Barack Obama Faces a Disenchanted America

A few weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, many elected Democrats are trying to keep their distance from Barack Obama. Too intellectual, and with little talent for empathy, the president has disappointed.

In the state of Kentucky, Democratic candidate Alison Grimes, who is running against Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is refusing to say who she voted for in the 2012 presidential elections. Admitting that she supported Barack Obama could cost her a victory.

Two weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 4, Democrats are in no hurry to ask for the president’s personal support in their campaigns. Despite his undeniable charisma and his two very comfortable successes in 2008 and 2012, the president who generated the most enthusiasm and hope in the recent history of the United States is now treated almost like a leper, a losing machine. How else can we explain this “Obama bashing,” so difficult to accept on this side of the Atlantic and especially in France? Our country initially asked whether an “Obama for the French” was possible or whether that would remain a distant dream! How do we sort out the justified criticisms from the unjust reproaches of the first black U.S. president’s brutal falling out with his countrymen?

“Obama knows how to win an election, but he doesn’t know how to govern,” said one of my interviewees, who is a Democrat, last week in Washington. This person held a senior position in the Clinton administration and was the first, in February of 2009, to share his doubts with me. The president was talking too much and acting too little. Exceptional speeches were already taking precedence over politics. For my interviewee, after six years of exercising power, Obama’s faults are now more aggravated than attenuated. Like George W. Bush before him, Barack Obama has surrounded himself in his second term with men and women chosen more for their loyalty than for their quality.

This is especially true, he told me, when it comes to foreign policy. His National Security Advisor Susan Rice seems more interested in the decision-making process than in the content of foreign policy. She has been particularly opaque. Secretary of State John Kerry is more visible. But was he chosen for strategic purposes? In other words, the president, who has trouble making decisions himself, seems weakened rather than strengthened by the team that surrounds him. After Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, his former secretary of defense, amplified, in a memoir coming out in the United States, the critiques regarding the president he had just served. These criticisms have caught the attention of the American media, who are thrilled to see a Democrat critiquing someone in his own camp. According to Panetta, Obama’s America was so eager to close the chapter of their presence in Iraq, that it hasn’t put up much resistance to the pressures of the Maliki government and has disregarded the true interests of both the United States and Iraq. And what about the waltz — the president’s hesitation in Syria, where, after having drawn a “red line” for the Damascus regime, he declined to intervene, relying on the negative vote of the British House of Commons? This was seen by the entire world as proof that America is no longer America.

Criticism is easy, but the art of governing is increasingly difficult.

On the international front, how should he deal with a Middle East that has begun to decompose after the soaring hopes embodied in the Arab Spring? How should he deal with public opinion that is so volatile and so worried about the Daesh threat, which now seems small compared to that of Ebola? How should he deal with the fact that American public opinion will never be “Europeanized” in the sense that America is always thinking about protecting itself from the world, rather than acting?

On the domestic front as well, how should he lead a country that has never before reached this “polarized” point and that has never known such distrust of its own government and politics?

All this explains the lack of passion in these midterm elections. In all but the most surprising of scenarios, Democrats are expected to lose the majority in both houses and Republicans will again be defeated in the 2016 presidential elections! Will they be unable to overcome their differences and agree on an acceptable candidate, like the Democratic Party, which seems to be already rallying behind Hillary Clinton? Unable to reform a tired political system, in which the “vetocracy,” to use the word of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, now outweighs democracy, America turns to symbols: the first woman president, after the first black president! The candidate of hope in 2009, Obama has proven incapable of containing a culture of fear that seems to take over everything in its path. It is true that Obama, brainy, distant and remarkably lacking in empathy toward all those who are not part of his inner circle, has found himself in power at the wrong time, too early in relation to his personal development, but too late in relation to the changing world.

And if America, at this double crossroads, internal and external, needed a president who was more intuitive, more optimistic, less intellectual, or even just more political? Some in the United States are evoking nostalgia by yearning for the personality of Ronald Reagan. Didn’t he have more of that unique quality in politics that we call luck?

To be fair, Obama, through his reform of the healthcare system, “Obamacare,” has bettered the lives of millions of Americans. History will thank him.

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