TE: America and the World
America and the World: The Man Who Used to Walk on Water
How Barack Obama can get at least some of his credibility back.
An American president’s most important power is not the veto pen or the ability to launch missiles. It is the bully pulpit. When a president speaks, the world listens. That is why Barack Obama’s credibility matters. If people do not believe what he says, his power to shape events withers. And recent events have seriously shaken people’s belief in Mr Obama. At home, the chaos of his health reform has made it harder for him to get anything else done. Abroad, he is seen as weak and disengaged, to the frustration of America’s allies.
Not all the barbs aimed at Mr Obama are fair. Our special report this week on American foreign policy notes that he inherited two miserable wars. He began his first term during the worst recession in 80 years. And the Republicans who shut down parts of the federal government last month and flirted recklessly with default bear much of the blame for Washington’s disarray. But the excuse that it is all someone else’s fault is wearing thin. Under Mr Obama, America seems rudderless and its power is being squandered. A more engaged president would handle the Republicans—and the rest of the world—with more skill.
An exchange you can believe in
The debacle of Obamacare has gravely weakened the president (see article). In the days before October 1st, when the online health-insurance exchange opened, he seemed blithely unaware that anything was amiss. Using it would be “real simple”, he told voters in Maryland on September 26th; it would work the “same way you shop for a TV on Amazon”. Alas, it did not. Millions tried to log on; few succeeded. The website was never properly tested, it transpires. Although this was Mr Obama’s most important domestic reform, no one was really in charge. Crucial specifications were changed at the last moment. Contractors warned that the website was not ready, but the message never reached the Oval Office. Big government IT projects often go awry, but rarely as spectacularly as this.
The Economist supported Obamacare when it passed Congress in 2010. We worried that the law was too complex (see article) and did too little to curb medical inflation, but it extended health insurance to the millions of Americans who lack it. The basic idea is sound: everyone must have insurance or pay a penalty. The cash-strapped receive big subsidies, and insurers are barred from charging more to those who are already sick. A more modest version of this reform works quite well in Massachusetts. A man with little interest in details and a disdain for business, Mr Obama tried to impose a gigantic change on the whole country all at once and far too casually.
The longer it takes to fix the website, the greater the chance that Obamacare will fail. Insurers have set their premiums on the assumption that lots of young, healthy people would be compelled to buy their policies. But if it takes dozens of attempts to sign up, the people who do so will be disproportionately the sick and desperate. Insurers could be stuck with a far more expensive pool of customers than they were expecting, and could have no choice but to raise prices next year. That would make Obamacare even less attractive to the young “invincibles” it needs to stay afloat.
To make matters worse, this sorry saga has caused American voters to doubt Mr Obama’s honesty. Time after time, when selling his reform, he told voters that if they liked their health insurance, they could “keep that insurance. Period. End of story.” Policy wonks knew this was untrue. Mr Obama’s number-crunchers quietly predicted that up to two-thirds of people with individual policies would be forced to change them, since the law would make many bare-bones plans illegal. But ordinary Americans took their president at his word; many were furious to learn last month that their old policies would be cancelled.
The poisonous politics of health care point to another common complaint about Mr Obama: that he gives great speeches but fails to build relationships. Abroad, he has cool relations with foreign heads of government. The leaders of allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia scorn him. Europeans grumble that they are ignored when they want to be heard and spied on when they want to be left alone. Latin Americans feel neglected. Mr Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has made China feel threatened, without reassuring other Asians that America will be there in a crisis. Many doubt Mr Obama’s word—remember his “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria?—and lament his inability to get things done.
At home, he seldom schmoozes with his political opponents—or even with his own side. Past presidents put in far more effort to charm and bully lawmakers, business moguls and anyone who could help them. Lyndon Johnson was famous for blackmailing congressmen to do the right thing, which is a hard art to practise if you barely know them. Mr Obama remains aloof—he has no regular breakfast or lunch even with the main Democrats in Congress. You cannot slap backs and twist arms if you are not in the same room.
Forget the Nobel halo—and roll up your sleeves
There is a personal tragedy in this: a talented man who too often does not follow through. As Bill Clinton is reputed to have said, Mr Obama got all the hard stuff right, “but didn’t do the easy stuff at all”. Assuming that he still has the stomach for the fight, what can Mr Obama do to win back that lost credibility?
At home, the priority is simply to get his health exchange fixed. His announcement last week that people who have lost their old insurance will be allowed to get it back is a sham: he has given insurers neither the time nor the incentive to recreate the policies he previously ordered them to ditch. He should stop making empty promises, get rid of the aides who filter out bad news and roll up his sleeves.
Can he get any more done? Immigration reform is still just possible. He now says he is open to tackling it piecemeal, rather than in a comprehensive bill, which raises the chance that it will happen. An even bigger prize would be a long-term fix for America’s finances, with Republicans accepting some tax rises and Democrats tolerating cuts to entitlements. He has little to lose: at present he will go down in history, alongside George W. Bush, as a skipper who ignored the looming fiscal iceberg.
Fixing those problems would require Mr Obama to discover both Clintonian skills of triangulation and some Republicans who don’t hate him. As with other second-term presidents, foreign policy may offer more opportunity. The Obama brand is less tarnished abroad. And American power is sold short by a lot of people—including, sometimes, Mr Obama. With its matchless armed forces, a web of alliances and omnipresent soft power, the United States is still the world’s indispensable nation—as it has shown in the rescue efforts in the Philippines (see Banyan). When Mr Obama ordered a strike against Osama bin Laden, he proved that he can be decisive; when he patiently built the case with China and Russia for imposing sanctions on Iran, he was persuasive.
So Mr Obama can get things done when he puts the effort in. Our special report lays out the opportunities that a more committed and confident president could seize. In many regions, such as Latin America, just a little bit of attention could yield impressive results. Free-trade deals could tie in allies across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Having over-reached in Asia and with a string of domestic problems, China needs Mr Obama to keep the world stable. If Mr Obama can build a better relationship with China, he will advance both countries’ interests. An immediate test is Iran: an interim agreement to halt its nuclear programme would be a first step towards re-engaging America in the Middle East. But only if Mr Obama works at it and sells a deal to Israel and his Arab allies.
Mr Obama may not be able to walk on water. That is now painfully clear, perhaps even to him. But America’s first black president still has it in his power to leave the Oval Office famous for what he did, not just what he was.
See The Economist, The Man Who Used to Walk on Water, November 23 2013.