The Obama Effect

by Chris Patten Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords. 26.06.2009

LONDON - In the last two months, I have been in eight American cities - Boston, New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Phew! I am left with several sentiments.

First, if you have to travel from city to city in the United States, you would do yourself a favor if you could find a way of journeying by train. American airlines are pretty awful. They are lucky that hostility to competition in what purports to be the homeland of free-market capitalism has kept Asian airlines out of their domestic marketplace. Do American air travelers know just how bad the service that they get really is?

American airports are as dire as British ones, maybe worse. Los Angeles gets the Oscar, with Soviet-style queues through security. How is it that America gives us Silicon Valley wizardry and Third World infrastructure?

But, for all the misery of air travel in America, when you get to your destination it can still blow your socks off. The lakeside architecture of Chicago. The sight of Puget Sound in Seattle (one of my favorite cities). The view across San Francisco's bay from Nob Hill. Park Avenue in New York on a fine late spring morning. They are all, to borrow from Frank Sinatra, "my kind of town."

What is surprising for a European - at least for this European - at the moment is the relative optimism in all these cities. Yes, the economic news has been and remains grim. Much of the automobile industry is bust. Car dealerships are being closed. House prices remain pretty flat. Unemployment and the budget deficit are soaring. But there is not the same sense of gloom that envelops you in Britain and much of Europe.

My guess is that much of this is the result of traditional American ebullience: the view that what goes down will sooner or later bounce back up. This is one of the reasons why America has represented a quarter or more of the world's output for the best part of 150 years.

But there is another factor at work.

We often talk - a good Marxist point - about the impact of economics on politics. And we have seen this recently in Britain. Down goes the economy and down goes the Labour government's standing.

Britain's Labour government is just about as unpopular as it is possible to be. It performed disastrously in recent elections for local councils and the European parliament. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is sustained in office primarily by the calculation of his ministers that getting rid of him would trigger an early election that they would lose heavily.

But what about the impact of politics on economics? That is what I believe you see today in the US. The economy may look bad, but the president looks great. Despite the ubiquitous efforts of Fox News, President Barack Obama dominates, enthralls, and enthuses the audience of American voters - consumers, workers, investors, one and all. He is, as one American commentator calls him, The One.

Obama seems to have every political talent, and he passes the character test too. Moreover, his wife is a star in her own formidable right. Turn on any TV channel and there they are: glamorous, decent, and smart. So, while the economic numbers may look bad, the country's political leadership looks great. And if you're an American, you observe other countries around the world (especially in Europe) where people say, "If only he was ours."

I am a fan myself: a fan with two worries. First, what happens if politics does not trump economics, and Obama's policies don't start to produce a recovery? That is when the old political calculus may take its grim toll. If there are no signs of economic recovery by the end of the year, the polls may start to turn. Obama is smart enough to understand this.

So why - my second worry - does he take quite so much on his own shoulders? Every day, on every news bulletin, he is out there swinging. He might argue that he has to be. There are so many issues, from health-care reform to the Middle East, that need his attention. I just worry about the boredom factor. If you assume that governing is like campaigning - that you have to be on top of the debate 24 hours a day, seven days a week - can you really anticipate a long shelf life? Don't you risk becoming, even if you are smart as hell, too much of a good thing?

I hope I am wrong. Barack Obama is a star. The world needs one. But it needs one who continues to shine brightly for several years to come.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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Bill Maher on the same subject,June 13, 2009:


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