debts reduced. True, America's unemployment rate fell to 9.1 per cent, but largely because many people had stopped looking for work.

The immediate way to create jobs would be for the government to spend money, but that would increase debts. The medium-term plan to reduce those debts, by a mixture of revenues from higher growth, tax increases and closing tax loopholes, has been blocked by Republican opposition.

In the frontline trenches of US politics, the challenge to Obama is coming more from the commentariat than from political rivals. With a war chest for next year's presidential election approaching US$1 billion, Obama seems safe for his own party nomination, unless someone really big challenges him - which can really mean only Hillary Rodham Clinton - or he gets tired of all the sniping and retires hurt.

It is more difficult to assess the fickle mood of the US electorate. The Republican Party, driven by the dangerously naive Tea Party, has moved so far to the right that it would seem to an outsider that it would have no chance of winning the important centre presidential ground. But the Tea Party continues its crusade and its shibboleths dominate the debate.

In spite of Standard & Poor's downgrading of US credit, US Treasuries have been very much the flavour of the week. Ten-year US Treasury yields fell to a record 2.03 per cent at one point. In an uncertain world, US bonds are the preferred havens, whatever Standard & Poor's or China may say.

The sad aspect is that a globalising world faces not just an American crisis, but a series of economic crises linked by a failure of political leadership. The rush to US Treasuries was hastened because the major crisis was perceived not to be the US but the euro zone, and fears that France would be sucked in because of the heavy exposure of its banks.

Prospects for growth in the European Union are poorer than in the US, and the pile-up of debts is bigger. The common feature is a lack of leadership, with politicians thinking more of their own political skin. It may be more realistic to cast French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Harry Potter and Hermione Granger: are they prepared to do the right thing by taking domestically unpopular measures to rescue the union?

China and Asia generally, apart from Japan, seem in good economic shape. But if growth grinds to a halt in the US and Europe, China's export model will also look fragile. Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the last month has been alternate crowing and hectoring from the official Chinese press, first chortling about the US being enslaved to debt and then demanding that Washington must protect China's pile of Treasuries.

China made a Faustian bargain - its jobs, exports and undervalued renminbi in return for foreign exchange reserves. Yet, at a time of global crisis, China's leaders are nowhere to be seen or heard. No one has called for an emergency meeting of the G20.

But, to get back to Obama and the US, and Hillary Clinton - the political scientist Richard Neustadt said that the only real power a US president has is that of persuasion. In the long drawn-out crisis over the debt ceiling, Obama remained brooding in the background. Leaders in his own party are unhappy that, at every turn, he caved in to Republicans.

It is hard to imagine Bill Clinton standing on the sidelines. He would be in the thick of the battle, oozing charm, knocking heads together, suggesting, cajoling, threatening, using all the persuasion of his office. Perhaps it is time for Bill and Hillary Clinton to remind Obama that the US did not get to triple-A by uttering mantras about the God-given greatness of the US, but by using its brains and initiative and energy and leadership.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator