Let Obama talk. That’s how things get done

Can there ever have been an American president who has been prejudged, judged and then rejudged as soon and as relentlessly as has Barack Obama? Certainly not George W. Bush in 2001, for whom expectations were low — at least until 9/11 changed everything. Arguably not Bill Clinton in 1993 either, though he did begin with a whirlwind of pledges and initiatives, before being slowed down by the onrush of the Whitewater scandal in his first autumn. Even dear old Ronald Reagan in 1981 was assumed to have proclaimed that it was “morning in America” because he liked a snooze in the afternoon.

All talk and no delivery; an appeaser of tyrants (and indeed of Israel); an anti-free-trade vandal . . . or saviour of the world and possibly the planet, all just nine months into his presidency. Such have been just some of the judgments of Obama emanating from sages as diverse as American talk-radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh), former Republican ambassadors to the UN (John Bolton), the media (OK, my old paper, The Economist, made the “vandalism” accusation), and most recently and bizarrely, the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which gave him its prize for not having achieved any peace.

Some of this hyperventilation may reflect the shortening of news cycles and the constant pressure on the media to produce striking or even sensational verdicts, which are escalating the demands on all political leaders. Much of it reflects Barack Obama’s very special status as the first black leader of America, or indeed any Western country. A lot, however, reflects an odd blend of impatience and amnesia: impatience for genuine problems to be solved or eased and amnesia about the true powers of the American presidency to bring about solutions.

A better judgment on President Obama would, in my view, be “doing quite well in the circumstances, but has a long way to go”. It is, after all, strange to accuse a president who has presented and had passed a fiscal stimulus Bill worth (depending on who evaluates it) something around $800 billion, or almost 6 per cent of GDP, of having achieved nothing. Unemployment is still rising, but the economy does appear to have stabilised, and much of the stimulus from all that spending will come this autumn and next year. To make an impact takes time.

That certainly applies to his main agenda, which is domestic welfare reform. It is worth noting that President Obama’s efforts to extend American welfare are part of a global trend: all the world’s three biggest economies — America, Japan and China — are either planning to extend their welfare states or are actually doing so. The move to bigger government as a result of the global economic crisis is happening there, in welfare systems and concern about inequality, not in state intervention in capitalism or markets.

And progress is being made. This week President Obama had some good news at last on his flagship welfare issue, healthcare, when the key Senate committee voted by a convincing margin to approve a health reform Bill and benefited even from a Republican vote, that of Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Key committee votes and surprising bipartisan support are all very well, but it will be many months before President Obama will be able to declare victory on healthcare. The committee now has to submit a new bill to the whole Senate, garner enough votes there (60 out of 100) to beat off Republican filibuster tactics, and then blend that Bill with those emerging from the House of Representatives. This will take at least until the end of the year.

It is a crablike, cumbersome, annoying process. All the White House can do is watch, wait, lobby, and use the President’s “bully pulpit” to try to rally public opinion on to its side in order to put pressure on Congress. That is why the “all talk and no delivery” gibe gets it exactly wrong: when complex Bills have to pass through Congress, the President’s only instrument is talk. Leaders who are good at that — such as Ronald Reagan and, yes, Barack Obama — are the likeliest to succeed.

In his talkathons, President Obama has sometimes frustrated even his fans, by remaining too general and failing to commit himself on the specifics. But nevertheless he is making progress, pushing healthcare towards a reform that promises to bring something close to universal coverage, which America has not yet had.

The difficulty in achieving universal care owes a little to a long suspicion of big government, though since the Government already controls more than half of healthcare spending through its Medicare programme for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, this point is rather moot. Mainly, it is a deliberate consequence of the American Constitution, which was brilliantly designed to prevent presidents, congresses or supreme courts from getting their way too easily. Many have proposed extending healthcare. So far only Barack Obama has come close to success.

Of course, time will tell whether he does indeed succeed. But even if he fails he has already displayed two vital characteristics of presidents that history has rated highly later. One is resilience: the ability and nerve to bounce back from adversity, and look confident as you do so. Bill Clinton had that, as did Reagan; Jimmy Carter did not.

The other is the capacity to push on several fronts at once, without seeming to weaken your efforts or by bringing confusion. This could be called the Gerald Ford test: can President Obama chew gum and fart at the same time? The evidence so far is that he can: not only has he pushed hard on healthcare and the fiscal stimulus, but, with Congress, he is also promoting a climate-change bill and a significant reform of financial regulation, while grappling with the quagmire of Afghanistan, the dangers of Iran and North Korea, and the ever-present nightmare of Israel and Palestine.

A president who pushes forward on so many issues at once is either delusional, or unusually brave, determined and talented. Saving his effort to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago, there is no sign that President Obama suffers from delusions. Rather than passing premature judgment or garlanding him with premature prizes, what we should be giving him is support.

Bill Emmott, a former Editor of The Economist.