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A step forward, finally

We had in November 2008 argued in a piece entitled ‘Euphoria now – apprehensions to follow’, that the Barack Obama reality may turn out more subdued than the dream. This prophecy sadly seems to be ringing true. The healthcare victory last week, in which Mr Obama invested so much of his personal authority and consequently political capital, was a significant step forward. His achievements in other areas, however, are hard to list. The presidency is increasingly viewed as being weak and several foreign capitals have begun to suspect that the Obama administration may well be a single term one.

Universal healthcare has been important to the Democrats, so the passage of the healthcare bill is a commendable feat. But Mr Obama failed to garner wider support, as polls suggest that more Americans oppose his healthcare reforms than support it. Republicans are horrified that the bill does almost nothing to control costs and American business, which has always felt alienated by the administration, will have to finally endure the expenses. America has, over two years, spent heavily to come out of a recession. But this comes with consequences. Its fiscal deficit has touched 10% of GDP. Public debt, which will exceed 100% within a couple of years, is estimated to double in absolute terms in the next decade. Controlling this requires fundamental reforms and the healthcare bill’s feeble cost control apparatus hardly helps reinforce the view amongst his critics, that Mr Obama is capable of doing so. Republicans are now convinced that the President believes in big-government and is anti-business as well.

Washington’s policies towards South Asia too appear to be changing, and this has New Delhi understandably jittery. Afghanistan is slipping out of hand and Mr Obama is frantic to find a face saving option. The policy to commence negotiations with the Taliban is a complete turnaround on earlier thinking and indicates desperation to exit quickly. Mr Obama seems to have bought into the Pakistani rhetoric that there is a ‘good’ Taliban (naturally allied with the Pakistan military establishment and possibly created by it) who can be conferred with and a ‘bad’ one (that opposes the Pakistani position) that must be fought. The molly-coddling of Pakistan, in that familiar self-deluding manner, with generous military aid might have been expected. But to commence discussions of a possible nuclear treaty akin to that offered to India would appear to defy logic. Previous US administrations have acknowledged Pakistan’s role in clandestine nuclear proliferation and therefore a formal engagement on this issue would vindicate Islamabad’s previous mischief.

Mr Obama is likely to be faced with critical foreign policy issues with China and Russia. Increasingly their attitude towards the US varies between non-cooperation and open hostility. The President has in fact been treated with obvious discourtesy on a few occasions. An administration which is perceived to be weak at home is likely to be treated as such overseas.

Mr Obama’s impressive campaign trail and oratory skills, Republicans believe, are likely to haunt him. He made more promises to the American people than he could hope to keep and many think that he is now going back on his word. For instance, he promised to close Guantanamo Bay but later discovered that it is a lot harder to achieve in practice. He promised to withdraw troops out of Iraq but has deferred the drawdown by several years and even authorised a permanent force to stay indefinitely. His popularity appears to be dwindling even in traditional strongholds – voters in liberal Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown in January’s special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, rejecting the Democratic nominee. Even Vice President Joe Biden freely admits that the Presidency is certain to be tested. An inability to protect the homeland will grossly undermine Mr Obama’s campaign should – heavens forbid – another incident of the 9/11 sort be even attempted with a re-emergent Taliban. But for now Mr Obama can allow himself a few moments in cheer, in the passage of healthcare reforms, an accomplishment that eluded many of his predecessors.

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