Skip to main content
opinion

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Whatever happened to the messiah? He for whom Americans danced in the streets on that unforgettable election night just six years ago. He whose name was on every tongue abroad. He who promised that humankind would look back and remember this moment "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

As America approaches its midterm congressional elections on Nov. 4, six years to the day after Barack Obama was elected, Democratic candidates don't want to be seen with him. Elizabeth Drew, a veteran observer of U.S. politics, writes that "probably not since Richard Nixon have so many candidates shied away from being in the presence of their party's president when he shows up in their states." His approval rating is down to around 40 per cent. Outside the United States, we barely talk about him any more.

What went wrong? Or is this new low just as unrealistic as the original high? During a summer spent in the United States, I asked various observers to draw up their Obama balance sheets. Obviously, much can still happen in the two-plus years left, but he has probably done most of the big things he is likely to attempt, and he increasingly sounds as if he would rather be on the golf course.

It's important to recall that no president since 1945 has been dealt such a difficult hand. He came into office facing the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, the legacy of George W. Bush's disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq, a dysfunctional political system that snarls around a gerrymandered, polarized and money-dominated Congress, and a millennial shift in the global balance of power. This year sees China overtaking the United States as the world's largest economy, measured at purchasing power parity. In a column I wrote from Washington the morning after Mr. Obama was elected, chants of "Yes we can!" still ringing in my ears, I already expressed doubts that the spirit of hope would be enough to surmount all these obstacles.

One obstacle I did not sufficiently anticipate. While the arrival of a black president in the White House was hailed as finally overcoming the greatest stain on the world's greatest democracy, it turns out that much prejudice endures. "It's undeniable," Ms. Drew soberly comments, "that the President's race has a significant part in the destructive ways in which he is talked about and opposed."

All this being said, what is the interim balance sheet? My answer is: moderately good in domestic policy, very poor in foreign policy. The U.S. economy is doing better than any other major developed one. It has grown nearly 8 per cent since early 2008. Unemployment is below 6 per cent. The federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2014 was under 3 per cent of GDP. We can argue about who should get the credit for this, but it happened on Mr. Obama's watch. The Dodd-Frank restraints on the financial sector are incomplete, but his Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers significant new protection for those on the wrong side of the banker's desk. He has done what he can to start reducing carbon emissions, despite a lobby-dominated Congress.

The rollout of the Obamacare website was a managerial disaster, for which he bears responsibility, but the whole program has already brought perhaps 10 million people into insured health care or Medicaid. Two Princeton scholars have found that in his first term, Mr. Obama quietly budgeted far more for means-tested anti-poverty programs than other Democratic presidents. He talked less about the poor but did more for them.

This is a respectable domestic record for hard times. In foreign policy, by contrast, the President from whom the world expected so much has delivered so little. It's true that he hasn't done "stupid stuff" like invading Iraq. But that's about it.

The visionary statesman of the 2009 Cairo speech failed to seize the opportunity of the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt. He declared a "red line" on chemical weapons in Syria, then let President Bashar al-Assad cross it with impunity. Mr. Assad proceeded to concentrate his fire on the moderate Syrian opposition, which former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had urged Mr. Obama to support more vigorously. This let the militants now known as the Islamic State gain a stronger foothold. Meanwhile, his weakness in dealing with Shia Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meant that some discontented Sunnis turned to the Islamic State. Now America is re-engaged in Iraq.

The premature Nobel Peace Prize winner has not (yet) pulled out all the stops to achieve a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, although he knows he should. He has been weak in responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The scandal of mass electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency has alienated crucial allies, especially the Germans, and he did not even fire his top intelligence official, who had lied about it to Congress.

The pivot to Asia is a good idea, but neither China nor U.S. allies in the region have yet been impressed by the results. Then there's development. The man who came to power as Mr. North-South has actually done little more for U.S. development aid to the global South than Mr. Bush did. Oh, and he hasn't closed Guantanamo. Need I go on?

All this leads to an interesting question: Did American voters in Democratic presidential primaries put their historic firsts in the wrong order? First African-American before first woman. Although neither Ms. Clinton nor Mr. Obama had held major executive office, she had more experience and would probably have been tougher as president. She was the right age then, whereas she will be 69 if she wins in 2016. Eight years on, with some more time in the Senate, followed by a stint as secretary of state or vice-president, Mr. Obama would have been better equipped to face the challenges of a dangerous world.

Now there's one for the great book of What If.