The Obama Enigma

Is it a handicap for a leader to be cerebral? This is a question that admirers of President Barack Obama are asking as they ponder over the remaining two years of his not so successful Presidency.

And for us in India, the issue is topical too as Obama comes calling at the end of the month to engage with our PM, a very different personality type, as we shall see.

Obama in 2015 is a different personality than the “Yes, we can” trail-blazer that captivated the world in 2008. He had changed American polity then, by becoming the first ‘black’ President, by transcending the racial prejudice, and in some ways by his sober and ultra- rational approach to divisive issues.

He was sure-footed in winning the Presidential race, and once in office seemingly resolute to clean up the mess left by his predecessor. However, as the quip goes, the biggest challenges for any leader are the ‘events’ that impinge. Starting with the financial crisis that soon engulfed America in 2008, it has been a difficult ride in one way or the other for Obama.

As 2015 dawns and as we get ready to receive him, his persona is more of an enigma. In the US, his detractors seem to be more vociferous than his supporters. What are the opponents saying, how fair is the criticism, and delving deeper, are there underlying traits that characterize his functioning?

Obama is accused by his critics of presiding over an America that is in decline. On the external front, he gets blamed for the continued problems of the US in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan though Obama’s effort has been to gradually disengage from these theatres.

He is seen as having vacillated with regard to American policies in West Asia, specially Libya, Egypt, and Syria. He is blamed for not being robustly aggressive with Putin’s Russia, an inexorably rising China, or an unbeaten Cuba.

On all these, if his hawkish opponents on the Republican right accuse him of weakness, his erstwhile liberal supporters believe that he has turned too centrist and has compromised on his core values.

Internally, Obama is perceived as having accomplished little by not having had the stamina to bring closure to his agenda. The health care reforms that he did bring about have not enjoyed wide support; he failed in efforts to push through immigration reforms or regulate guns; minorities including blacks feel that he has not done much for them.

While this is the public perception, largely based on prejudices, the reality is different. Compared to the stagflation of 2008, the economy is growing and analysts talk of an American resurgence, supported by its innovation, technological competitiveness, and successes in shale gas.

Externally, America continues to be a pre-eminent power, though it is more meaningful today to envisage a multi-polar rather than a unipolar world order.

It will be reasonable then to assess that the doubts and criticism about Obama are more due to partisanship and polarization in American polity than an impartial evaluation of his track record.

Washington has been deeply divided between Republican conservatives and Democrats with little space for compromise or consensus. This mistrust and hostility has steadily grown worse and for the last six years, Obama’s efforts have been frustrated by a determined opposition in the US Congress.

Much needed reforms whether on fiscal discipline, balancing the budget, or immigration have been prevented because of the gridlock between the President and the legislative branch.

There are deeper structural issues in American society and politics that underlie the impasse on many fronts which may continue.

What could have Obama done in spite of them? It is here, that his Hamlet like personality, a widely held pejorative description, comes into the picture.

Sympathetic observers of Obama-admirers of his intellectual caliber and enlightened world view -acknowledging his lack of popular support and tangible success, voice the view that there are personality traits that have compounded the predicament that he faces.

The two aspects often noted are: disengagement from the political process, and the inclination to see many sides of an issue to the point of being indecisive.

With his professorial intellect, Socratic instinct for debate, and fondness for nuanced positions, Obama is certainly interested in public policy, but is weary of the political process involved in transforming that policy to legislation.

He has shown a tendency to stay above the fray, is allergic to the give and take and to arrive at unsatisfactory half-solutions that seem inescapable when consensus is impossible.

As a result, he has been unable to make breakthroughs in some of the areas mentioned. This disinclination has made him an aloof player unable to determine outcomes. Added to this factor is the seeming self- doubt natural in a cerebral figure, but apparently not a virtue in a ruler.

No doubt, Obama was resolute in a crucial test, the decision to ‘take out’ Osama, but he has shown a sensitivity to see nuance and complexity where it exists as in the case of Syria or Ukraine.

From what we can fathom so far, Modi, again an extremely intelligent and capable personality, relishes the political process. He does not appear to be troubled by self-doubt or a have a tendency to look over his shoulder.

For amateur observers like us, the encounter between the two leaders should be as interesting as the engagement between the two countries.

(The author is a former Ambassador and a visiting Professor)

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