Shreekant Sambrani: Tracking Obama 2.0

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 07, 2012 21:44 hrs

So Barack Hussein Obama will remain the most powerful person in the world for four more years, after all. As he sleepwalked through the first presidential debate on October 3, I had expressed my despondency in these pages, but suggested that “like Senator Kerry in 2004, Mr Romney will blow the boost he gets from winning the first debate” (“Not quite the One,” Business Standard, October 5, 2012). President Obama did bounce back.

I do not claim any superior powers of divination. I have been following instead a brilliant analysis of the mind-boggling variety of polls in the United States, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog (referring to the strength of the electoral college) hosted by The New York Times. It has consistently put the incumbent ahead, even in the dark days after the Denver debate. The probability of an Obama win had then declined to about 60 per cent, and then peaked at 90+ per cent. The last FiveThirtyEight forecast was for an average of 313 electoral votes for the president even as many other analysts were calling it a dead heat. Mr Silver’s forecasts of state-wise electoral votes turned out absolutely correct.

My unshakable belief in this forecast notwithstanding, the emergence of the result was mesmerising. It was like the last ball of the last over of a T20 match with your favourite team (which you know should win) needing two runs to win and only one wicket remaining. Any result is possible. To your great relief, the ball sails over the long-off boundary for a six!

But this thrill comes nowhere near the exhilaration of that first Wednesday in November four years ago. That was the once-in-a-lifetime moment challenging all precedents and myths. Yesterday’s was a workaday event, when a weary incumbent barely scraped home, having nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory along the way.

The nature of Mr Obama’s leadership and its consequences in his second term will be of great consequence for not only the United States, but the rest of the world as well. Barack Obama came into office carrying an incredible burden of the dire American and global economic and security situation, compounded by his own grand promises and the world’s sky-high expectations. He faced implacable opposition from the Republicans, who opposed every measure he proposed. To add insult to injury, some of them even questioned whether he was born an American and implied that he was a Muslim. The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and a legislative gridlock pushed the world’s largest economy almost to defaulting on its obligations. The economy was slow to respond and unemployment remained at or above eight per cent for most of the last four years. All presidents except Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan lost their jobs under such circumstances.

Mr Obama learnt through the school of hard knocks that governing a fractious country is a different and far more difficult task than even becoming the first non-white American president. Although he managed to rescue the American auto industry from the brink of collapse and pushed through his reform of healthcare, just remaining afloat consumed most of his energy — especially in the increasingly clamorous last two years.

Now freed of the daunting task of running for office again, will the original inspirational Obama resurface? More importantly, even if he does, will he be allowed the necessary space by a still-divided Congress? Many observers, including New York Times columnist David Brooks, think that the second Obama term would be much the same as the first, with the recalcitrant Republicans hobbling him at every step. The economist Paul Krugman considers this behaviour blackmail by the Republicans (“The blackmail caucus,” reproduced in Business Standard, November 4, 2012).

The acid test for the re-elected president will come soon enough. He has to renegotiate the public debt limit with the Congress early next year to avoid the “fiscal cliff”. That will not be easy, especially in view of the just-concluded bruising campaign. Mr Obama has as yet not demonstrated any significant ability to deal with the Opposition, even as he has chanted the bi-partisanship mantra ever since 2008.

President Clinton was here as well. The Democrats were mauled in the Congressional elections of 1994, leading to derisive talk of a “half-term” presidency. Clinton the consummate politician finessed the resurgent House Speaker Newt Gingrich by adopting most of his agenda and easily won re-election. He remains the most popular politician in America, even a dozen years out of office. The key question is: will Mr Obama learn the relevant lessons from a man who acted as his indefatigable mentor in the campaign?

The world economy is too fragile at the moment to face the spectre of a long-drawn-out American economic stalemate any time soon. Its myriad economic problems notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the United States’ leadership of the global economy. China may grow and Europe may wither, but the world catches a cold when the US sneezes. The contagion that followed the American financial crisis in 2008 is ample evidence of this.

The economic agenda for the US is fairly evident: continued revival of its economy through superior infrastructure, productivity and technology. Mr Obama’s deft handling of the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy shows that he is not afraid of using his formidable leadership abilities and government power to deal with a crisis situation. The nihilistic Tea Party platform stands largely rejected, which is an opportunity for Mr Obama’s fresh initiatives.

Mr President, you said, “I believe we seize this future together again,” in your victory speech. The world wishes you Godspeed and good fortune in your unfinished tasks.

The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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