By William Pfaff
PARIS—There was a telling caption to a recent French commentary on the American political situation. It read: “Obama, the man who thinks he’s president.”
The writer, Yves de Kerdrel, of the newspaper Le Figaro, said that Barack Obama has proved to be a shooting star, the trail in the sky where he has passed still visible but the star falling toward the horizon.
His popularity, this conservative writer said, has on the evidence of the polls in just six months fallen to a level below that of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has already spent two years in office, confronting crises, fighting for change and making enemies.
Kerdrel credits the team in place under George Bush for America’s provisional success in saving the banking system from collapse. Obama has since wasted time trying to win from Congress additional regulatory power for the Federal Reserve, exactly the institution whose past ideological illusions about self-regulating markets, and whose laissez-faire treatment of Wall Street bankers, were responsible for the crisis in the first place.
The Figaro columnist thinks that by the time of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh in late September, Obama may be the only leader among the 20 countries present who still has not succeeded in imposing essential fiscal regulation on his national financial community.
Is this really the fault of the “mediocrity” of Barack Obama’s team of advisers, and Obama’s “astonishing conformism”? I would say that if his economic counselors are mediocre, then it is a judgment on the American economic profession as a whole. There are distinguished dissident economists whose advice Obama seems to have ignored, such as Joseph Stiglitz and James K. Galbraith, but the people he has used in Washington are mainstream leaders of the profession.
However, the economy aside, I would make the same criticism of the president’s foreign policy. He is doing what the mainstream analysts and the Pentagon are telling him to do about his war—the top people. Regrettably they are wrong, as will eventually be discovered.
Barack Obama came to office as the candidate of reconciliation and bipartisan cooperation, which he has tried to practice in dealing with the three generally agreed current national crises: the financial crisis and threat of international depression; the condition of the American health care system; and two unresolved wars of choice in the Middle East and Central Asia, both currently being conducted by simple continuation of Bush administration policies.
I think the president is simply too decent. Washington is not a nice town, and the American public is intolerant and too many know little more than what they are told by Fox News and by talk radio, which means that they haven’t a clue as to what really is going on in the world.
Obama campaigned by offering change, and in practice has provided continuity. He campaigned as a man who would bring Americans together and has constantly striven to do so, but most of the Republican leadership seems to believe compromise contemptible, whatever the cost to the country, and that blocking health care reform, as well as any other initiatives Obama proposes, will get the Republicans re-elected in next year’s congressional vote. They are also gambling on violence, demagogy and threat as legitimate in national debate.
They are exploiting two of the most pervasive American illusions, the first one that of the iniquity of “socialized medicine”—an epithet that has for seven decades been attached to every form of government-regulated or government-organized effort to deliver universal health care to citizens, with the exception of certain categories of Americans: the elderly, who receive Medicare (which large numbers of them seem convinced is not a government program at all, but is delivered through the benevolence of hospitals and doctor, or by divine providence).
There is the care provided by the Veterans Administration to Americans who have served in American wars. There is government-provided health care to military personnel and their families, considered part of the enlistment contract. And there is the health care given to federal employees, and notably to members of Congress and the Senate (the latter, with rare exceptions, a club of millionaires).
The final great obstacle to reform of national health care is the stubborn belief of Americans, whatever the evidence, that the American system is superior to all others on Earth, that Americans live better and richer lives than anyone else; and that if employment, working conditions, wages and health care are bad in the United States they must be worse everywhere else. If not, why does everyone in the world want to come to live in the United States?
Can anything be done about this? I doubt it. The combination of prejudices concerning socialism and the supremacy of the American system that Americans seem to acquire in the womb, with Republican electoral nihilism, is probably impossible to overcome. Thank you, Barack Obama, for trying.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.
AP / Jae C. Hong
A woman opposing health care reform gives a thumb-down sign while listening to panelists during a health care town hall meeting in Alhambra, Calif.