It is sometimes said that campaigning is like poetry and governing is like prose. Barack Obama displayed poetic eloquence on the campaign trail in 2008, but the policies of his administration have not gone down well with voters. The Republicans have taken charge of the US House of Representatives and the Democrats have barely managed to retain their majority in the Senate. A political gridlock seems likely in Washington DC unless the Obama administration tries hard to strike a workable deal with its opponents.
The irony is that Obama had initially projected himself as a leader who would reach out to all Americans, irrespective of race or political persuasion: a man who would heal a nation torn apart by the heated ideological battles of the Bush years. The groundswell of public anger against his bailouts of Wall Street banks, large fiscal deficits and healthcare policies has been harnessed by the Tea Party, spontaneous local protests that snowballed into a nationwide conservative movement against Obama. He seems to have become as divisive a figure as George Bush, though from the other end of the political spectrum.
The backlash against the Obama administration is driven by anger about domestic policies. A smart politician such as Obama would do well to adjust his domestic policies to bring them closer to the concerns of the median voter. The puzzle is what will happen to his foreign policy.
The populist conservatism that the Tea Party now represents has traditionally been split between the belligerents and the isolationists. Obama is neither. He is an intelligent man, but his administration seems to have no strategic vision. The rhetoric from day one has been woolly. Remember the hopes that reaching out to the Muslim world in speeches would help reduce tensions in West Asia or the attempts to discover “good Taliban” in a movement of medieval barbarism?
In an article published by Foreign Policy magazine in June, James Traub wrote about a new policy document by the Obama administration: “The Obama National Security Strategy reads…like an Obama speech. It summons us to put aside zero-sum choices and leaves everyone feeling that their concerns have been heard and addressed. Its tone is hortatory, its sentiments lofty, its directions vague.”
Obama has muddled along in his foreign policy, steering clear of tough choices. The same unilateralism that encouraged Bush to begin the unpopular war in Iraq also allowed him to help India break the system of nuclear apartheid. Indian national interest would be better served if Obama realizes that there should not be equivalence between a democratic India and a Pakistan dominated by a jihadi-military complex.
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