Just five years ago, Barack Obama was still a local politician in Illinois, preparing for a run for the US Senate. His office wall in Chicago at the time was decorated with the famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in a heavyweight title fight. Ali famously boasted that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” But now that Mr Obama is president, he seems to float like a butterfly – and sting like one as well.
The notion that Mr Obama is a weak leader is now spreading in ways that are dangerous to his presidency. The fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday will not change this impression. Peace is all very well. But Mr Obama now needs to pick a fight in public – and win it with a clean knock-out.
In truth, the Norwegians did the US president no favours by giving him the peace prize after less than a year in office. The award will only embellish a portrait of the president that has been painted in ever more vivid colours by his political enemies. The right argues that Mr Obama is a man who has been wildly applauded and promoted for not doing terribly much. Now the Nobel committee seems to be making their point for them.
The rightwing assault on the president is based around a number of slogans that are hammered home with damaging frequency: Obama the false Messiah; Obama, the president who apologises for America; Obama, the man who is more loved abroad than at home; Obama, the man who never gets anything done; Obama the hesitant; Obama the weak.
Of course, this is the kind of stuff that was always going to be hurled at a liberal, Democratic president by the Republicans. The danger for Mr Obama is that you are beginning to hear echoes of these charges from people who should be the president’s natural supporters.
One leading European politician warns that Mr Obama is looking weak on the Middle East: “If he says to the Israelis ‘no more settlements’, there have got to be no more settlements.” And yet it is the White House, not the Israeli government, that has backed down.
Even before the Nobel announcement, liberal American columnists were sounding increasingly sceptical about the man they once supported with such enthusiasm. Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post that the president “inspires a lot of affection but not a lot of awe. It is the latter, though, that matters most in international affairs where the greatest and most gut-wrenching tests await Obama”. Now Saturday Night Live – the slayer of Sarah Palin – has turned its fire on President Obama, portraying him a do-nothing president.
How has this impression built up? The promise of bold changes of policy on the Middle East and Iran – without much to show for it – has not helped. The public agonising over policy towards Afghanistan has been damaging. The slow pace of progress on healthcare has hurt.
Even the president’s strengths can begin to look like weaknesses. His eloquence from a public platform has begun to contrast nastily with his failure to get things done behind the scenes. I winced when I heard him proclaim from the dais at the United Nations that “speeches alone will not solve our problems”. This, from a man who was due to give three high-profile speeches in 24 hours in New York. I winced again, when Muammer Gaddafi of Libya told the UN that he would be happy “if Obama can stay forever as the president”.
Obviously, the gloom can be overdone. Mr Obama has been dealt a very difficult hand. He arrived in office when the entire global financial system was still shaking. The American economy remains in deep trouble. The president inherited two wars that were going badly and a deep well of international resentment towards the US. The Nobel committee’s decision was silly, but it reflected something real – the global sense of relief that the US now has a thoughtful, articulate president, who has some empathy for the world outside America. Mr Obama’s conservative critics might deride him as “Hamlet” because of his indecision over Afghanistan. But President Hamlet is still preferable to President George W. Bush. At least Mr Obama makes decisions with his head, rather than his gut.
It is worth remembering that the presidency of Bill Clinton also got off to a very rocky start. Mr Clinton failed over healthcare, blundered around over gays in the military (an issue that President Obama is now revisiting) and suffered military debacles in Somalia and Haiti. And yet he went on to be a successful president. Mr Obama has not yet suffered setbacks comparable to the early Clinton years – and he still has plenty of time to turn things around.
But momentum matters. The president badly needs a quick victory or a lucky break. He also needs to show that, at least sometimes, he can inspire fear as well as affection. Mr Obama can charm the birds off the trees. He can inspire crowds in Berlin and committees in Oslo. But – sad to say – he also needs to show that he can pack a punch.