Barack Obama’s presidency hasn’t crashed to earth. It is far more serious than that, writes Shaun Carney. 

Up close, Barack Obama gives the impression he works hard to wear lightly the immense burdens of his job. His gait is measured, his back ramrod straight, with just a hint of shoulder-roll, as if to project a blend of purposefulness, self-discipline and ease. The evidence is that it’s not a sign of falsity, more a self-preservation mechanism.

Without it, and the self-deprecating humour that lands him in trouble – he likened his tenpin bowling style to a contestant in the Special Olympics – Obama would surely go insane. He cannot afford to take himself as seriously as others, particularly his opponents, take him.

Obama’s task as the 44th president of the United States verges on overwhelming. Since Lincoln, the job of presidents has been to preserve and protect the Union. Obama’s job is to save it.

Everything an American president does is a production. At the conclusion of the recent meeting of the G20 nations in Pittsburgh, it fell to Obama to announce the results.

The Pittsburgh convention centre stage was vast for a press conference, with hundreds of journalists shuffling in their seats for that ritualistic announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.”

Obama strolled out from stage left, acknowledging the crowd with his right hand, and spoke for nine minutes about the establishment that day of a new global economic summit body, an organisation that is likely to have an enormous influence on the world’s advanced economies for at least the next 20 years. Then he took questions for 20 minutes, but the setting, the meticulous preparations, the day’s deliberations had been, for the US media, all for nought.

Not one question touched on the G20 or economic policy; nearly all focused on that day’s revelation that a second nuclear facility had been uncovered in Iran.

Most Americans will barely have an idea about the G20’s enhanced role in their lives. For a country with such a massive economy, daily media discussion of economic policy is surprisingly poor. Fear trumps policy, as it did again on this day.

American life in 2009 is laced with fear. Fear of terrorism. Fear of military failure. Fear of economic collapse. Fear of government. Fear of international decline. For most of the past 140 years, America has lived on optimism.

Since mid-2008, Americans – dazed and ground down by September 11 and the human and financial costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – have stared into the abyss. The economic crisis, and the responses to it by the political and financial sectors, spooked the population.

We are 11 days short of the first anniversary of Obama’s election victory. It was a remarkable triumph, not just because the winner was black and had been a mere state senator only four years earlier, but on its own terms. Obama secured a shade under 53 per cent of the vote, the biggest winning margin since Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America” re-election victory in 1984, with a voter turnout of 63 per cent – the highest in almost 50 years. The Democrats won big congressional majorities.

Some saw Obama’s one-word campaign message of hope as presaging a new beginning for the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation after the failures and disappointments of the Bush-Cheney years. It has not worked out that way.

The euphoria has dissipated, as Obama has pondered how to deal with Afghanistan, struggled to produce a viable health-care plan and overseen a series of unpopular financial bail-outs. His approval ratings are solid but unremarkable – certainly nothing like Kevin Rudd’s.

The general media take on this is that Obama’s presidency has crashed to earth, that reality has kicked in. It is more serious than that. The US system – its polity, its economy, its media – is barely functioning, and its capacity to reset America for this century – a forward-looking, prosperous, confident society – is questionable.

Some numbers. In the US, 16 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on health care, much higher than in any comparable country. Twenty per cent of America’s huge energy needs are met by Middle East oil. Both situations are unsustainable; winning economies in the future will devote smaller proportions of their national resources to health and energy.

The economy is contracting by 0.7 per cent a year. National unemployment is 9.8 per cent; the number of unemployed has doubled since December 2007, from 7.6 million to 15.1 million. In California, the biggest state, with a population of 38 million, the jobless rate is 12.2 per cent.

Official figures show a constant decline this year in pay for production workers, who make up 80 per cent of the workforce – the longest decline in the 44 years the data has been collected. The price of keeping jobs is often paid in cut wages.

In 2001, the Bush administration gave the US airline industry, hit hard by the cataclysm of September 11, bail-out funds of $US18.6 billion. That number should act as a marker for the following amounts.

The US Government, since last year, has bailed out Bear Sterns with $US30 billion, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with $US400 billion, AIG with $US180 billion, the car industry with $US25 billion, the Troubled Asset Relief Program with $US700 billion, Citigroup with $US280 billion and the Bank of America with $US142 billion.

Disillusion among Americans should not be underestimated. As they experience mortgage foreclosures, wholesale sackings, the collapse of Detroit – the great symbol of 20th-century American industrial might – with General Motors coming under government control, and watch their retirement funds all but dissolve, they see the top end of town being saved by taxpayer dollars.

Little wonder Obama on Thursday ordered corporate recipients of big aid to cut the pay of top executives and tied future salaries to company performance. Anger at retention of fattened pay packets by those Wall Street types and others who flopped when the going got tough did not abate over the northern summer.

It ate away like acid at public belief in government.

This surprised the White House. As Larry Summers, director of Obama’s National Economic Council, recently told The New Yorker: “I would have guessed that bailing out big banks was going to be unpopular, and bailing out real companies where people work was going to be popular. But I was wrong. They were both unpopular. There’s a lot of suspicion around. Why this business but not that business? Is this socialism? Why is the Government moving in?”

And Obama cannot afford to lose support. The Republican base has not accepted the 2008 loss and has no interest in a so-called new beginning. It has dedicated itself to standing in Obama’s way at every turn. All but three Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate opposed Obama’s economic stimulus. Only eight of 40 Republican senators voted for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, a mainstream candidate.

Partisanship abounds with resilience and bile, while public discussion is being crippled. Crumbling of the traditional mass media is much more advanced in America than here. Newspaper closures are commonplace; Philadelphia could soon be without a metropolitan paper.

The audience for conventional television network news is ageing and dying. The real juice is with the cable news and talk stations. Much has already been said about the success of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network, with its formidable right-wing emphasis. Obama’s media office has declared war on Fox News, citing it as a bugle for the Republican Party. Less is said about MSNBC entrenching itself as a left-wing rival to Fox. Both outlets bark from the extremes and the public loses.

From an Australian point of view, it is hard to see why there are such strong divisions over, say, Obama’s proposal for a form of universal health care to run alongside private funds. Those battles were fought and decided here in the 70s and 80s.

In the US, almost 47 million people, or one in five under 65, have no health cover. And yet the simple idea of fixing this through a government program splits the public, with opponents gaining traction by depicting it as socialism and warning of death panels to deal with the elderly.

The networks are choking with commercials advocating one side or the other but it is hard to find a lot of passion on the issue on the streets.

Ginny, a 60-year-old grandmother, works two nights a week at a department store and several days a week at a Pittsburgh restaurant. She is a disappointed Obama supporter.

“I really thought he would get us out of Afghanistan. That’s what I expected and he hasn’t done it and I don’t think he is going to,” she says.

Artur, a 32-year old driver from New York, articulates the catch-all, anti-government sentiment. He distrusts all authority, from cops who give him parking tickets to federal politicians of either stripe. Artur subscribes to the claim, by extremist Republicans, that Obama is not an American.

America began this century convinced of its military might, and its economic and technological ingenuity. September 11, the long deployment in Iraq and the seemingly intractable situation in Afghanistan have shaken that. The Congressional Research Service says the US has spent $US1000 billion on Iraq, Afghanistan and heightened security measures. Nearly 800 Americans have died in Afghanistan and 4350 in Iraq.

In the final year of Bush-Cheney, as a majority of voters gave up on their leaders, the financial system began to collapse. The harsh lesson since Obama took the oath of office nine months ago is that changing presidents does not of itself lead to change.

The world is catching up with America. While the US economy has been getting smaller, China’s has been growing. China has not made its way into the lives of Americans in the way it has in Australia; normal everyday manufactures bought in the US more often than not are American, Mexican or Canadian. But China’s rise is ominous; the only ancient civilisation to have re-emerged as a major global force, as the Anglo-Dutch writer Ian Buruma recently observed.

America has been so dominant for so long that its people did not need to acquaint themselves with economic policy or with the rest of the world. Its economy is still enormous but the bail-out debt will surely help fill those gaps.

The US Census Bureau last year reported that, by 2050, 9 per cent of Americans would be of Asian heritage (up from 5 per cent now), those of African descent would remain about 14 per cent and Hispanics would double as a proportion to 30 per cent.

Non-Hispanic whites, now 66 per cent of the population, would drop to 46 per cent. A nation of minorities would result.

Democrats hope the 2008 election will turn out to have been a “realignment election”, in which a political paradigm lasting a generation or more is established.

“They don’t come along very often,” one senior party source said. ”There was the election of the Republican William McKinley in 1896, Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan in 1980. New coalitions of support were built up that lasted long beyond those presidencies.”

He makes the point that Obama is habitually underestimated because of his cool, often ironic approach. That was certainly the case in the middle of 2008, when his supporters wanted him to drop his air of detachment and confront the Clintons in the Democratic primaries. He was proved correct then because, once the Democratic nomination was secured, his Democratic opponents got behind him. That support languished after the election.

The 2008 election revealed a divided America. Obama won under-30 voters two-to-one, blacks by 90 per cent, Hispanics by 36 per cent and Asians by 27 per cent, but he lost white voters – still by far the biggest voting bloc – by 12 per cent. When you look at his policy challenges, and hear the unhappiness, the despair and resentment at government in general, and when you see pictures of gun-bearing men attending Obama’s public meetings, some possibilities are too awful to contemplate.

Shaun Carney is a senior Fairfax journalist.

Culled from The Sydney Morning Herald