Obama's prize, the grueling quest for a legacy: Harold Evans

Mon Nov 12, 2012 9:34am EST

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(Sir Harold Evans is Editor at Large at Reuters. The views expressed are his own)

By Sir Harold Evans

(Reuters) - America, the morning after the night before, is asking what the noise was all about.

We endured 18 months of character assassination, starting in the spring of 2011 with 11 Republican wannabe's. Remember the Texan gunslinger Governor Rick "Oops" Perry, the Tea Party's shrill heroine Michelle Bachman, the pizza king "nine, nine, nine" Herman Cain?

They at least provided some comedic moments. This year's general election slugfest provided none.

We were assailed by some $6 billion of television advertising by the presidential and congressional candidates who told us they "approve this message" of evasions, half-truth, and lies. For the first time maverick anonymous donors entered the defamation derby, authorized to torment us by the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Citizens United in 2010 that you can't have free speech without money, and lots of it.

If I'd had a dime from every American who has inquired how the Brits manage these things so much more quickly and economically, I'd have a nice little business that could be taxed away when we go over the fiscal cliff (of which more in a moment) in January 2013.

At the end of all the venting and the voting, Americans see themselves as back where they started, still with a Democratic president and Senate, and the angry Tea Party Republicans in control of the House.

In short, it looks like déjà vu all over again. That's a quote from the baseball star Yogi Berra. The voters seem to have listened to him: "If you see a fork in the road," said Yogi, "take it." The electorate did. They refused to reject Obama and Obama Care but they shied at giving him more than a 3 percent edge in the popular vote - less than 3 million by contrast with the 10 million against John McCain in 2008. Thirty states will be governed by Republicans, the most since 2000.

Obama was elected on the votes of minorities, women and youth, all brilliantly identified in the most technically sophisticated campaign ever seen. Nationally, only 38 percent of whites backed him, 5 percent down on 2008. He might have won endorsement for a bold new bi-partisan prospectus for his next four years; he didn't even attempt an Etch-a-Sketch of one. Yet for a start the president and the lame-duck Congress have not a day to lose if they are to agree a budget or we'll all catapult over the financial cliff on January 2nd, 2013.

"Sequestration" is the word for that phenomenon, an ugly word for the ugly fact that the only way Republicans would agree last year to an increase in the debt ceiling necessary to avoid the U.S. Treasury defaulting was for the Administration to agree automatic spending cuts as a down-payment on tackling the $16 trillion debt.

Without a budget, there will be an indiscriminate cut of 10 percent on all discretionary spending (including defense but exempting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid); an end to the Bush-era tax cuts; and renewal of payroll taxes. The Republicans rejected the Democrats' preference for capping deficits by raising revenue, the new dirty word. The economic pundits concur that if Congress and president fail to compromise, the flickering U.S. recovery will die out. Millions more would join 20 million out of work and the 8 million in low-paying part-time work. The lights would go out over Europe, too.

THE GREAT DIVIDE

The picture of America four years after Obama's euphoric 2008 victory is daunting. The nation facing the fiscal cliff and the stress it will entail is as divided politically, demographically and culturally as two Roman provinces, split in its allegiances and priorities. Ours is a split between the Deep South and the East and West, between the rural heartland and the cities, between whites and minorities, men and women, English-speakers and Spanish, poor and rich, old and young.

Obama personally is well liked across the great divides. He has an acute sense of humor, and a million-dollar smile, but for all his high-flown rhetoric and his winning personality, he has not shown much of a gift for the day-to-day human relationships essential to bridging the gulfs. The common complaint is that he is aloof, shielded within a White House cocoon, and not just from time wasters but from key economic figures in Congress and business he's rebuffed.

The distemper comes through in Bob Woodward's new book, The Price of Politics, detailing the 44 days of negotiations in the summer of 2011 when the president and the Republican Speaker, baby-face John Boehner, tried to reach a "grand bargain" to cut entitlement spending (the Republican priority) and increase tax revenues (the Administration's). They failed. Boehner described the president as "moaning, groaning and whining, and demanding. Threatening. He was pretty desperate".

The Tea Party hardliners in Congress, who made the Speaker's life a misery in the negotiations, are unfazed by Obama's triumph. They are doubling down. Fred Barnes spoke for them in Thursday's Wall Street Journal: "The Republicans didn't lose the White House because Mr. Romney was too conservative".

A video from the conservative Heritage Act announced the beginning of a "war". The American Right talks very much as the British Left did after each successive defeat by the Tories in the seventies. The Left's conviction then was that the party lost power because it had just not promised the nationalization the electorate wanted. It was a delusion that provoked the reforming Labour party leader Hugh Gaitskell to call in Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. One of them (nobody's sure which one) invented the handy excuse for a theatrical flop: the play was a great success but the audience was a total failure.

The riposte of the "moaning, groaning" Obama to Boehner's put-down in the debt talks was to crown his final victory on Tuesday by scooping up the 18 electoral votes to win Boehner's own state of Ohio.

The two men spoke by phone on Wednesday, but you need an expert reader of tea leaves to discern how far Boehner is prepared to compromise. He's already claimed he and his caucus have a mandate to stand firm against higher tax rates. He says that to raise them only on the top payers, as the Democrats propose, would mean "going part of the way over the fiscal cliff". It does sound an uncomfortable place to be, but what's reported as his "olive branch" doesn't sound much to cling to either. Basically, it's the same formula of the defeated Romney: if only the Administration will lower tax rates for all, the money will come from an economy stimulated to grow.

A PLACE IN HISTORY

Clearly, if America is again to enjoy a Reagan-like Morning in America recovery, epiphanies are required all round. The initiative is with Obama. According to a group of presidential biographers he summoned to a private dinner, he now has his eyes on a more glittering prize than surviving this looming financial crisis or getting a few pieces of legislation through Congress.

The historians who've talked to the New York Times have no doubt he aspires to enter the histories as one of the all-time greats. The story fits with an inadvertent boast he made in a 60 Minutes interview in December 2011. He had it excised from the television transmission but the script had him saying: "I'd put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first four years against any president - with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln - just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history."

That's a stretch. In a Newsweek presidential special issue just out, 10 leading historians identify the 10 best presidents of the 19 from Theodore Roosevelt (1901) to Obama. The rankings in order are Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and, at No. 10 there is Barack Obama.

All the great presidents have found their own distinctive ways of reconciling America's mythic idea of itself. A Romney style of entrepreneur claims the freedom of the independent frontiersman. Romney blundered in condemning Obama's bailout of the now thriving auto industry - Let Detroit Go Bankrupt - but he wasn't to know that in the last days of the campaign superstorm Sandy would also make his purported philosophy of self-reliance look both heartless and ridiculous.

In the primary debates, he'd declared that for the federal government to engage in emergency disaster relief was "immoral". All should be left to the states and private enterprise.

When the storm wreaked havoc in New Jersey, Obama went down to the shoreline where the gutsy Republican Governor Chris Christie eagerly embraced the community organizer from the White House. Obama was the epitome of the wagon-train boss helping the settlers survive a crossing of the Great Plains by circling the wagons when the Indians had other ideas.

The argument reverberating in the campaign and into our present predicament is how much government can or should do without impinging on freedom. It's as old as the Republic. Ronald Reagan is regarded as articulating it on his inauguration: "In this crisis, government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem."

He's often quoted without the "in this crisis" qualification, which is important since he was elected after the years of malaise under Jimmy Carter, but the concept is not just Republican boilerplate. It is rooted in pioneer individualism and the Social Darwinism nourished in America by two English immigrants, the engineer and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his Yale disciple William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), son of a self-educated English laborer.

Indeed, a two-term Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, pre-empted Reagan. In 1887, when Congress voted $10,000 of seed for drought-stricken Texan farmers, Cleveland vetoed it. "The lesson should constantly be enforced that though the people support the Government, Government should not support the people."

Cleveland was not a cruel man. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover had much the same laissez-faire attitude to relief for the unemployed in the thirties.

The significance of 2012 may be that Obama's re-election has moved the needle back to the concept of government as benign, with a responsibility for all and a duty of undiluted tolerance for minorities. But can Obama rise to the occasion? At his front, he is confronted by a chastened but still obdurate Right, at his back an expectant Left ready to cry "betrayal". Perhaps there is something in the whisper that he will offer Romney a job.

The challenge Obama faces now gives him a route to the rarefied league of great presidents. To ascend he will have to negotiate the historic grand bargain that eluded him on the debt crisis and also shed his innate antipathy to the business of business so as to liberate the animal spirits of this innovative society. These would be historic achievements, but they will require the magnanimity of Theodore Roosevelt, the flexibility of Franklin, the negotiating resilience of Johnson, the charm and openness of Bill Clinton - and the luck Obama has enjoyed.

(Corrects advertising figure to $6 billion in paragraph 4, not $500 billion)

(Editing by Will Waterman)

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