It is not entirely absurd to say that the President of the United States is quite possibly, the world’s most powerful man. He is the helmsman of a world superpower, a nation with unmatched military strength, ubiquitous alliances, and omnipresent soft power. He is the face of the world’s self-proclaimed policeman. Even more importantly, he is the occupant of the world’s most coveted bully pulpit. An American president’s most significant strength does not lie in the power to call down raining missiles or veto proposed laws. It lies in the fact that when he speaks, the whole world listens. That is why Barack Obama’s credibility matters to everyone. With little credibility, his ability to shape and lead the world shrivels. Such weakness can impact anyone. People have a stake in understanding the activities and sentiments of the world’s most powerful man, including any Canadian high school student.
Recent events have clearly shaken people’s faith in President Obama. Within the borders of the States, the chaos of his health care reform website plasters the headlines, leeching away public opinion. Beyond American frontiers, a frustrated world regards Mr. Obama as weak, indecisive, and disengaged. According to The Economist, an unsettling 55% of Americans disapprove of Obama’s performance. 42% approve. Rasmussen Reports polls complements the numbers by indicating that a tremendous 43% of polled voters strongly disapprove of the man in the Oval Office.
Of course, it is not fair to point all swords at President Obama. One must remember that the man inherited two miserably messy wars and the worst financial crisis in 80 years – thorny crowns that he had never created. And no one should forget the Republicans who frolicked with thoughts of national debt default a month ago, creating a deadlock in Congress that culminated in a hectic government shutdown. However, one cannot continue to generously pardon. People argue that a more effective president could take skillful control of the rowdy Republicans and the rest of the world. Can Obama appease those sentiments?
A Healthy Health Care Reform?
It can be widely misconceived that Obamacare’s goal is to get public health care for all Americans. False. Obamacare’s real goal is simple yet distinct: ensure that everyone has health insurance. People without much cash get large subsidies (discounts) for insurance, and insurance companies are banned from charging extra from people with “pre-existing conditions”. Online health-care exchanges would be erected to allow people to “shop” for better insurance plans, the way one would shop for a TV on Amazon or a car on Kijiji. Last, but certainly not least, all individuals would be required to secure an approved insurance policy, or get fined a penalty.
Joe Biden once called Obamacare a “big [bad word] deal”. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, inspiring positive expletives from the Vice President, is widely viewed to be one of Obama’s greatest presidential endeavors. However, after Obamacare’s website opened with fanfare on October 1, the health care law now induces curses in a radically different tone. Plagued with legions of technical bugs, the online health-care exchange became the reason why 57% of Americans now oppose Obamacare, a new statistical high.
The longer Obama takes to fix his website, the greater the chance Obamacare will perish. Insurance companies agreed to subsidize costs when they were assured that they would earn significant revenue from healthy people who would buy insurance because the law demanded them to, not because they needed it. Because these people were not liable, insurance firms could be assured that they would not lose funds from many health accidents. The great income from healthy customers would compensate for the costs of sickly ones. However, thanks to the malfunctioning website, few people could log on properly. This greatly increases the proportion of sick people registering compared to the general population of users. Insurers could be stuck with a far more expensive pool of customers than they were expecting, and could have no choice but to raise prices next year. This would only further anger the extremely important “invincibles” who are throwing money into something they do not really need.
There is another problem to add to the poisonous politics of health care reform: American voters are starting to question Obama’s honesty and trustworthiness. Obama promised repeatedly that if Americans like their current insurance policies, they could “keep that insurance. Period. End of story.” However, the Obamacare law makes many of these policies illegal, based on how those current policies are written. That means those policies would have to be removed. However, ordinary Americans accepted their president’s promise; many were upset to discover that their cherished old policies would be cancelled.
A White House Island
The debacle of the US government budget ceiling debate last month, a debate largely involving Obamacare as well, unveils another frequent complaint about the US president: he offers beautiful speeches, but ugly relationships. As the leader of a nation with a web of alliances, the cool friendships that the president shares with leaders around the world can be worrisome. Israeli and Saudi leaders scowl at the president of their critical ally. Latin Americans feel they are ignored. The Chinese, since Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, feel threatened and confronted. In Europe, premiers complain that they are spied on when they want to be left alone and neglected when they want to be heard. Africans are disappointed that America’s first black president only visited five of their countries. On all continents, many are uncertain about the President’s word – please recall his “red line” against chemical weapons in Syria -and his ability to get tasks done.
On American soil, the President rarely bothers to mingle with his political colleagues, let alone opponents. Looking to the past, previous presidents have actively engaged with soothing or hounding Congressmen, corporate barons, or others who hold political influence. Mr. Obama does not even hold regular breakfasts with leading Democrats at Capitol Hill. Then there was the Internal Revenue Service being accused six times for targeting Obama’s conservative opponents. The president continues to be aloof in the White House and is left unable to twist arms or shake hands to pass his laws of change.
Three Strikes And You’re Out
Despite the hailstorm of criticism against Obama’s presidency, hope still remains. With three years remaining in his second term, Mr. President can still heal his ill credibility. What could he possibly do?
Clearly, he must prioritize the salvation of his health care reforms. The website fiasco must be solved, and the president needs to answer the upset Americans who lost the insurance policies they were promised they would keep. Obama does not have much time left before outraged citizens seek to shut down his most important domestic reform. It is not enough to make empty promises about believing in reform. Obama must roll up his sleeves, give out the necessary bad news, and go about fixing problems.
On the domestic front, the president also has opportunity in immigration policy. The president only recently agreed to tackle the issue piece by piece, rather than through an all-encompassing bill, which would improve chances of laws being passed. The greatest opportunity lies in solving the government’s financial dilemma, by convincing conservatives to raise taxes while Democrats tolerate spending cuts. Obama is currently on the road to being remembered in history as the man who ignored Titanic America’s impending fiscal iceberg, just like his predecessor George W. Bush. It would be ideal to change course.
Despite the grumbling leaders abroad, President Obama still benefits from the heritage of the world’s greatest superpower. Obama’s rescue aid to the Philippines showed the world that the US can still be the world’s indispensable nation. His operations against Osama bin Laden proved that he can be a decisive and effective commander. His eventual conclusion of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would also appeal to an America tired of fruitless war.
So, it certainly seems that Obama can accomplish things if he puts his whole back to it. Many more tests await him in the foreign front. Free-trade deals can solidify alliances across the Atlantic and Pacific. Harassed by domestic issues and over-extension, China may need the US to maintain world stability. Closer relationships between the two powers would further both national interests. A good deal with Iran’s nuclear program would re-engage America’s influence in the Middle East.
As Bill Clinton famously puts it, Obama does the tough labor right, “but didn’t do the easy stuff at all”. Obama may not be the Messiah as some may have initially viewed him to be. However, with three years around the corner there is still great potential for the world’s most powerful man to leave the Oval Office famous for what he had done, not for what he was.