Paul Thomas

Obama - Lone Adult in the Schoolyard

Apr 22, 2016 | Americana, Featured

As never before, the international community wishes it had a say in the American presidential election.

Pollster Stephen Mills revealed in the Herald this week that Kiwis are repelled by Donald Trump, the Manhattan Mussolini, and his vampirish Republican rival Ted Cruz. It’s safe to assume the rest of the world feels the same way.

I suspect the ideal scenario for many non-Americans would be a suspension of the two term restriction thereby enabling Barack Obama to serve four more years.

Like much of what happens or doesn’t happen in the name of the Constitution, the rule that forces a youthful 54 year old with eight years invaluable experience and at the height of his powers to walk away from the political arena seems self-defeating. While Obama’s approval rating is hardly sky-high – it hovers around 50%, up from a nadir of 37% in 2014 – he towers above his political contemporaries like a serene adult in a roomful of tantrum-throwing children.

Incidentally, approval ratings aren’t a great guide to a president’s achievements or their place in history. Since the Gallup organisation began asking the approve/disapprove question in the 1930s, no-one has soared as high as George W Bush after Al Qaeda knocked down the twin towers on his watch.

And only one president since John Kennedy hasn’t at some point seen his disapproval rating exceed 50%: Gerald Ford, a historical footnote with the dubious distinction of being the only person to have served as both vice-president and president without being elected to either office.

As the clock ticks down on the Obama era we can start to speculate about how history will judge him.

His detractors will argue that, despite the promise of his 2008 campaign, he hasn’t been a transformational figure like Mahatma Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. But martyrdom, which in Mandela’s case took the form of decades-long imprisonment, is the defining aspect of their narratives, elevating them from politicians to quasi-saints.

The comparison with the similarly charismatic JFK is instructive. While Kennedy inspired a generation, he also contributed to the scarring of a generation by initiating the Vietnam misadventure. He managed not to start World War Three during the Cuban missile crisis but the Bay of Pigs was a historic blunder that reverberated for half a century and may have done so for another 50 years if Obama hadn’t acted as circuit-breaker.

And while the assiduous curators of the Camelot myth were portraying the Kennedys as a picture perfect modern family, Kennedy was regularly engaging in conduct unbecoming, up to and including sharing a mistress with a Mafia boss.

In my view, Obama is one of the five most significant figures in democratic politics of the past 50 years, the others being Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Paul Keating.

Thatcher fought battles that had to be fought and some that didn’t and revelled rather too much in her Iron Lady persona. She dominated British politics for a decade but few tears were shed when she was rendered obsolete by her own party.

Reagan restored American optimism which had been eroded by Vietnam and Watergate and, in partnership with Gorbachev, made historic advances in arms control. However his lack of intellectual rigour and distaste for policy detail created a climate in which a criminal conspiracy – Contragate - was run out of the White House.

Gorbachev euthanased Soviet communism but couldn’t control the forces he unleashed – yet again the revolution devoured its own. Now an ex-KGB apparatchik lords it in the Kremlin and it’s as if the Cold War never ended.

Keating was the political and intellectual engine of the reformist Hawke government and dominated Australian politics much as Thatcher dominated Britain’s. But he was inclined to recklessness – he characterised his approach as “downhill, one ski, no poles” – and his relish for partisan rough and tumble made him a divisive figure.

Obama has also struggled to transcend party lines, although he’s had to deal with the relentless negativity of the right wing news/entertainment machine and a Republican Party whose philosophical retreat to God, guns and greed has led it into a cul de sac of misogyny, dog whistle racism, economic irresponsibility and obstructionism.

He has done great things: rescued the economy, wound down two wars, Obamacare, the Iran nuclear deal, to name but a few. His flaw, supposedly, is that he’s too dispassionate, too rational.

The obvious response is that you can’t have too much of a good thing.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.