Newsmaker of the Year '09: The Celebs-in-Chief

Presidential First Family, The Obamas

No one said it would be easy. True, the commander-in-chief began the year as the celebrity-in-chief. Barack Obama, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, kicked things off in Washington with a record-breaking inauguration that drew almost two million ecstatic supporters to the U.S. capital and a series of star-studded inaugural balls ushering in a new era in America. The first African-American President had won by the largest popular-vote margin in 20 years; his approval rating sat at 70 per cent. But within months the honeymoon had ended and today his approval is slipping below 50 per cent—reflecting a deeply divided nation and a polarized electorate struggling with mounting job losses and public debt, and doubts as to whether the new guy can deliver.

It didn’t help that Obama took office in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis. He arrived with armfuls of promises: to overhaul health care, to pass climate-change legislation, to wind down the war in Iraq, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and to halve the federal deficit, just for starters. Most of that agenda remains bogged down by Republican opposition and feuds within Democratic ranks—mainly about the growing role of the federal government in American life and debts left to future generations. The new administration has brought in new regulations on everything from credit-card loans and executive pay to tailpipe emissions. The government is financing nine out of 10 new mortgages, and government spending accounts for a greater share of the U.S. economy than at any time since the Second World War.

Part of the problem, though, lies in Obama’s leadership style, one that is the exact opposite of his predecessor’s. George W. Bush prided himself on being the “decider” who consulted his faith, his “gut” and his vice-president. He “stayed the course”—even as his approval ratings scraped the floor. He divided the world into those who are “with us or against us,” and left it to history to judge him. Obama revels in nuances and shades of grey, and wants to talk to friend and foe alike. He filled his cabinet with people who disagreed among themselves—on purpose. It’s a refreshing approach that served him well as the author of two bestsellers, but has had its political costs.

On Afghanistan, for example, where he campaigned on shifting U.S. military attention from the unpopular war in Iraq, Obama has retreated into a months-long decision-making process that at first appeared studious, but eventually was just indecisive. Public support for the war eroded and Republicans labelled him a “ditherer.” On health care, rather than asking Congress to rubber-stamp a specific plan—as Bill Clinton had tried and failed to do—he set down a few broad principles and asked lawmakers to craft their own. Months of tumultuous debate erupted into dissent within Democratic ranks on such fundamental issues as whether there should be a government-run alternative to private insurance. A backlash among conservatives has threatened the whole effort. Meanwhile, other issues, such as climate change, languish.

The light touch that some have seen as pragmatism others have seen as wasted opportunity to take hard-nosed advantage of Democratic majorities in Congress. Obama’s “new politics” of bipartisanship hasn’t quite materialized either. The US$787-billion stimulus package he signed into law in March didn’t draw a single Republican vote in the House. And his drive for the middle course has disappointed Democrats. While Obama is welcomed by boisterous crowds on his foreign trips and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and multilateral diplomacy, he has made limited headway on issues that vex U.S. foreign policy: nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, Middle East peace, the lopsided trade relationship with China.

Not all of the Obamas have had such a tough year. If Barack’s approach was in marked contrast with Bush, Michelle appears to be modelling hers after Laura, who left the White House far more popular than her husband. On the campaign trail, she was accused by some of emasculating her husband and caricatured as a black-power activist in combat boots and an Afro. Even the sight of her bare, chiselled arms in the Capitol at her husband’s first address to Congress made waves. She has since morphed shrewdly into a more conciliatory—some might say neutralized—figure. Rather than pursue the controversial policies she’d discussed—such as a government role in helping women balance work and family life—she’s focused on nutrition and childhood obesity. She planted a garden at 1600 Pennsylvania. She has encouraged farmers’ markets, championed organic restaurants, appeared on the Iron Chef, and invited winners of the weight-loss show The Biggest Loser to meet the White House chefs. Like Laura Bush, she has carved out private lives for her daughters, even insisting they make their own beds, while occasionally making them available for photo-ops. Her approach has paid off. Her popularity, hovering at about 60 per cent, exceeds that of the President and of Congress.

Will any of this rub off on her husband? Democrats hope so. In fact, channelling Michelle’s sensitivity to the public mood may not be a bad play for Obama. With mid-term elections looming next November, and the crucial block of independent voters moving to the Republicans, threatening Democrats’ control of Congress, the President may want to clear some time on his schedule in the new year. Perhaps it’s time for another date night.

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