It's not us, it's him
It's not so great to be Barack Obama at the end of his first year in office. The polls are gloomy. Democratic senators are retiring, before the anticipated blow in midterm elections. Articles summarizing Obama's first year as president of the United States reflect great disappointment: You promised to change the world, but you pursued the policies of George W. Bush.
Time magazine commentator Tony Karon wrote that Obama is managing foreign policy more like a train conductor than a driver in a car. "That's because you can't steer a train; you can only determine its speed," Karon wrote, explaining that Obama was traveling along tracks laid by his predecessor. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen concluded that Obama has no goal and no ideology, but is seeking only personal achievement. In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman said leaders of developing nations such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey and South Africa humiliated Obama at the Copenhagen summit on global warming.
In his first year in the White House, Obama passed health care reform and escalated the war in Afghanistan. America slipped out of the economic crisis, but unemployment remains high. In the foreign policy arena, it was a case of unkept promises. The Taliban and Al-Qaida acted boldly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and now in Yemen; Iran and North Korea continue to pursue their nuclear and missile programs; China and Russia are indifferent; Israel and the Palestinians are angry at each other; and the prison in Guantanamo remains active.
The Christmas-day attempted terrorist attack on a flight to Detroit made it clear that Islamic terrorism is targeting America, not only Bush. Obama's speech of reconciliation with Arabs and Muslims did not persuade Osama bin Laden and his followers to abandon the fray. The Copenhagen summit, which was supposed to symbolize the end of the isolationism and arrogance of the Bush administration and the onset of an era of global fraternity and cooperation, ended in nothing.
What all of the Obama failures have in common is that in each arena the international community heard what he had to say, failed to be impressed, and went back to business as usual.
But a quick look around the world shows that Obama is not alone. As the new millennium enters its second decade, it's hard to find a leader who can move the masses or who stands for an idea. Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel are b-o-r-i-n-g, Nicolas Sarkozy is pompous, Silvio Berlusconi is scandal-ridden, Vladimir Putin is scary, Hu Jintao is a technocrat. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, who bashed America, have lost their charm. The former got entangled in election fraud, the latter ceased to be interesting once Bush left. Or maybe it's just the spirit of the time, and the Internet has killed the video stars?
Despite the failures, and despite America's growing international weakness, no competing superpower has arisen: Obama is still perceived as the leader of the world. But his leadership is suffering from several problems. First is a lack of experience. He reported for work in the White House after only a few years in the Senate and no record in international affairs. That has been reflected quite precisely in the results we've seen thus far: His greatest achievement was in health reform; his greatest failures were in foreign policy.
Obama's second fault is in blurring his message. His presidential campaign was dead-on, credible and exciting. He promised "change" and personified it with the color of his skin, his life story and his use of the Internet to appeal to the masses. But a leader has to deliver, manage large-scale systems, and compromise. Talking about "dialogue" is not enough; you also need something to say.
It's hard to find consistency or a logical connection between Obama's words and his decisions, and that is making it hard for the administration to muster support for his policy. It's not surprising that the percentage of people who "strongly approve" of his performance plunged - from 44 percent when he was sworn in, to 29 percent last Wednesday - while the percentage of those who "strongly disapprove" rose in that time from 16 percent to 39 percent (according to the Rasmussen Reports' daily tracking poll). June 23 marked the day when the number of opposers surpassed the number of supporters.
But Obama's most serious problem is his personality. The president is at his best onstage, reading speeches from the double teleprompter. Commentators who attended a briefing ahead of Obama's announcement that he would be increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan said that in a closed forum, too, he speaks as though by teleprompter, rhythmically moving his head from side to side. Apparently he needs the technological buffer, which isolates him from other humans.
In Israel, people became accustomed to the fact that there is no chemistry between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and blamed the strained relations on Israel's bad behavior - namely its continued construction in the territories and Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. But there is no chemistry between Obama and other leaders, either. We have not heard about some beautiful friendship of Obama's with any Arab leader. He does not prefer Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Netanyahu, and does not pal around with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or the king of Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration is treating the "moderate" Arab states to big arms sales, not personal friendships.
Where are the close ties Tony Blair maintained with Bill Clinton and Bush? When have we seen Obama socializing with Brown, Sarkozy or any leader from Asia or Latin America? The presidential dinner Obama gave for the prime minister of India will be remembered for the three intruders - an American couple and an Indian - who managed to evade security. The political content of the visit has been forgotten.
Relations between states are based on interests, not on personal chemistry between leaders. The effusive Clinton was unable to make peace between Israel and Syria or between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. But in global statesmanship, as in local politics, personal relationships help muster support and soften disputes. Those who make phone calls on holidays and birthdays will at least get a sympathetic hearing when they face troubles. Obama traveled more widely abroad than any other first-year president, but it seemed to be more to stick a pin on a map than to forge friendships. He stayed behind the teleprompter, a talented and remote speaker who struggles with personal give-and-takes.
Leaders and leadership are important, even in the digital age. Circumstances and vested interests are crucial, even decisive, but the decisions are made by people with instincts and loves and fears and weaknesses. Those who believe in dialogue, like Obama, have to work on their emotional and social intelligence if they want results.