Erstwhile supporters are irked by harsh political realism.
When Barack Obama made the case for immigration reform the other day, he let Tolu Olubunmi speak, very ceremoniously, in the glow of chandeliers in the East Room. The 32-year-old, who came to America from Nigeria at age 14, appeared at the side of her father, who exceeded the time limit of his visa and stayed illegally. For a long time they lived in limbo: She was permitted to study; she was the valedictorian of her high school class, but without valid papers she was never employed in spite of a degree in chemistry. Although she had to fear deportation, she spoke out about her case, which is why she is a model of civil courage for the president.
“It takes a lot of courage to do what Tolu did — to step out of the shadows,” Obama praised and spoke about motivated immigrants and recalled the Europeans who once arrived in New York. “The notion that somehow those who came through Ellis Island had all their papers right — had checked every box and followed procedures as they were getting on that boat,” he said as a knowing laughter filled the East Room, “they were looking for a better life just like these families.”
Image as a Father Figure Is Crumbling
There are moments in which a tolerant America is one with its head of state. There, he is cool like the late Steve Jobs and human in a simple manner, like the many millions who donate immediately when a neighbor is in need. He grasps the spirit of the times. As such, after wrestling with himself for a while, he approved same-sex marriage, even risking a break with clerical friends in Chicago. When the gun lobby blocked stricter arms controls after the bloodbath in Newtown and he sighed in the Rose Garden as loudly as one can sigh, everyone felt that it was not a rehearsed political act, but instead genuine distress. Or the picture with Jacob Philadelphia, the most beautiful photo by Pete Souza, the chief official White House photographer. In the shot, Obama bends down low to the black boy so that he can pat his curly hair and notes that it feels exactly like his own. Obama, the father figure. Now, all of that is often overshadowed. Disillusioned former supporters often speak of “Big Barry” or “George W. Obama.”
The first, derived from George Orwell’s Big Brother, sounds irritatingly casual when he says of intelligence agencies monitoring the Internet: “You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy.” Almost half of Americans view the issue similarly according to a survey, but among the young, once Obama’s most euphoric fans, acceptance is less pronounced. And in the Democratic Party, his own troops are abandoning the flag; those left-liberal civil rights advocates without whom Obama would never achieved the leap into the White House. The alienation is reminiscent of Tony Blair, who forfeited large parts of his Labour Party because of the Iraq War.
“George W. Obama” discovered remote-controlled drones as a magic bullet in the war on terror and, in spite of verbal corrections in a May speech, has hung on to the concept. He has neither closed the detention camp in Guantanamo nor energetically battled with Congress to fight for the closure. Altogether, in policy announcements after being sworn into office for the second time, Obama introduced climate legislation by saying that anyone who didn’t respond to the climate crisis would be betraying future generations.
Too Hesitant as a Reformer
A genuine attempt is due. When Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, recalled the intention, Obama pointed to surveys, according to which television viewers lost interest in his speech the moment that it came to the climate.
There he was again, the weak-spirited reformer. If one criticizes him for the gap between big talk and little actions, Obama’s reaction is often annoyance. At times, biographer Jonathan Alter observes, he feels misunderstood like an unrecognized genius, according to the motto: I saved Detroit, stock prices are up again, we avoided a depression — do I really need to explain that again?
The hardline of the conservative opposition, which leaves little room for ambitious reforms, has caused Obama himself to become hardened, making a case more self-righteously than patiently. Until moving into the White House, Alter writes, Obama could rely on his exceptional gift for drawing people with differing opinions to his side by pure power of persuasion. But later it no longer worked; the gifted communicator often ran into walls and that alone has thoroughly changed him.