HONG KONG – It was vintage Barack Obama revived as the newly re-elected U.S. president made a teary-eyed victory speech to his supporters and promised that the best was yet to come and he would fight for all Americans to create the land of their dreams and of the American Dream.
“I believe that we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic and Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
But there is a growing cataclysmic chasm between the promise that he was offering and the tough reality that he and America face today. “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” Obama declared.
It is tempting to say, “Dream on.”
There can be no doubt of Obama’s good intentions, but his first four years in office proved that fine words and promises don’t get you far. He proved singularly inept at the politicking and infighting necessary to get things through an obstructionist Congress.
Critics contend that his natural aloofness may hide an inability to emphasize with — or maybe even to understand — the plight of the poor and unemployed. They contrast him with Robert Kennedy, who showed real emotion and resolve when shown the wretched conditions of America’s underclass.
The reality of the last decade is that America’s underclass has been growing. The richest 1 percent of Americans, and particularly the richest 0.1 percent, have continued to enrich themselves, while the 99 percent have struggled and seen their incomes drop, their jobs under threat and their children uncertain of getting jobs at all. Social and economic mobility which is at the center of the American Dream — the idea that anyone, however poor and underprivileged her background can make it — is now lower in the United States than in tired old Europe.
Meanwhile, the government’s ability to act is savagely constrained by continuing deficits and the overhang of debts, which the squabbling political parties are making worse by their refusal to countenance tax rises, on the Republican side, or cuts in entitlements, on the Democrat side.
Paul Volcker, the brave former chairman of the Federal Reserve who defeated inflation by his tough-love policies, writes in the current issue of the New York Review of Books that America’s view of itself as a great country is being threatened by its dependence on capital flows from abroad, its minuscule savings and flat household income.
“These are not the characteristics of a country willing and able to prolong its global leadership,” Volker writes. He adds that the opinion poll that bothers him is the one that says that only 20 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing, “not a platform on which a great democracy can be sustained.”
What should also concern Obama is how America perceives itself and is perceived by the rest of the world. Obama himself declared: “We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth and the best troops this world has ever known, but also a country that moved with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.”
Obama’s rhetoric is stretching far beyond reality. Ask what the American legacy is in Iraq. Or in Afghanistan, or on the Pakistan borders where American drones have brought death unexpectedly and unseen from the skies — sometimes on target to end the lives of terrorists but too often killing innocent people, including women and children. Or even in Okinawa, where rogue U.S. soldiers have attacked teenagers. How is American military might seen?
Ask people in the Middle East about Obama’s promises to help bring peace to a troubled area. Many Arabs applauded Obama’s fine promises, but are puzzled by his lack of action. Yet in Israel, helped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline and presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s pro-Israel claims, Obama is regarded with hostility.
Ask in China, where Washington’s great hopes of a G2 leadership that might begin to tackle common world problems have been replaced by a sullen suspicion between the superpower and the up-and-coming megapower that is increasingly flexing its muscles and sees Obama’s “pivot to Asia” as directed against it.
Foreign policy was supposed to be the center of the final U.S. presidential debate, but both Obama and Romney kept circling back to domestic issues. Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University, perceptively pointed out that it was an exercise in American narcissism. Neither Obama nor Romney mentioned NATO, the European Union or the eurozone crisis, or India or Indonesia or Japan, or climate change or hunger or poverty or drug violence or water and energy shortages or any of the real challenges to any 21st century leader.
The excuse of course is that all eyes were on the electorates in swing states like Ohio and Florida, so the issues were seen through their eyes. But are Americans so self-absorbed?
Obama, version 1.0 started off with fine promises about peace in the Middle East, talking to Iran, building a new relationship with rising China. He ended with a tinderbox Middle East; Iran still hellbent on its nuclear ambitions; estranged Afghan and Pakistani civilian populations damning American drone strikes; and a sullen relationship with China. All of which means that Obama 2.0 has got to go beyond rhetoric and discover the ways of political persuasion, or the U.S. will head rapidly to the sunset that faces all empires.
The tragedy for America, and potentially for the world, is that the U.S. empire, however evil it is perceived, is still more open, more generous, freer and welcome to new ideas and newcomers than the once and future empire in waiting.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.