1. Obama's first year
To begin with Obama, his favourability ratings have continued to be significantly positive even after the initial euphoria has worn off:
[Please note this graph is dynamically linked to Pollster.com and will change over time. At the time of writing Obama's approval rating was 55%+]
Having fallen from the dizzy heights of 70%+ around the time of his inauguration, his ratings have now stabilised at a solid 55% plus. Despite Republican and "moderate" complaints that he has been trying to do too much too fast, he has in fact been very focused in his priorities:
- Stabilise the US economy
- Get out of Iraq
- Focus on securing some kind of victory in Afghanistan
- Close Guantanamo
- Change the tone of US foreign policy from belligerent imperialism to multi-lateral diplomacy
- Reform US health insurance availability and affordability
To the chagrin of progressives, he has to date expended little political capital on:
- Middle East peace - despite a highly regarded speech in Cairo
- Rolling back the civil liberties encroachments and addressing the alleged war crimes of his predecessors
- Reforming the US financial services industry
- Confronting the US military-Industrial complex and its runaway spending
- Addressing "culture wars" issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
In other words, he has focused on a narrow range of priority objectives whilst not, at this stage at any rate, opening up more battle fronts against other powerful vested interests in US society. Even his much vaunted health insurance reforms are predicated on doing a deal with Big Pharma first - to guarantee their revenue streams - even as the increased provision of affordable health insurance dramatically increases their potential markets.
In other words he has picked his enemies carefully, and only chosen to do battle with a few of them at the one time. Whether he will ultimately take on the military-industrial complex and downsize the military, withdraw from Afghanistan, restore civil liberties, confront AIPAC/Netanyahu on Middle East Peace, regulate the US/Global financial services industry, and address climate change in a truly radical way remains to be seen. On current form he may do so, but only one at a time, seeking allies and doing deals to neutralise other potential adversaries, and only do so when the outcome of previous battles has been secured.
So a radical initiative on climate change will probably have to wait for Health Insurance reform to be "in the can"; he is desperately stalling for time on Afghanistan; and he has yet to take on the financial services industry.
Electorally, his strategy seems to be working. The recent electoral contests showed primarily that whilst conservative hostility (and turnout) to all things Obama and Democratic has deepened, even those voters abstaining or voting against uninspiring Democratic candidates have shown little hostility to Obama in the exit polls. Two deeply conservative Democratic Gubernatorial candidates lost in states which typically vote against the incumbent party, a progressive Democrat won a seat in California and the Republicans managed to lose a congressional election in a deeply Republican New York district because their extreme right sabotaged their own candidate.
If there are any lessons to be drawn from these contests, it is that Democratic candidates who try to appeal to conservative voters destroy their own base and lose because of a low turnout of their voters, and that the Republicans are in danger of losing what grip they still have on the moderate centre of the electorate if they continue to indulge the ultra-conservative "tea-baggers" who seem intent on taking over their party. The 2010 mid-terms and the 2012 Presidential elections remain a huge challenge for Obama, but it is the state of the economy, and not the Republicans which is the major threat.
2. Europe after Lisbon
So how does all this play out in a European Context? Obama lunch slight sums up lost appetite in US for EU summits - The Irish Times - Wed, Nov 04, 2009
THE SYMBOLISM was powerful, if unintended. A year to the day after President Barack Obama won the US presidential election, he delegated vice-president Joe Biden to have lunch with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the acting president of the council, and officials attending the EU-US summit at the White House.
The slight reinforced the perception that Europe has slipped down the list of American priorities.
Mr Obama’s anniversary, the lacklustre EU-US summit, at which climate change was the main topic, and a report published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an independent research group, have prompted a new round of soul-searching over the relationship.
The report, entitled Towards a post-American Europe: a power audit of EU-US relations, says the Obama administration is frustrated and impatient with what it views as a divided and ineffectual European Union, mired in the culture of meetings and incapable of acting as a strong political partner.
Nor is it certain that the institutional changes achieved by the Lisbon Treaty will correct these problems.
“The emergence of the EU’s new external identity has complicated as much as it has simplified the transatlantic relationship,” says the report. With presidents of the European Council and Commission and a “foreign minister” to deal with, “it will remain unclear how far any of these three people is really in a position to speak for Europe”.
The report goes a long way towards explaining why Mr Obama skipped yesterday’s luncheon. Administration sources told Mr Witney and Mr Shapiro that the US president’s first EU-US summit, in Prague last April, left him incredulous.
“To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” they write. Washington views the summits as “an exercise in pantomime”. US secretary of defence Robert Gates allegedly demanded puzzles to see him through the 2009 Nato summit.
Economically, Europe is America’s equal, Mr Witney and Mr Shapiro write. They are “the most interdependent regions in world history” with ties that generate €2.59 trillion in sales each year. Politically, however the US National Intelligence Committee predicted in a 2008 report, Europe will remain a “hobbled giant, distracted by internal bickering and competing national agendas” for the foreseeable future.
“Seen from Washington,” the report says, “there is something almost infantile about how European governments behave towards them – a combination of attention-seeking and responsibility-shirking.” The ECFR exhorts Europeans “to decide what they want when it comes to Afghanistan, Russia and the Middle East peace process and approach Obama with clear objectives.”
More than 500 Europeans have died in Afghanistan and Europe contributes 37 per cent of foreign forces there (compared to 54 per cent for the US), yet the EU “follows the American lead”. The ECFR’s recommendation that Europe define its own strategy for the war is perhaps unrealistic, when even the Obama administration is struggling to elaborate a coherent Afghan strategy.
The ECFR notes European divisions and self-doubts over Mr Obama’s desire to “reset” relations with Moscow. Mr Obama’s cancellation of the missile defence shield in eastern Europe frightened new EU members. “It is time for European member states to address the problem directly among themselves, rather than simply waiting to be told by the US whether or not a higher Nato profile is needed in central and eastern Europe, and whether or not they are excessively dependent on Russian gas,” the report says.
The EU pays more than €1 billion annually “to finance the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate” but waits passively for the US to seek a solution. Europe needs to break the linkage, created by Israel, between the Iranian nuclear programme and Israel’s intransigence regarding its own continued colonisation of the West Bank.
Perhaps Obama's slight in not attending the luncheon for the EU/US summit will jolt European leaders into a realisation that they cannot just appoint some non-entities to the posts of President of the Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and expect to get much attention or traction in Washington, although that is, of course, not the only criterion for their selection. Obama doesn't do meetings for meeting's sake. Whoever is appointed will have to be able to speak reasonably authoritatively for the EU and not always have to say "I'll get back to you after I have consulted with 27 member Governments".
This is not an argument for a Tony Blair type President of Europe, but it does emphasise that the passing of the Lisbon Treaty is only the start of a long and difficult process of enabling the EU to develop a stature in World affairs commensurate with its economic size. Interestingly, in an Irish context, John Bruton, former Taoiseach and current EU ambassador to the US has put his hat into the ring for the President of the Council post. He was not a spectacular success as a Prime Minister, but he is an EPP member with close links to and an understanding of US politics. I would see him as a possible for the High Representative job to balance out a Juncker or Balkenende or Lipponen Presidency. Of course Mary Robinson was also recently honoured by Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but she doesn't seem to get much mention in media speculation these days.
More likely, the post of High Representative will go to a major figure from a big country if the EU is to become more influential on climate change, Middle East, and Afghanistan policy. Obama needs all the help from the EU on these and other issues that he can get. Perhaps then he will come to lunch.
3. Climate Change and Copenhagen
So what of the prospects for a deal on Climate Change in Copenhagen? US to 'redouble' efforts on climate - The Irish Times - Wed, Nov 04, 2009
Mr Obama spoke after a White House meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Foreign Affairs chief Javier Solana and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country currently holds the EU's collective presidency.
The Europeans sounded optimistic a deal was within reach.
"Regarding climate change, I want to tell (you) that I am more confident now than I was in days before," said Mr Barroso.
"President Obama changed the climate on the climate negotiations. Because with the strong leadership of the United States we can indeed make an agreement."
Mr Barroso earlier told reporters not to expect "a full-fledged binding treaty, Kyoto-type, by Copenhagen."
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel told US lawmakers after meeting with Mr Obama earlier yesterday that a deal was urgent and there was "no time to lose."
Ms Merkel, making the first address by a German leader to a joint session of the US Congress since Konrad Adenauer in 1957, was much more specific in what a deal would require.
"We need an agreement on one objective, global warming must not exceed 2 degrees Celsius," she said.
"To achieve this, we need the readiness of all countries to accept internationally binding obligations," she said.
In a declaration issued after the US-EU summit, the leaders said they had agreed "to promote an ambitious and comprehensive international climate change agreement in Copenhagen."
"Together, we will work towards an agreement that will set the world on a path of low-carbon growth and development, aspires to a global goal of a 50 per cent reduction of global emissions by 2050, and reflects the respective mid-term mitigation efforts of all major economies, both developed and emerging," the statement said.
The leaders also said they would "work to mobilize" significant financial resources to support climate efforts by developing countries and strengthen efforts to develop strong carbon markets.
Work toward a new deal ran into obstacles in the US Senate and at UN negotiations that began on Monday in Barcelona, Spain, the last session before Copenhagen
My guess is that Obama will not be ready to achieve a dramatic breakthrough on climate Change by December with the Health reforms still likely to be stuck in Congress and requiring 60 votes in the Senate for Cloture. He may use the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (prior to attending Copenhagen) to propose some dramatic new CO2 reduction targets (and also announce the closure of Guantanamo and a down sizing of the military effort in Afghanistan) but that may be me just being optimistic, and even I am not sure any significant new Climate Change deal can be agreed in December.
Climate Change may be becoming an increasing urgent issue in many third world countries:
But first world economic and political realities may have some way to develop before a dramatic new deal is possible. Whatever about the difficulty of obtaining 60 votes for cloture on health care reforms when health care reform is widely seen as urgent and necessary, the US electorate may just not be ready for the major changes in lifestyle and economic infrastructure required to make real climate change mitigation possible even for Obama any time soon.
Too many Americans love their gas guzzlers, guns and gay bashing to make such a major change possible in the next few weeks and months. All the signs of his performance to date are that Obama will settle for what is achievable over what is needed.