A recent lightening visiting to the US, albeit to Democrat-controlled New York and the fabled Kennedy’s playground of Cape Cod, gave me a sense of how President Barack Obama is rapidly redefining not just the rhetoric, but the terms of engagement in the American national discourse, too.
Observing the first six months of Obama’s administration through the distant lens filter of the online media, I recalled former leader of the British Liberal Democrats Sir Paddy Ashdown’s description of the early days of Tony Blair’s grid-driven premiership as “government by feng shui”: a perfectly balanced technocratic agenda.
Naturally Obama has discovered that, like his transatlantic ideological cousin did, you cannot govern by feng shui for very long. The massive economic stimulus package that has yet to stimulate; a burgeoning deficit; Iran’s belligerent incursion of the West’s “red line”, and the protracted battle of healthcare reform top the president’s crowded in-tray.
There are also early signs that some Americans are growing weary of Obama’s rhetoric and he no longer glides in the rarefied air of stratospheric opinion poll ratings. People want to be assured that there is basalt beneath the blancmange.
Yet most people we spoke to seemed enthusiastic about their new president with the notable exception of a Wall Street investment banker who, to coin Denis Healey’s memorable phrase, believed that the government was taxing the well-off “until the pips squeaked”. (One forgets in a consolidated democracy, how reassuring a genuine dissenting voice is).
Obama’s talent was on display that week by how he turned the infamous Gates episode (the arrest of a brilliant African-American Harvard Professor at his home) into one, a photo opportunity, and two, an opportunity to refocus the agenda.
After seemingly undermining the post-racial canon of his presidency by crassly describing the actions of Sgt James Crowely of the Cambridge constabulary as “stupid”, he cannily used the fallout to illustrate how lingering racial-ism in America detracted from the real challenge of today ie providing universal healthcare. Health legislation is Obama’s highest legislative priority, and his success or failure is likely to shape the rest of his presidency.
The cool-eyed verdict of Tony Leon’s impossibly bright former speech-writer (and a campaign writer for John McCain), Joel Pollock, who we caught up with in Boston, was that the president’s difficult summer was unlikely to erode the president’s long-term standing.
My starkest impression of all was the total eclipse of George Bush’s benighted administration. Legitimate questions about the feasibility of Obama’s social democratic platform — not least the unlikely promise that healthcare reform will be deficit neutral — will not translate into a desire to return to the discredited neo-conservative policies of his predecessor.
Although there are disagreements aplenty, healthcare reform seemed be neither as febrile nor cemented in the same polemic terms as I remember it being when I visited Washington DC in the first year of Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993. Hillary Clinton “two for the price of one” had tabled a complex proposal running to more than 1 000 pages, which failed to attract bipartisan support and was declared dead by the end of that year.
Obama is a pragmatist and like John F Kennedy and Franklin D Roosevelt before him, is likely to try a policy and, if it should fail, try again until he finds something that works. He has set the broad objective and has left it to Congress to hammer out the details. His vetoing of F-22 fighter plane spending was symbolic. The $1.75 billion saving is immaterial, but the act is a moral one (the comparison with SA’s arms deal is self-evident).
Obama framed the debate thus:
“Reform is about every American who has ever feared they may lose their coverage if they become too sick, lose their job or change their job,” he said. A crisis in small business and high federal deficits, he added, are directly linked to out-of-control costs of healthcare.
Firing back at Republican leaders who said obstructing health reform was the best way to “break” Obama, he said: “This isn’t about me. I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress.”
And herein lays a question I believe we liberals must posit here too: What will be the costs of leaving the status quo unaltered? What is the deferred cost of not implementing the basic income grant or creating a NHI system free at the point of need? Not only the cost to the fiscus, but the difficult to quantify the cost of fixing a broken society.
For a liberal government, Obama’s invocation reminds us, must not only consider the opportunity cost of the public policy preference it chooses, but also the moral values which underpin its vision of society.
* It was just over a month ago that I visited the John F Kennedy Presidential Library, where Senator Edward Kennedy’s body lay in state last week. The library, built by the late senator, is perched on a promontory on Boston’s magnificent harbour. Just outside the glass atrium where Kennedy’s casket lay, poignantly stands Jack’s navy blue sailing boat. It would be nice to think that the three Princes of Camelot are reunited, once again, in an Elysian field — for faith is more a hope than a conviction — where, as in the days of old, they sail, eat clam chowder, play touch ball, plot and pursue pretty girls, too.
My travelling companion Peter Leon, a guest of the Chatham Blueberry Inn, and I stumbled upon a lovely watery Cape Cod vista that would have been familiar to the Kennedys. A garden-cum-field strewn with hydrangeas, irises, larkspurs, lilies, gardenias and peonies sprawling down to the sea, a windmill too, a trawler navigating its way through snow white sandbars in the ink blue ocean. Like two Japanese tourists we snapped away ignoring the hand-painted sign that this sacred plot was private. Swiftly, a fierce woman, of about 80 I would guess, appeared to expel us. I unsuccessfully remonstrated with her while Peter continued to snap away. Beating a hasty retreat I made for our SUV. Alas, I climbed into her husband’s identical vehicle.