Obama, Man in the News

For a display of sang-froid, it was hard to beat. The day after authorising a daring, covert raid to find Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama attended Washington’s annual power evening, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and chuckled heartily with the throng of journalists and celebrities at a joke about the terrorist’s hiding place.

Most people thought bin Laden was hiding in the Hindu Kush, the comedian Seth Meyers said, teeing up a dig at the low ratings of the C-Span channel that broadcasts the event. “But do you know that every day from 4 to 5pm, [bin Laden] hosts a show on C-Span?”

The president’s face lit up with his signature wide grin at the mention of America’s most wanted and turned to the guests to share their laughter. About 24 hours later, a sober Mr Obama was announcing bin Laden’s death to the world.

It was a command performance from a president who would know that his standing hung on the outcome of the raid on bin Laden’s hideout. Failure risked crippling him with comparisons to Jimmy Carter, whose presidency died in Iran in 1980 after the failure of the operation to rescue the US embassy hostages.

In the weeks leading up to the decision, Mr Obama managed the process methodically, much as he has formulated policy throughout his presidency. He personally chaired five meetings of the National Security Council from mid-March to late April. “Nothing is from the gut. He is very disciplined,” said a close associate. “He will have a wide circle of discussants, and then make a decision with a closed circle of confidants.”

The secrecy surrounding the bin Laden operation naturally necessitated a tighter circle; and the decision to approve the raid is the kind that presidents make alone.

In the afterglow of bin Laden’s killing, even Mr Obama’s harshest domestic critics, albeit begrudgingly and briefly, have given him credit for approving a high-risk operation. From the time Mr Obama decided to run for the presidency he has been dogged by the public perception that he is not a strong leader, according to Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center. That may now be gone for good.

The real triumph, however, will only come if Mr Obama’s enhanced stature can help him to broker a truce in the hand-to-hand combat in Congress with the Republicans over the budget, and buoy confidence in the economy.

As he will appreciate all too well, while his job approval ratings soared after bin Laden’s death, the public’s view of his handling of the economy hardly budged. Such poll bounces “last a reasonably short period of time”, says Mr Kohut. “People are focused on the economy, which they thought was getting better but now think is getting worse.”

There are promising signs on the budget. Mr Obama was heavily criticised for being late to the debate with his own budget proposal but his equivocating on the issue is now starting to look smart.

After passing a budget plan through the House of Representatives last month with radical changes to health schemes for the elderly, the Republicans returned to Washington this week chastened by angry voter reaction.

Mr Obama has missed opportunities in the past to build bridges with the Republican congressional leadership. Partly this is ideological. The Republicans have opposed him from the start. But some of the president’s supporters despair at his reluctance to deploy his personal charms and the spoils of office to draw his opponents into negotiations.

“He loves to deal with policy issues,” said one associate. “Unfortunately, politicians have to like people too. I don’t remember anyone saying, I flew with the president on Air Force One.”

On Monday, Mr Obama had the Republican leadership and their partners to dinner at the White House. The event had been arranged weeks before but took on extra bipartisan lustre in the wake of the raid. With public support for the Republicans’ health reforms crumbling, the administration and Congress had begun talks on a limited budget deal by midweek.

Mr Obama has recast his White House team since the devastating losses for the Democrats in last November’s midterm elections, starting with a new chief of staff, William Daley, a veteran politician who also has extensive business experience.

The choice symbolises Mr Obama’s systematic shift to the middle ground, to dispense with the charge laid against him in his first two years in office that he is anti-business.

But cultivating business by itself does not ensure an economic recovery. The tepid 1.8 per cent expansion in output in the first quarter was a red light for the administration. The news on Friday that the economy had added 244,000 new jobs in April was encouraging, but the rise in unemployment to 9 per cent was not.

The anaemic growth is especially worrying as it follows two initiatives that should have boosted the economy late last year: Mr Obama’s tax-cutting deal last November with the Republicans, and the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing. Both have a limited shelf life.

As the political bombardment intensifies ahead of the 2012 presidential election, Mr Obama’s hopes of re-election have been lifted by the weak field of likely Republican challengers.

But these are early days, and Mr Obama remains powerless to influence the biggest drag on confidence in the economy and the president: rising petrol prices. In this electoral cycle, fuel prices trump foreign policy as an issue.

He still has the chance afforded by bin Laden’s capture to transcend the rancour of US politics. While George W. Bush declined, graciously, his invitation to join him at Ground Zero on Thursday, the US still felt more united this week than it has in an age. For Mr Obama, who engineered the bipartisan moment, there has to be some political pay-off in that.

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