The caretaker President

21 05 2011

It was as if he came out of nowhere. Before 2008 Barack Obama was an unknown quantity. Suddenly there was a young and articulate Senator giving some some rousing performances in the presidential nominee debates. People began to stop and take notice of him. He spoke differently than most politicians, he seemed to be an outsider, untainted by the ways of old. Those who listened began to believe he could light a fire under the cosy Washington elite. This was partly down to his great skills as an orator but also because of his perceived acknowledgment that politics had to change.

That word became the catchphrase of his campaign, he won over the voters and an atmosphere of genuine hope and optimism emerged, culminating in his historically significant inauguration. He had set himself up to be a game changer, someone who would take the old and discredited way of doing things and revolutionise them. It seemed everyone but the most cynical expected him to be one of the great presidents of the United States.

Now, two and a half years in, the true story of President Barack Obama turns from one of hope and becomes one of tragedy, a story on the limits of politics and democracy.


Obama has been a cautious and confused president on many issues, foreign and domestic. His speech, dubbed ‘Cairo 2’ sums this up perfectly. It was his answer to the critics who said he had reacted too slowly to the ‘Arab Spring’ protests. But when they came, his words contradicted each other. He praised the protesters who overthrew the American supported dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but only after it had become an obvious fact on the ground. He criticized an old enemy in Syria, saying the people wanted democracy. Meanwhile, America’s old friends in Bahrain, should offer “reform” rather than democracy.

The dilemma for Obama is that the ordinary Arabs do not care which dictators are friends with the US and which are not. The narrative is clear on the old enemies of Libya and Syria, but then they protest in Bahrain and the monarchy cracks down with all the vigour of Gaddafi. This presents a problem, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s fifth fleet and a close friend of those elephants in the the room, the Saudi’s. They need special treatment, but not only from Obama, David Cameron had a nice friendly photo call with the heir to the Bahraini throne. Bahrain buys a lot of weapons from Britain so while the Gaddafi family are on a bomb to kill list, the defender of human rights Cameron has “stressed the importance of the government moving to a policy of reform rather than repression.”


David Cameron and Bahrain crown prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa outside No. 10 Downing Street, other human rights oppressors such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya have not received an invite to have their photo taken with Mr Cameron.

The politicians are caught in a great dilemma, they believe in democracy and here is the perfect bandwagon of democratic revolution to jump on. However, they have to take all the caveats into account, so they walk a tightrope of support for democracy while keeping their strategic friends happy. Obama’s speech was timed so that it would be broadcast live during the evening in the Middle East, so he could convince the people of his honourable intentions.

The trouble is Obama and his speechwriters are deluded into believing how smart they are. They believe if they word things correctly, the Arabs will be blind to their double standards. Not only do they see through these polished words, but have done for some time. Most of their cynicism gained through what American Presidents down the years have said about Israel and ‘Palestine’. Obama brings this up in his speech in a way that seems like a break from the past but actually says nothing new.

Attention was focused on his line “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines” as if this was a profound policy shift from an American President. Under international law the 1967 borders are those of Israel, any Israeli extension outside of these borders is illegal. Bill Clinton said something similar, yet nothing changed. You get the feeling that by saying all the right things to please his Israeli friends, Obama feels empowered to bring up 1967, only to be met with howls of indignation from his Israeli friends. But then he giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The Palestinians are trying to get a vote passed in UN to recognise the state of Palestine, something Obama will not support.

Discussions on what speeches like this should contain probably start out with the best of intentions, then they try to keep everybody happy, and the final draft just contains meaningless waffle. Obama will now shy away from this issue and do what every other President has done before him, pass the can of worms onto the next guy.


The occupation of the West Bank continues, the ritual of defiance and retaliation goes on as it always has for over 40 years.

This confused and toothless strategy has been applied to more than just the Middle East. Healthcare, Guantanamo Bay and banking reform have all got the same half hearted approach. It seems as if the most powerful man in the world is powerless, all he is left with is words and a fawning assembly of journalists to entertain. He is locked into a straight jacket of policies invented by his predecessors that are somehow as untouchable as the constitution.

This is the tragedy of Obama, whether he really believed his own words of “change” are irrelevant. The point is he convinced many he was genuine. Now he sits as a caretaker president, maintaining the status quo. Every time he tries to put his own signature onto an action he is called to heel, the policy is watered down. Barack hopes he will be respected as a great compromiser, but mainly he will be seen as just weak.

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