At dinner a couple of days ago, my friend Janey Ireson said how disappointed she is that Barack Obama has been hemmed in by congressional Republicans and blocked from fulfilling the high expectations of those who supported his rise to the presidency. The next day at lunch, another friend, Colin Gray, expressed precisely the same sentiment.
One would expect to find such feelings of frustration among the half of Americans who cast ballots for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Janey and Colin are not U.S. voters. They are members of a large group of people that could not vote for Obama, yet they had lofty hopes for what his election might bring. They are Europeans.
Janey and Colin are among several good friends I have visited in the English countryside this week. Pretty much uniformly, my British friends are wondering whether the American system of checks and balances has gone too far. How is it possible, they wonder, that the man who holds the most powerful position on the planet can be rendered so impotent?
The God, guns and go-to-war style of Americanism embodied by President George W. Bush repulsed most Europeans. To them, the election of the first African American president appeared to be a thrilling, historic break with the past that promised a new, more ideologically supple brand of American leadership. Such giddy expectations are what led the august Nobel Peace Prize committee to bestow their award on Obama before he’d done much of anything to earn it.
As it has turned out, the only area in which Obama has had the opportunity to exercise largely unfettered power has been foreign affairs. The Iraq war has been shut down and the military adventure in Afghanistan is being brought to a conclusion, but in the broader war on terrorism, Obama has proved to be a veritable Rambo, authorizing drone strikes at a rate far beyond the comparatively measured level of the Bush administration. The Nobel folks must be cringing.
In all else, Obama has been stymied. Despite his solid victories in two elections, Republicans have never ceased treating him as if he were an illegitimate usurper. On issue after issue, a majority of Americans supports his policies, but GOP leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner, have refused to acknowledge that Obama has most people on his side. And, of course, the shrieking partisans of the right – from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin – have tirelessly promulgated the delusion that Obama’s ideology is an odious pastiche of Cuban socialism, African radicalism and Muslim-coddling anti-Americanism.
Obama has not been able to put together a consistently effective strategy to break out of the box Republicans have put him in. On the campaign trail, Obama showed himself to be to be a prodigy, a superb orator and an innovative tactician. But, in governing, his lack of experience has cost him. When it comes to driving legislation through the minefields of congressional politics, he remains clumsy. Then again, even Lyndon Johnson would have struggled to overcome the kind of unrelenting, uncompromising opposition Obama has encountered on every front.
As a man who hoped to achieve big things, Obama must be hugely frustrated. It may give him small solace to know that his frustration is shared, not just by progressives in America, but by millions on the other side of the Atlantic who have longed for an enlightened American president to be the champion of their aspirations as well.