Suppose you were President of the United States of America. You walked into the Oval Office this morning, and here’s what you found in your in-tray, marked “For the President’s urgent decision”:
1. Afghanistan: the election was a fiasco. President Karzai’s credibility has vanished. General McChrystal wants more troops. Britain, France and Germany want an urgent international conference to decide what to do next. Yes or no?
2. Iran: their latest nuclear proposals add up to zilch, according to our guys. (The Russians take a different view, but they would, wouldn’t they?) The New York Times says our intelligence agencies have concluded that Tehran has created enough nuclear fuel “to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon”. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have been conducting some mysterious secret mission in Moscow, apparently connected somehow to Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr President: you need to decide what to do.
3. Israel/Palestine: Everyone is waiting for you to unveil a dramatic new peace initiative. All we’ve got so far is the two sides agreeing to talk. Sir, it’s not enough, and Mr Netanyahu is speeding up settlement building even as he hints he’s ready for a “suspension” of new permits. We need something in time for the UN General Assembly in 10 days … your thoughts, please.
4. Health care: your speech on Wednesday seems to have gone down well. But it wasn’t enough, as you knew it wouldn’t be. You still need to do more to get some of our own people on the Hill on side, and Senator Olivia Snowe (Republican, Maine) needs a touch more sweet-talking. We think you’ll get something through, but we need to know how much further you’re prepared to go to buy off the unconvinced. When will you abandon the “public option” idea of a government-funded health insurance scheme to run side by side with the private schemes?
I don’t know about you, but if I were President, I think I’d find any one of these decisions daunting enough, let alone all of them together. But I guess no one runs for President thinking he’s in for a quiet life.
So Barack Obama is where he is, and soon he’ll be marking the first anniversary of his election as President. An increaasing number of American voters are asking what he’s managed to achieve so far … his economic stimulus package may have saved or created a million jobs, as the White House is claiming, but many more jobs have been lost.
Power and authority work in strange ways, so if the President gets it right on just one of the issues listed above, he’ll then be more likely to make headway on the others. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. Trouble is: where will the first success come from?
Mr Obama sometimes gave the impression during his campaign that just by electing him, American voters could make the world a better place. But a ballot paper is not a magic wand, and the world’s problems didn’t melt away as soon as Barack Obama won last November.
And remember the brutal US electoral calendar … in November of next year, it’ll be time for mid-term Congressional elections, which means there are already plenty of Democrats in Congress more anxious to do what they think will please their voters than to do what will please their President.
So, suppose you were President … on issues 1 to 4 above, what would you do?