It was almost exactly one year after President Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States with an overwhelming victory. The time had come to evaluate what he had achieved against heavy expectations and ambitious goals. The experts and specialists who gathered for the Dialogue at Villa la Pietra offered a mixed verdict, touching on all of the most important issues facing the Administration: economic recovery; health care reform; climate; energy; Guantanamo; Afghanistan-Pakistan-Al Qaeda; the Palestinian issue, relations with Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Alex Castellanos, Republican strategist and political consultant, a key member of the George Bush and Dick Cheney 2000 and 2004 Campaigns, was an almost benevolent critic, summing up the first 12 months of Obama’s ‘reign’ by saying, “Obama deserves some praise: he is guiding America towards better shores. The country’s standing in the world is improving. Its image has changed. Obama was also able to attract a new generation of young people to politics. He talks optimistically about the future. He knows that the United States is a country that looks ahead and doesn’t look back”. Stan Greenberg, former advisor to democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as well as to Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair and Francesco Rutelli, cut to the chase, though, when pointing to Obama’s main weakness: “The democratic party has to show that it knows how to manage money.”
In fact, Washington recently declared at the end of 2009 that the US is coming out of a recession, thanks to the 3, 5 % increase in the gross domestic product during the 3rd quarter. A total of 159 billion dollars of the almost 800 announced in February under the “stimulus package” had been invested, even if only 25 had been spent, not counting the 100 billion tax cut. That had allowed the White House, they claimed, to create or save 640,000 jobs. But Republicans object that the unemployment rate is almost the 10%:. Didn’t Obama promise, last winter, it would be a failure if it reached 8%?
Castellanos criticized: Obama is spending more than tax payers will be getting back”. Robert Shrum, professor at NYU and former senior advisor to the presidential campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, as well as Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy’s ghostwriter, summed it up more optimistically: “Obama has had an extraordinary first year. His stimulus package is the most important in the world. The economy is improving”.
Certainly, the stimulus package and unemployment, all are tricky issues. But, Obama’s real challenge lies in domestic policy, in particular health care reform. His administration declared it would extend health coverage to the 50 million un-insured Americans. The so-called “public option”, which ushers in the era of the state as “State-insurance agent”, was a risk, given the historical flop of the first Clinton administration and the total cost. If all goes well it will cost a thousand billion dollars over ten years. Congress is in turmoil, with some democrats threatening to side with the republicans, who are launching attacks on what they call Obama’s “socialist state”. Nevertheless Mr. Greenberg is optimistic: “The law will pass within the end of the year”; Shrum concurs, “It will pass”.
Turning to foreign policy, strangely, the prison at Guantanamo has received little attention in the U.S. media. Obama had declared two days after arriving at the White House that the prison at Guantanamo would be closed within the year. As his first year comes to a close he has given reason for some to doubt whether that promise will be kept. And then there is Afghanistan, with its load of uncertainties and casualties, U.S. soldiers first among them. Obama wants to reduce the number of the new troop requested by the generals. He’s afraid to make the conflict a second Vietnam. Alex Castellanos fears it: “Afghanistan is a quagmire”. In his opinion everyone, democrats and republicans, are making the same mistakee: “To aim for a “stable Afghanistan, a democracy is not realistic. Obama was chosen to get the economy back in shape, not to light fires in the world”. Bob Shrum warns, with his bomb-throwing thinking: “Let’s talk about the Taliban, to differentiate them from Al Qaeda. We should do what we did in Iraq.” He is referring to the contacts the Americans established with the Sunnis, to reduce the association with Al Qaeda.
We’ve already seen this happen throughout history: It’s called the strategy of ‘divide and rule’.