In 2014 the world has grown suddenly weary of Barack Obama. The president’s sorrows are coming not as single spies but in battalions. Domestically, the economic recovery remains uncertain; the Affordable Care Act is at risk; gun control is going nowhere. The prospects of immigration reform or action on climate change seem dim.
Internationally, Iraq and Syria are bloodbaths; the black-flagged armies of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, are on the march; Israelis and Palestinians are at each other’s throats; Vladimir Putin’s creatures are shooting civilian airliners down from the sky; and the celebrated “pivot” to Asia is running out of puff. Much of the blame is laid at Mr Obama’s feet. He is a professor, people say, not a chief executive. He is too passive and too private. He plays too much golf, and with the wrong people.
Occasionally commentators recall that other presidents also had problems late in their terms. They declare that Mr Obama is suffering from the “second-term curse”. But the relevant condition is not a curse, it’s an itch. In the classic 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch, married Manhattan executive Richard Sherman has grown tired of his wife. What once appealed to him about her now just annoys him.
By contrast his voluptuous new neighbour (played by Marilyn Monroe) is mesmerising. She dunks potato chips in champagne and says it is “just elegant”. Sherman reads a learned tome on the “infidelity pattern in the married male, or the ‘seven year itch’”, which concludes that “the ‘urge curve’ in the husband rises sharply during the seventh year of marriage”. Mr Obama and America (indeed, Mr Obama and the world) are in the seventh year of marriage, and we are suffering from the seven year itch.
It was in early 2007 that Mr Obama declared he was running for president. We have seen him on our televisions every morning and every night. We know everything about him – about his family, his reading habits, his BlackBerry and his Portuguese Water Dog. And we are over him. What once were qualities now appear to us as faults. He is a good speaker, we grumble, but not much of a doer. His introversion once made him look adult; now he looks aloof. Mr Obama’s caution in using military force was once seen as prudent. Now it is blamed for America’s decline. Mr Obama’s approval ratings have tanked; our love has curdled into disdain.
Mr Obama has made many mistakes. But the problem is not just him – it is us. The saturation quality of the modern media means that all contemporary presidents fall prey to the seven year itch. In 2006, seven years after George W Bush began campaigning for president, his approval rating had fallen to the low thirties. The Republicans suffered what Mr Bush described as a “thumping” in the midterms that year. Americans were appalled by Mr Bush’s response to hurricane Katrina and the Iraq imbroglio. But they were also sick and tired of Mr Bush himself – his gut decision-making, his self-satisfaction and the violence he did to the English language.
Bill Clinton was also a victim of the itch. In 1998, seven years after he began his primary campaign, Mr Clinton became the first president since Andrew Johnson to be impeached by the US House of Representatives. The proximate cause was his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But that was a symbol of Mr Clinton’s broader failings – his self-centered neediness and his unruly appetites.
The problem with modern politics is that overexposure can cause us to lose interest. How will this work out for Mr Obama? It is possible that, like Richard Sherman, we will learn to love the one we are with. Americans forgave Mr Clinton and he left office with approval ratings in the mid-60s. But it is just as likely that we will fall for someone new. Mr Obama’s presidency is not assured of a Hollywood ending. He has to write one himself.
The writer is executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia
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